New Old Funding Model for Christian TV

I’ve been producing a show for the past several months. we are smack in the middle of a crazy production schedule, and expect episodes to start dropping the week of October 15th.

The interesting thing about making a TV show without network backing is that things cost money. You don’t actually make any money. And Christian stations don’t/won’t buy the show. So at best you get airtime for free. But on educational license stations, for-profit shows cannot even sell dvd copies of their program. I was stuck trying to figure out how to create a revenue stream.

Not because I want to get rich making TV. I need to have positive cash flow so that we can afford to keep making more episodes. And yes, at some point I would like to be able to do this for a living. Up until now the only revenue stream I will have is through youtube views.

Today I was talking to a friend who owns several Christian TV stations. He recounted a story from back when he was working for a major network affiliate where he traded a religious program air time. The station didn’t buy the show, but rather gave the producer 3:00 minutes worth of ad time. They could sell the spots, and pocket the ad revenue. The station sold the remaining spots.

That got me to thinking. Why couldn’t we do the same thing now?

I get an ad agency to negotiate a 30:00 slot on a weekend for a few commercial stations. They get 3:00 and I get 3:00. I sell six :30 spots in that market (or later as we grow, sell regional spots to larger companies). The sponsors write a check to the ad agency. They take their commission and send the rest of the money on to me.

Let’s say we can sell the spots for $100 each (Just a round number. This is probably too high.) So the episode bills out $600 for one week of play. The ad agency takes 10% and we see $520 come in. Obviously, if we grow this too much it gets out of control. So we hire someone to sell ads for 10%. So we see $480 come in. Per stations, every week. That’s a best case scenario.

Expand to 10 stations and we are tracking $4800 per week. Suddenly we can pay people to be a part of the show. Even at $50 per spot, we would be at $2400. Those are numbers we can work with. I’d take $25 a spot… $1200 per week.

There are still a lot of details to work out, but if this could work… we could do this for real, for the forseeable future.

UPDATE: Of course, finding a station that feels the same way is not that easy. So I have been figuring out, anyway.

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Caught in the Middle

I think I’m experiencing what many Christian filmmakers go through: The struggle between making the show you think you should make and making the show you think people will like/support with money/allow to be on their station and making the show somewhere in between.

I know, we shot the pilot for next to nothing. And the next 5 episodes will be shot for not a lot more. We have the capability to do that, but long term that’s not going to work. We have to come up with donors, investors or sponsors. Or some combination of the three.

It’s appealing to think about the established Christian TV model. Make a heartwarming, if somewhat cheesy, story attached to a non profit and watch the donations pour in. But that model is doomed. There’s some life left in it, but it’s not a long term solution. And really, who wants to make shows like that?

Or you could just do what you want. Don Miller and the people who made “Blue Like Jazz” did the movie they wanted. When I was watching I wasn’t sure I liked it. I really thought the main character was a coward. Then at the end, they totally got me. I finished the movie thinking this was the first Christian themed movie that a non Christian might watch without being coerced into it by their Christian friends. It had a lot of content that makes Christian movie watchers/makers uncomfortable: swearing, drugs and alcohol, and a main character who is a lesbian. And then it didn’t go on to condemn or show life transformation on all those people. We finish the movie with the lesbian still being a lesbian. Not a common Christian film.

Of course, it wasn’t accepted by a lot of Christian viewers. Not a big problem when you land distribution through a secular company. That would be a major problem for my show. We have the Youtube channel, but if we want to get broadcast, then we are looking at Christian TV. I don’t think many religious TV stations are going to broadcast anything close to Blue Like Jazz.

Of course, I’m not making Blue Like Jazz, or anything close to it. That’s not to say we are not dealing with issues that many TV shows shy away from. Last night we taped a scene which honestly answered questions about why God would send people to hell. One episode deals with sex and abortion. We’ve got bullying, cheating, politics, Christian sub-culture and even Halloween. But still, these are tame compared to Blue Like Jazz.

If you took Blue Like Jazz and put it on one end, and took the movie Courageous and put it on the other end, then placed my show in the spectrum in between. We would be so, so much closer to Courageous. Neither movie is bad, in my opinion, but both are aimed at different people. Both are telling different stories.

A few weeks ago I was in a meeting with someone about the show, and I had to describe the target audience. I said my goal was to make a show that 13-25 year old believers wouldn’t be embarrassed to watch. One they could tell their friends about.

That means that I can’t be super safe, and make a bland story, following the traditional model of funding and distribution for Christian TV. I want to deal with real issues, and show real people. But I can’t move too far down the continuum or I won’t be able to utilize any of the existing distribution channels. So I’m caught in the middle. But we are getting the show done.

We are working to tell a good story. In doing so, we are showing what it means to really try to live out your faith in the world. We are putting on display the life of a new believer who is trying to develop a biblical worldview. It’s a lot of hard work. And when we are done I am sure that some will say we should have gone farther. And some will say we have gone too far. But in the meantime we are doing our best to tell a good story and follow God’s call on our lives.