I Refuse to Buy Air Time on Christian TV

Soap BoxPardon me while I step up on my soapbox and rant a bit about the Christian TV paid-time financial model.

Sure, it works great if you are a church putting your worship services on the air. You just make a line item in the budget and do your thing. Or if you are a non profit talk show, just spend 3-5 minutes selling your merchandise or asking for donations every show. No problem… in the short term. But long term this is a major problem. Audiences for this content are shrinking. Donations are drying up and donors are literally dying off.

Mean while, some of us are trying to create scripted content. Raising money outside the show. Trying to place it on stations and networks. Most see the need for this kind of thing. Almost none can (will?) pay for it. I sat with one of the big ones a few weeks ago. They would be happy to pay a licensing fee for a new show, provided it was good enough quality. But of course, the fee wouldn’t even come close to covering the production costs. Most are just happy to take the show for free.

But once in a while I run into one that likes the show, but wants me to pay them to air it. No. Never. I will give it away because we want people to see it, but I refuse to ever buy air time. It’s wrong headed, it’s upside down, and this practice has a very limited lifespan.

The other day I got an email from a foreign network. They were not asking for me to buy air time, but they wanted me to cover the cost of translating the program. I understand. It costs money to translate from English into another language. I declined. Partly because I didn’t have $3000 sitting around. Partly because my initial conversation with the president of the network had not included any mention of fees I would owe. Partly because in any other market (model?) they would be paying me for the content.

There is an audience for scripted and non traditional religious content. Our industry has to figure out how to get more of that created and on the air. Squeezing the producer for money to broadcast it isn’t the way. We had better figure it out soon. The clock is ticking.

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Why We Shouldn’t Have Won the NRB Media Award for Best Creative TV Programming

NRB-Award-2013-410x410Last week National Religious Broadcasters announced that Peculiar would receive a 2014 NRB Media Award for Best Creative TV Programming. That’s a huge honor.

NRB has been around for 70 years. Every year they give out awards for various categories in the different media disciplines. Getting one is kind of a big deal in some circles. This isn’t some fly by night organization that just decided do some awards.

So, when I first heard we had won, I was surprised, pleased, proud of my team. What we did with a volunteer cast and crew on a micro budget is amazing by anyone’s standards.

But then I realized… We shouldn’t have won.

Not because we had done something wrong, or it didn’t meet the criteria, or anything like that. We shouldn’t have won because we shouldn’t have been the best program submitted.

I’m not blind. I can see the other winners in other categories. Any objective comparison of production quality will show that we are not in the same ballpark. Of course, they are using millions of dollars in equipment with a decent budget while we got by on borrowed gear and a dream. Nothing wrong with that, but we are not in the same league.

Now, I know creativity and story can overcome lack of production values. It doesn’t matter if the video is mind blowing if the story stinks. A bad story would still stink, no matter how good it looked. We can see that every year on major networks. They spend millions producing pilots that look amazing but don’t get picked up because they don’t work, aren’t good, etc…

But let me just be transparent. I am not the most creative guy alive. Sure, I can come up with a good idea. But for my first show out of the gate to win this award, well, color me shocked. I know I need to learn more about writing, directing, producing, and everything else. There are better producers, writers, directors, show runners out there. There are more creative people out there.

In Christian TV there aren’t a lot of shows like Peculiar. I can count on one hand the number of Christian sitcoms I have seen, and have fingers left. Same goes for Christian dramas. For whatever reason, there just aren’t many in production. But there should be.

I know that in Christian TV a lot of money changes hands. Some of the major networks, they take in millions and millions on the course of the year.

What if some of these networks or stations took just a portion of their budget, and hired producers to create creative programming? And took a bit more of the budget and earmarked it for production?

Imagine if a network set aside $1 million, and hired 5 show runners to produce 5 different series of shows (13 episodes each). Imagine if they set aside a one decent salary and a $100,000 budget for production.

Don’t tell me it can’t be done for that. I produced 10 episodes for under $9000 total. If some had handed me a $100,000 budget and paid me a salary, imagine what we could have done. Peculiar would be the same show, but 10 times better.

And don’t tell me they don’t have it. I know it would require retooling the budget, obviously. But there are networks that have it. And it could be focused on making new programming, creative programming. It’s a matter of priorities. Is it a priority to reach generations we are missing with our current content? (I am really trying to resist the urge to sermonize about this point…)

Of course, the question immediately follows: A network or station taking $100,000 earmarked for something else and investing in a new venture? What’s the return on investment? How do you recoup the money?

At first, you don’t.

The Christian TV market isn’t set up to do normal TV. As the station/network you can fill break slots with fundraising content and provoke some viewers to send in money. But that sort of thing is dying off. Younger viewers are not as likely to respond to that sort of request.

Maybe the key is selling digital copies? Maybe working with a distributor to get a DVD placed, and digital versions available for purchase on iTunes and the like.

Maybe it’s doing more “enhanced underwriting”. What’s enhanced underwriting?

Here’s an excerpt from an article on transition.fcc.gov:

“In 1984, the FCC granted stations more flexibility by adopting a policy of “enhanced underwriting,” which permitted noncommercial stations to broadcast donor and underwriter acknowledgements from for-profit entities. These acknowledgments can include logograms and slogans that identify, but do not promote, sponsoring businesses. They may include business location information, value-neutral descriptions of a product line or service, and brand and trade names along with product or service listings. That is why some underwriting messages resemble ads. Subjects that cannot be mentioned in underwriting announcements include price information, such as discounts, rebates, and interest rates; calls to action; inducements to buy, sell, rent, or lease; and any language that states or implies favor- able comparisons to other like businesses or competitors.”

A show that has viewers can attract sponsors. If the content is driving viewers to the station, then the underwriting becomes a good option for sponsors. This is a delicate balance. You don’t want to do something you shouldn’t or that’s not permitted on the non profit station, but you can do some sponsorships. Plus there is no limit to how you can advertise on the station’s website.

Obviously, an education license station can’t switch to all entertainment programming. There has to be a lot of teaching programs on the air or the station is in danger of losing its license. But creative programming can be done, and done for less money that you would expect. And that’s what younger audiences want to watch.

Being selected for this award is a huge honor. I am so grateful and humbled by it. I couldn’t be prouder of the work my team did on the show. But we shouldn’t have been the best show submitted. We shouldn’t have won because there should be better creative programming than ours on Christian TV.

It’s Dead, it Just Doesn’t Know it Yet

model tombstoneThe paid time/donor model for Christian TV broadcasting is dead. It just doesn’t know it yet.

I know there are program producers and stations and networks that will vehemently disagree with me on this. That’s OK. Eventually, no one will be able to deny this. There are some programs that are still working, but others are reworking what they do because of dropping donations. And it will only get “worse” as time passes.

The practice of paying non-profit, education license TV stations for a block of time, and then asking viewers to buy something or give something to your organization so you can continue to afford to make shows and buy time… is dead. Or at least on life support.

I recently described paid time/donor shows as having a limited shelf life (I’m mixing my metaphors.). These aren’t the same as churches producing teaching/worship shows. Those will always be around, because churches will continue to invest their budget into extending their ministry into their community. But the ones without the church backing, that rely only on donations from viewers, on selling things. Those will become less and less viable. Viewers who faithfully watch and support teaching programs with money are shrinking. They are literally dying off. And as the viewing and giving habits of younger audience members begin to have more of an impact on religious stations, things will begin to change.

The model to replace it hasn’t been fully formed yet. I had hoped to get in on the cusp of that new model, but those of us making shows that we are not buying time for are kind of out on the rough seas, looking for a harbor. (I know, I’m mixing my metaphors again. How about we’re in a private room in the maternity ward, hoping to check out of the hospital? No? You know what I mean.)

Today another network, CTN-Lifestyle, will start broadcasting my show, Peculiar. Not in the middle of the night, but during primetime and 3 bonus times. This cost me nothing but the time to email and ask, and then upload the programs. OK, it also cost me the time, effort, and resources to produce the programs.

This brings the number of networks (groups broadcasting the show to more than one market at a time) broadcasting Peculiar to 5. With 3 individual stations either already broadcasting, or about to start. With more in conversation. The amount of money spent by me to buy this air time is $0.00. It is possible to place programming that appeals to a younger audience on religious stations without buying it.

The flip side is that we cannot expect support from viewers who just want to write us a check. So, how can we afford to make more programs? Even at the super micro budget we had for Peculiar, that’s still a chunk to recoup… and then make enough on top of that to afford to make more episodes.

I did have one network give me a little bit of money for the show. Just enough to cover closed captioning. But that is not the norm. I really want to vent about the realities of Christian TV and it’s upside down funding model. I will restrain myself, and simply say that it stinks.

Retail? I wouldn’t bet on it. So far retails sales of my show’s DVD have been slow. It may eventually make back what we spent to create the show, but not any time soon. Unknown actors, unknown show, unknown director… very hard to reach a tipping point in publicity. For profit company broadcasting on non profit stations, so there’s no direct sales through the broadcast. Someone more skilled in marketing of this kind of thing may have better luck.

So, stations won’t buy it (cause most can’t afford to) and retail is sluggish. Netflix and the like aren’t much better. You might… might… get $10,000 for a streaming deal. That might cover your current production costs, but it won’t cover production for the future. So what’s left?

I’m not sure.

I do know that Christian radio stations sell spots… I mean, provide informational announcements for underwriting sponsors. Maybe a TV show can do something similar? Why not? I’ve spoken with one local religious stations about this. It’s possible. But likely that would be a station to station proposition, and not something that larger networks would consider. Not at this point anyway.

I don’t know the answer. But with the current model on life support, and more and more opportunity for new programming to air, we need to figure it out soon.

What do you think?

Will the NRB Survive?

A few days ago I attended the National Religious Broadcasters Convention. (Before I continue, let me repeat what I have said before: the public policy work that the NRB does is invaluable to Christian communicators and supporters of free speech in America. That alone is worth the membership fees.) This year’s convention was very different for me. As the serving Chair of the Church Media Committee, I was an ex-officio board member, and had to go to several extra meetings I normally did not attend. One of those was the board meeting, where I sat in a room with some of the pioneers of Christian broadcasting. As I looked around the room a couple of thoughts ran through my head. As I realized I was the youngest person in the room I wondered, “Who are the next generation of leaders in Christian communication? And why aren’t any of them here?”

Now, these people are smart and driven. And they have truly done and continue to do, eternally significant work. But the NRB, like many organizations of it’s age, is a bit of a good old boys club. And for several years it has been declining. There are several reasons for that, but the outcome is the same. The NRB is dying just like Christian TV. Two years ago I actually went to my Church Media Committee meeting to resign, and not look back.

But in that meeting I learned that the NRB was making some pretty major changes to the convention program. So, not only did I stay on, but I ended up serving as the chair of the committee. And we spent the first part of the year talking about what we would like to see changed. And were pleased to see many of our ideas were heard.

I’d love to say that every change worked, but not everything did. I’m sure we will be tweaking. I handed off the chairmanship of the committee, but will still be working on it. I hope things improve.

My fear is that the perception of NRB will continue to be that it is an association for older broadcasters who like to dress in three suits. There are a few people that dress down, or wear jeans with their sport jackets and such. I was proud to wear my name badge with the extra flags on the bottom, especially the Board of Directors one, with jeans and an untucked shirt. Not just because I had a bit of rebellion in my heart about the general dress of attendees, but because I wanted younger people to see that there are a few people on the board that are not from the same mold. The same mold is what we need to keep changing.

I have written before about the future of religious broadcasting. I strongly believe that it must change or it will die off. I believe that the NRB can and will continue to shift toward the future and continue to be an association worthy of membership. It’s a lot like turning a large ship with a small rudder. I just hope we can get on the right course before we sink.

The Decline of Christian TV- The Future of Christian TV

I attended the annual convention of the National Religious Broadcasters this past week. Before I continue, let me say that the public policy work that the NRB does is invaluable to Christian communicators and supporters of free speech in America. That alone is worth the membership fees.

But, much of what I have been seeing from Christian broadcasters is not forward thinking. I want to preface this by saying that I think traditional Christian broadcasting still has a place. It’s not dead, but it is literally dying. I give it 10-20 years.

Much of Christian broadcasting funding is accomplished by the model of paid time/donors. Stations sell 30-minute or 1-hour blocks of time to programmers. Programmers ask for money from donors. Donors come from the audience.

My own research and what I’ve read indicates that the audience for the traditional, sermon-based, teaching program is growing older with every year. The last time I pulled the numbers only 35% of the tens of thousands of people who watch the First Orlando TV program are under the age of 50. Many are over 70. Our program is not the exception, it’s the rule. The donor base for the current model of Christian broadcasting is shrinking as the audience is dying.

The research I’ve seen indicates that younger people generally do not consume religious programming. Definitely not at the rate of those over 50, and they do not support it financially like those over 50. The model for Christian broadcasting has to change.

If you read my blog regularly you know I’m developing a Christian sitcom. During the convention I was on the floor and I was talking about my show idea, and one response I got was, “Wow, that’s bold!”

I didn’t say this, but the thought went through head: This shouldn’t be bold. This should be normal. Christians should be developing more sitcoms and dramas, they should be developing episodic content and reality shows.

I know I’ve repeated this quote before, but it bears repeating again, Mark Ramsey asked in a keynote during the 2011 NRB convention, “Are you putting content online in a way that people want, or in a way that is convenient for you?” We can go farther and ask if we are creating content in a way people want, or that’s convenient for us?

18-34 year olds do not watch religious content. They watch episodic content. They prefer contest-reality shows and comedies. What makes anyone think that as these people age they will suddenly start liking worship services on TV? Or religious interview shows?

We produce worship services for TV because it is easy. My church cranks out two shows a week. It’s simpler to bring on a guest and ask them questions than to write a script, cast it, shoot it, and edit it.

But if we want Christian broadcasting to continue, we must change. And we cannot wait until the current model completely fails, we need to start developing different kinds of programming now. That is the future of Christian TV.