Micro Syndication: Is this the Solution for Indie Christian TV?

tv imageI have written about this before, but I wanted to talk about it again. Christian TV is upside down. Content creators buy time on educational licensed stations so they can then ask for money from viewers. I never paid for airtime with my show, Peculiar,  but most of the time we didn’t get money either. Only one network gave us anything, and that was just to help with paying for closed captioning.

In most cases on religious stations/networks the most you can hope for is free air time. Your program costs money to make, and you want to sell it to them. They can’t sell ads to cover the time, so they aren’t buying. There are a few networks that could afford to buy programming, but they don’t. That’s a problem for shows that don’t ask for donations, because it still costs money to make them.

So what can you do with your program?

Micro Syndication. This is an idea I want to try with my next series. It will be a lot of work, but I don’t see why this wouldn’t work.

The goal is to buy time on a for-profit network locally, and sell advertising during your paid programming. I went as far as pricing the air time on this once before. There are stations that will let you do it.

First you need a program. You’re going to have to have at least the pilot, and likely a few more episodes done before you can implement this. The program needs to be 22:30 with 6:00 of breaks. That’s room for twelve :30 spots. Your program must have space for advertisers, or it won’t work. And your program has to be something people want to see, or it won’t work for long.

Second you need a media buying agency. You could do this yourself, but once you get beyond a couple markets, the relationships your agency has will serve you well, and they can find deals you will miss. They know when and where you can find time near shows that are similar to yours. And you want that.

Third you need a sales agent to find sponsors for your program. They will get a percentage of each ad they sell, but they should be local to the station you’re trying to get on.  Their first calls should be to people in the pages of any Christian Business Indexes for the area your trying to broadcast in. They aren’t just selling spots, their selling a vision. You’re delivering viewers during a program with content they want to support.

The Process:

In a target market have your media buyers shop for a good spot for your program. Find out what it will cost per week. See if they can work in some ads to promote your program.

Once you know how much your program will cost per week, figure out how much to sell spots for. There are a couple of ways to go about this. You could just do a flat rate for every spot. Or you could charge more for different locations in the show. For instance, if you have a strong program in front of your show, one :30 spot right up top could cost more since they will be getting viewers who have stayed from the previous program. For the purpose of this post, let’s say they are all priced the same.

Example (Smaller Market):

  • Weekly airtime cost = $400
  • 12 spots at $50 per spot = $600
  • 20% of $600 for sales agent= $120
  • $80 “profit” per week.

That’s not much. And not a lot of wiggle room if a sponsor drops out. But you could get things off the ground with this. The goal isn’t to generate enough revenue from one market, but to get lots of markets bringing in revenue so you can afford to make more programs. Replicate this in 10 markets and you’ve got $800 per week. $41,600 annually. 20 markets is $83,200. There are hundreds of markets in America. Every one will be different, and will be very hard to expand into any of them.

Example (Larger Market):

  • Weekly airtime cost = $750
  • 12 spots at $90 per spot = $1080
  • 20% of $900 for sales agent = $216
  • $114 “profit” per week

Finally, sell the spots and buy the time. Gather the spots, embed in the shows and deliver them to the stations.

Make no mistake, this is a huge amount of work. And you’re not bringing in the kind of revenue that allows a big staff. And while you are managing all this, you need to be creating more content. If it was easy, everyone would do it.

How can you make this work better? Reduce costs.

Can you get the airtime for less per week? In the smaller example, at $300 for airtime you’re bringing in $180. That’s $2340 for a 13 week run. $9360 annually. From one market. But this is a balance. The better the time, the more expensive the time. Your buyer needs to be aggressive.

Can you charge more for ads? Your media buyers should be able to tell you what ads in your time slot would go for. Christian who are business owners may be willing to give a little more to support the kind of programming you are creating. $60 per spot? $75? With a discount for multiple spots in a program? I once paid $3500 for a :30 spot in the bottom half of the hour during a season finale on a major network. If you have the audience, people will buy the spots for more.

Work out a trade with a station. They give you the time, you provide the audience, and you split the ads spots. In the smaller market, you’d be looking at $300 per week in revenue. This becomes tricky with the media buyers, because you still need to pay for their services for that market. They will want, and you should be willing to pay for, their cut for buying the time. You should still clear more revenue per market, per week. But you need to show the station that you have an audience in their market.

This is going to be a lot of work.

Issues to Overcome:

Selling spots. You have to keep the spots sold, or you will sink. That’s it.

Placement. You have to have the program in the best time slot. Cheap enough to allow you to sell spots. Good enough that people will watch your show. 3:00 AM will be cheap, but no one will watch. Without viewers, it’s a waste.

Why not use a network? The key, at least initially, is local advertisers. It’s definitely possible to go to a cable network and buy time regionally and nationally, but it’s a lot of money. (Even Christian networks can charge $5000 for a 30-minute slot.)  You’ve got potential advertisers on the local level. But, they won’t pay to advertise their business where they don’t sell products. Until you can prove your show can draw a good audience, the regional and national sponsors aren’t going to be an option. You might have dreams of going to an Interstate Batteries or Chic Fil A for sponsorship, but they are going to want some ratings and proof of audience before they spend any money. So start local.

Why bother with traditional broadcasting? We know that online viewing and streaming is on the rise. TV viewing is declining. But it’s not dead yet. People still watch 140+ hours of TV per month. How to generate revenue online is a huge topic, and we should be working toward a sustainable model there as well. But in the meantime there is still an audience for your program watching traditional broadcasts.

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Video Workload: You Get What You Pay For

quality triangleBased on a true story. Details have been changed and names withheld. Stories like this are too common.

Once upon a time there was a large church which had 2 staff members who, in addition to other duties, created videos for the ministry. The two staff members were overworked. They had completed over 40 video projects from start to finish in the last year, in addition to keeping the live video for services and events functioning, and other odds and ends projects. These two staff members almost always did all pre production, production and post themselves, without any help. None of the 40+ projects had any budget beyond a few hundred dollars in a catch-all line item of the organization’s budget.

Some of these 40+ videos were simple talking-heads, while others were much more complicated. The lead time on these videos ranged from as much as 2 weeks to as little as 24 hours. As you might guess, some of the videos weren’t as high quality as they might have been, and a few leaders on the staff wondered why that was. The two video staff members never sat down with their supervisors and explained what it would take to have high quality videos produced at a pace that was sustainable.

One day the leaders of the church were in meeting talking about an important video project. They decided that they couldn’t risk this video looking bad. It must look great, communicate well, and be professionally done. So they decided to outsource the video project to “professional” videographers. The leaders did not reach out to their overworked staff to handle this project, but instead took it upon themselves to hire a team to execute this production.

They asked the most vocal critic of the video quality of the church, a photographer, to produce this project. He hired some amazing talent to help; there was one of the best cinematographers in the area, a top notch editor, an ex news reporter to help with interviews, and of course the photographer would take pictures as well as produce the project. For this important project they were given a 6 week lead time. The professionals groused and grumbled about the lack of time to do their best work, but agreed to give it a try. The church leaders never asked to see a quote.

During the 6 week timeframe, the professional video team accidentally ruffled feathers and caused misunderstandings because they didn’t know the normal procedures of the church. The two video staff members were sometimes asked detailed questions about the video project, even by the same church leaders who decided to bypass them, but they we unable to answer. Much of the church leadership was in the dark about the project until it was revealed.

The weekend finally came when the video was to be unveiled. A video staff member received a download link with a message that music used in the video could not be broadcast or streamed on the internet. The message was delivered just hours before the video was supposed to be used in the service which was streamed and broadcast. They reported this to their supervisor, who told them to try to get the rights, and if they couldn’t, then ask the editor to replace the music. The professional editor didn’t have a grasp on how the end product was supposed to be used. The video staff spent Saturday afternoon negotiating with the publisher of the song, and came to an agreement on licensing. The cost for this license for one song from an unknown, indie-musician was almost $1000.

Church leadership had just received the first inkling of what this video was going to cost.

The video itself was a 7-minute masterpiece. Beautifully shot. Brilliant story interwoven with highlights and interviews. It was very well done. Everyone was pleased.

Then the bill arrived.

The final bill came back at about 1/2 the annual salary of one of the staff video guys. For one project. As the invoices came in church leaders were aghast. They certainly expected to pay more than they ever had for any video project before. But for the bill to total in the tens of thousands? What were they paying for? The supervisor of the staff video producers asked if these numbers were normal. With the exception of the photo/producer’s invoice which was inflated and the “interviewer’s” invoice which was absurd, the rest was not only normal, but the charges were less than they should have been for the time required. The rental was reasonable, and the day rates obviously discounted.

Most members of the professional team were trying to give the church a break, but the church leaders had no idea what it costs to do video projects of this caliber. The staff members who had been responsible for the video work had not educated the leaders who assigned the work. instead, they just did what they were told as best as they could.

In the end, invoices were paid (Though some were negotiated lower) and for a time church leaders had a better understanding of what it costs do produce amazing video content. But they didn’t increase the budget for any of their other projects, and within a few weeks the time lines for projects were as short as ever before. A few months later, the 2 staff members no longer worked for the organization.

What’s the moral of this story?

If you want high quality video it costs. It costs time and money. The quality triangle applies. Good, fast, cheap: Pick two, you can’t have the third. 

You get what you pay for. The producers on staff should have talked to leadership about how the truncated timelines with no extra budget were impacting the quality of their projects. And church leadership should have listened.

How many churches throw so much work on a tech that he cannot execute most of his duties with excellence, and then become frustrated with lower quality results… and begin looking for a replacement? How many techs are afraid to speak to their bosses about unrealistic expectations because they fear being fired or worse, sidelined?

Techs, save yourself the headaches of stories like this one. Talk to your team, your staff leadership. Let them know what your workload is, and how it affects your performance. Learn how to speak and explain in a way that they can understand. Ask for help if you need it. Church leaders want amazing ministry. We’re in this together. If something they are doing is impacting quality, they want to know. A lot of leadership (anywhere, not just churches) is allocating time and resources based on circumstances. Your boss can’t lead you if you won’t give him critical information about how you can best do your work, and deliver excellence.

 

Mid Life Calling – Year 2

It’s hard to say the exact date when I realized God’s call on my life had changed. Do you time such things by the moments you actually do something? Or the times you think something? Was it the first time I realized religious TV had to change in order to survive, in order to have an audience with younger generations? Was it when i came up with a show idea or 10? When I decided to create something different? It feels more like it should be from the times I decided to change my career.

I don’t remember the exact day my wife looked at me and said that maybe it was time to have the talk with my boss. Or the exact day I had that meeting. Or the week everything was agreed on. It must have been sometime around April/May. My last day in the office was the 21st of that June. So let’s say it was my birthday, April 4th. That’s as good a day as any.

So, today. 42 years old. 2 years into a mid life calling. It’s not a crisis. Not always. In fact, in the beginning, it never was. I didn’t get a new car. (although I would like a sporty convertible. What is up with that? So cliche, but still true.) I wish I could say that everything had been amazing and wonderful. It has been very interesting.

Sometimes people say that the safest place to be is in the center of God’s will. That’s bunk. Lots of times following God takes you through some scary, dangerous, hard pathways. I know. The biggest lesson we have learned is to trust God. Before this I always had a job with a steady paycheck, we always had security. And that was just fine. But during this time, every bill has been paid on time. God has been faithful.

There are days when I wonder when I will give up. When I will say, forget this dream, go back to something you know will pay the bills. What’s it worth?

But, we have accomplished a lot. 10 episodes of an award winning Christian sitcom completed and broadcast around the world for an amazingly low amount of money. Short film scripts and feature scripts done. Ideas of new shows. Contacts and relationships developed.

I recently went to a “meet up” with a group of fellow dreamers. I met them online through an author/speaker named Jon Acuff. He was in town, and one morning we gathered in the lobby of a local hotel. Here most of us are. At one point there was about 15 of us. I’m in the back row, middle, peering over a shoulder.

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In the conversation I asked how to overcome obstacles and not get discouraged. Jon told us that a lot of time we just don’t give our dreams enough time. We often expect things to happen on our own time table. But it takes a lot longer than we think.

So 2 years in… I’m not where I want to be. But I am a lot closer.

What Happens When We Lose an Entire Generation?

If you have been reading my blog any time in the last couple of months then you know that I am passionate about reaching younger generations with religious TV and video content. If you’ve been traveling in Christian circles, you’ve probably heard about the books “UnChristian” and “You Lost Me” by David Kinnaman. We are losing an entire generation from the faith.

Scary thought. I was thinking about how bad this would be, trying to imagine what life would be like in a truly post-Christian era. Then I realized, I don’t have to just guess.

What happens when we lose an entire generation?

Read Judges, 1 & 2 Kings, and 1 & 2 Chronicles.

Those books are primarily focused on the leaders of the Israelites and the prophets of God, but you can see some of how their civilization was affected by deviation from God’s path.

Most of the book of Judges reads like a case study in how not to follow God. When David comes on the scene, we see a flawed man, who is ultimately a man after God’s own heart. His children, on the other hand, get into sin, and many end up dead. So Solomon becomes king. And he does great work for God.

Then we get to 1 Kings 11.

Now King Solomon loved many foreign women, along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the people of Israel, “You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.” Solomon clung to these in love. He had 700 wives, who were princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father. For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and did not wholly follow the Lord, as David his father had done. 1 Kings 11:1-6 ESV

Solomon had a problem with women. It’s likely that a good number of his 700 wives and 300 concubines were arrangements for political power and gain. But Solomon “clung” to them. And they influenced him to turn away from God.

So the rest of Solomon’s days were filled with war and adversity. Jeroboam was tapped to lead what would become the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Rehoboam, Solomon’s heir, made some stupid mistakes and the Kingdom divided. Rehoboam got Judah and the tribe of Benjamin. Jeroboam led the other 10 tribes. The first thing Jeroboam does is set up a couple of golden calves for the people to worship, because he was afraid the tribes would go back to Rehoboam the king of Judah.

And he never repented:

After this thing Jeroboam did not turn from his evil way, but made priests for the high places again from among all the people. Any who would, he ordained to be priests of the high places. And this thing became sin to the house of Jeroboam, so as to cut it off and to destroy it from the face of the earth. 1 Kings 13:33-34 ESV

And for generation after generation we see words like these: “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and walked in the way of Jeroboam and in his sin which he made Israel to sin”

And Rehoboam and the people of Judah? They didn’t do much better. 2 Chronicles 12 says that he abandoned the law of the Lord, and all Israel with him. In 1 Kings 14:

And Judah did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and they provoked him to jealousy with their sins that they committed, more than all that their fathers had done. For they also built for themselves high places and pillars and Asherim on every high hill and under every green tree, and there were also male cult prostitutes in the land. They did according to all the abominations of the nations that the Lord drove out before the people of Israel. 1 Kings 14:22-24 ESV

Generation after generation, kings would lead the people into sin, and God would send prophets, and some would repent, and then they would go back to their old ways. Same bad stuff happened for generations.

There was one glimmer of hope. Josiah, grandson of Manasseh, arguably the worst king of Judah ever (Even though he did finally repent in 2 Chronicles 33. maybe that made an impression on his grandson.), did right in the eyes of the Lord. His guys found the Book of Law, and in 2 Kings 23 Josiah makes an honest effort to clean up Judah. He tears down the altars and high laces to other gods. He restores the Passover.

This is a perfect example of what happens when you legislate morality. He made Judah look good, but the people’s hearts were not changed. If you want to change someone’s mind, you must change their heart.

You can see that the people had not changed because even Josiah’s own son, Jehoahaz, didn’t keep to the ways of the Lord. Within a generation after this Judah goes into captivity. Josiah was Judah’s last hope.

You can see a lot of really bad stuff happened to Judah. But there is hope… God did bring the people of Israel through this. Because he promised to. After a couple of generations in exile a remnant comes back, and Israel is restored. He did not promise to do this for America or any other nation. But He can do it.

What will happen when the church loses an entire generation? It won’t be pretty, but the church will still go on. Nations may fall, the world may suffer, but the church will continue.

“…and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Matthew 16:18

Calling Creationism “Superstitious Nonsense” Gets Teacher in Trouble

In Santa Ana, CA a 16-month lawsuit resulted in ruling from a federal judge that a public high school history teacher violated the First Amendment when he called creationism “superstitious nonsense” during a classroom lecture.

I don’t know what surprises me more; that the court ruled in favor of the student or that the student carried it through 16 months of litigation. There were no financial damages sought, but he wants to prohibit the teacher from making similar statements in the future. I have to admire the tenacity of the family. I have sat in classes and heard similar statements (Not as many as 20 in one class), but did nothing. I chalked it up to a secular environment. But here is a student that stood up for his rights… and won, even in this current climate.