Christian television is in trouble. The potential of a la carte availability of cable channels at the consumer level is worrisome to many Christian broadcasters who rely on the “must-carry” laws. What concerns these broadcasters is that few consumers will put them on their “serving plate” and their built-in audience of curious channel-flippers will be gone. “Under channel choice, they believe, many people won’t buy faith channels but instead will choose a few prominent and special personal-interest ones.”[1] Of course, they’re probably right, but this completely begs the question in the first place. If Christian broadcasting is that ineffective and non-compelling that it must rely on a Supreme Court ruling for it to remain in American homes, perhaps it’s time for an overhaul.

For far too long now, Christian television has been offering up its weekly fare of sermons and talking head lessons with drippy pleas and commercials for books, DVDs and CDs. This is fine; there is a need for this material. Teaching material is typically format driven, and the lecture/sermon format works well for this. HBO’s new special Assume the Position uses this format in a humorous (however vulgar) way to teach how popular historical myths have been taught as fact for far too long, like the “Flat Earth” myth of Columbus’ day for instance. Robert Wuhl stands in front of a large crowd delivering a monologue in order to correct a certain misunderstanding of history—sound familiar? The difference is that his content is compelling. Christian broadcasters have yet to realize that sermons about the miracles of Jesus or the convictions of the Apostle Paul don’t resonate with the average guy or girl in the easy chair. What does this have to do with their daily life and struggles? We need to be communicating the truths of the Bible and the Christian worldview for a post-Christian mindset, not a Christian one.

In American Vision’s upcoming video series on the twentieth century, Dr. Gary North makes the point that in the early days of radio, liberal preachers got their airtime for free, because of an arrangement with the FCC (the Federal Communications Commission), while conservatives had to buy theirs. Sounds unfair, doesn’t it? In reality, what ended up happening, as Finke and Stark[2] point out, is that conservative radio became an internally-funded mechanism, supported at the grass-roots level by people who actually listened, while the liberal side was dependent on the welfare system of the government. And which system is still thriving today on radio? This same model will hold true for television broadcasting, but we need to be prepared for the rough times that will come when the government “umbilical cord” is cut.

Ultimately, the whole industry is better off when the consumer makes the choice, whatever the industry. This is the heart of the capitalist system. The strong and innovative will stay while the weak and ineffective die out. Christian broadcasters have the greatest message of all time to give their viewers, yet we refuse to look outside of our sermon/Sunday school formats. In writing her opinion for Turner Broadcasting v. FCC, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor writes:

[I]t is important to acknowledge one basic fact: The question is not whether there will be control over who gets to speak over cable—the question is who will have this control. Under the FCC’s view, the answer is Congress, acting within relatively broad limits. Under my view, the answer is the cable operator. Most of the time, the cable operator’s decision will be largely dictated by the preferences of the viewers; but because many cable operators are indeed monopolists, the viewer’s preferences will not always prevail…But the First Amendment as we understand it today rests on the premise that it is government power, rather than private power, that is the main threat to free expression; and as a consequence, the Amendment imposes substantial limitations on the Government even when it is trying to serve concededly praiseworthy goals.[3]

Justice O’Connor couldn’t foresee consumers having direct veto power with their remote controls, so she thought the broadcasters would work in the consumers’ best interest. Even so, the principle follows. Decisions made on the lowest level possible, in a free-market economy, will yield the best and most efficient result. For this reason the a la carte idea is a good one for the consumer, and should be a wake-up call to Christian broadcasters to get their heads out of the sand (and the government’s back pocket) and begin to make compelling television. Our country is waiting for it…

Endnote:

[1] Edward D. Plowman, “Bad Choice,” WORLD (April 8, 2006), 35. [2] Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America, 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in our Religious Economy (Rutgers University Press, 2005).
[3] Quoted in Thomas G. Krattenmaker, Telecommunications Law and Policy (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 1994), 374-375.