Public television knows about it. The rest of the mass media world knows about it. CBS, ABC, and NBC, the New York Times, Comsat, and General Electric have invested heavily in it.

Last spring my wife and I were invited to attend a conference sponsored by public television for independent filmmakers in the Boston area. Present were representatives from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (PBS), the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, public television in Boston (WGBH), and the Massachusetts Council on the Arts. I was curious as to why PBS should suddenly be so interested in independent filmmakers that they would offer lectures and discussions on grant writing, fund raising, and the inside story on the NEA and the NEH. I came away certain that we are on the verge of a technological revolution that, in the next decade, will significantly change our society.

It is a mass media revolution, and it is coming because of the “new technology” of transmission, reception, and recording: multipoint distribution, direct broadcast satellites, subscription television, cable television, two-way cable television, videocassette recorders, and videodiscs. It has involved billions of dollars already, and billions more will be invested. A recent report by the brokerage firm of Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner and Smith states that by 1985, 12 million households will have videocassette equipment, 14 million will have videodisc machines, 30 percent of all households will have cable TV. The videodisc market alone will easily exceed $3 billion annually. The report further states that within 15 years these new media will be larger than the broadcast industry of the major networks.

It is certain that a mass media revolution is under way. The only uncertainty concerns the form it will take. Will the videodisc win out over the videocassette in the home video market? Will the VHS videocassette format win out over the Betamax format, or will they both exist side by side (like cassette and cartridge tape)? Will cable television survive the Communications Satellite Corporation (COMSAT) proposal to launch a satellite providing direct transmission to home viewers and thus eliminate the need for the costly and complicated installation of cables? Will the Federal Communications Commission regulate the COMSAT satellite when it is launched? Will cable television, COMSAT, and other potential transmitters be allowed to produce their own programming, or will that violate federal antitrust laws?

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While these factors are being fought out in the highly competitive field of “software,” one factor seems non-negotiable. Broadcasting will change to narrowcasting. Broadcasting in the commercial sense is the practice of producing programs designed to reach the largest number of people, so that a product (soap, let us say) can be marketed and sold. Under the broadcast system, a potential market of 10 or 20 million viewers would be expected, enabling the major networks to charge vast sums of money for advertising time because they can deliver such audiences.

In narrowcasting, however, the program itself will be the product. This will probably not mean the end of mass-market approach, but programs without a mass-market appeal will then be able to find an audience. If 30,000 people are interested in ballet, that is a potential market. The large audience potential of the networks will undoubtedly change as programs designed for mass appeal and the “lowest common denominator” begin to lose out to programs designed for the specific interests of the individual. It will be interesting to see how the networks respond to this challenge.

What kind of programming will actually come from the narrowcasting shift? With a few exceptions, most programs designed for mass audiences have had a certain inane quality. This is bound to change. The limits of what types of programming people will pay to see will be searched out early in the game and capitalized on. It is doubtful that people will actually pay to view inanity.

As Christians, however, we may look back on the days of inane TV as a blessing. Over the last 30 years, television has been a great influence in our society and has been blamed for everything from the breakup of the family to current concern over children’s performance in school. But it has been heavily censored and regulated by the FCC. While television itself has been an influence, its programming has never been a great initiator of social change. Television has been a means by which we can measure social change by noticing, for example, what the censors will allow this year that they would not allow five years ago. But for all its potential, television has had very little to say. And a change is coming.

One reason why the new forms of mass media will have more to say is that their technology will be closely related to computer technology. The home video screen will undoubtedly be used for more than entertainment, and the distinction between entertainment and information will blur, at least slightly. Change will also occur because the new audiences under the narrowcasting system will demand change; narrowcasting will be consumer-controlled programming.

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Another reason for change concerns the mainstay of the entertainment side of the new mass media—feature-length films, uncut and uninterrupted. Film, almost by definition, has been at the forefront of social change in the U.S. At the very least, it has been a force in defining and perpetuating social change. Now it will be more important than ever. Those who will not go to a theater to see a film will be able to see it a few weeks later at home. If they like the film enough, they will be able to buy it on videodisc and view it over and over. Home film libraries will become commonplace, and film will take its place as an important art form—maybe the most important art form—of the twentieth century.

This is the reason PBS held its conference last spring. It recognizes the potential, and perhaps fears that the day will come when it will need independent filmmakers more than they need it. As Christians, we need to recognize the potential as well. Evangelicalism in general has had little use for filmmakers—unless, of course, they have been willing to make a certain type of film. Those Christian filmmakers who have tried cooperating with the church to produce films that reach secular audiences have come up against a seemingly insurmountable obstacle—a surprising lack of interest by the church. The church, however, can ill afford to be uninterested.

Evangelicals will be part of the mass media revolution, like it or not. They will be an important audience; their tastes and interests will be researched, analyzed, and marketed. Religious broadcasting and the “electronic church” will also be part of the new mass media forms and will probably face little difficulty in making the shift to narrowcasting, even though it is doubtful that any Christian organization will be able to compete at the hardware level of stringing cables and launching satellites.

The real challenge to the church, however, will not be in the shift of religious broadcasting to narrowcasting. It will be in the production of programs capable of reaching secular audiences willing to pay for quality programming in a highly competitive market. The key issue is whether we are going to become part of the mass media revolution in a vital way or concede a giant step toward the further secularization of our culture. Will the financial resources be available for that more creative involvement, or will the electronic church tie up the financial resources?

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To be part of the new forms of mass media in a vital way should be a major goal. That means, almost by definition, involvement in dramatic film and video production. We need to pray that the Lord will raise up creative Christian filmmakers who are able to produce the kinds of films needed—films that present images of life and how it ought to be lived, but from a Christian world view. We also need to pray that the Lord will raise up those willing to take financial risks on such filmmakers. Film and video production is expensive, but it can be a worthwhile investment.

In addition, we need to be involved at local and federal levels in monitoring controls and legislation to see what restrictions will be placed on these new mass media. Pornography, for example, should not be allowed unrestricted access to our homes. It needs control, but there has been little movement in that direction. More important, we need to see to it that the federal government rules concerning its antitrust laws: that the same group cannot legally both produce and transmit programs. Such a ruling will make room for independent producers to work and still prevent control of programming from falling into the hands of the giant corporations. This will be an important issue in the coming decade because the new forms of mass media will be responsible for creating new sources of political and economic power. We should be vigilant to see that this power remains diversified.

The mass media revolution will probably be in full swing by the end of the 1980s; the ultimate significance of what that means in terms of the cultural, economic, political, and moral implications is still uncertain. We may be certain, however, that the church must play a part. It can offer moral guidance to the new mass media firms, yes; but will it be able to set standards in other ways? Will it be able to use the new mass media effectively?

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