Last year’s downfall of PTL’S Jim and Tammy Bakker may have hurt the image of conservative Christianity. But according to John McEntee, an executive at the Bakkers’ former television network, it gave a lift to a new programming effort by mainline church organizations.

On September 19, if all goes as scheduled, the Vision Interfaith Satellite Network (VISN) will become accessible by cable to six million U.S. homes. Industry observers view the new network’s programming as an alternative to current religious fare, which they say caters primarily to Pentecostal/charismatic and fundamentalist audiences.

Its programming will consist mainly of worship, instruction, drama, music, documentaries, and talk shows. United Methodist communications executive and VISN trustee Nelson Price characterizes the programming as religious, but “without overt proselytizing or hard sell.”

Many cable TV operators, some of whom dropped PTL last year, have welcomed the possibility of broader-based religious programming. In fact, cable industry leaders approached mainline religious groups last year to encourage development of a new, more inclusive network. Funding from the industry for VISN’S first year is expected to be at least $3 million, according to Price.

Room For Another?

Despite this boost, McEntee, director of affiliate marketing at the Inspirational Network (formerly PTL) predicts VISN will not survive. He said a Gallup survey shows that 79 percent of Americans who watch religious television identify themselves as evangelicals. “You can get a nonevangelical to watch an evangelical program,” said McEntee, “but you can’t get an evangelical to watch a nonevangelical program.”

In response, VISN’S Price said, “I don’t believe evangelicals are as closed-minded as that statement would imply.” Price added that the new network would expand the number of religious television viewers rather than “steal the audience from other religious networks.” He said VISN would open the door to groups that up to now have found the cost of producing television programs prohibitive.

An official of the American Christian Television System (ACTS) said he regards VISN as duplication. ACTS, launched in 1984 by the Southern Baptist Convention and in the final stages of being sold to a coalition of private investors, carries several programs produced by mainline denominations.

Recent advertisements for ACTS appearing in religious publications emphasize the network’s support from mainline denominational leaders. In what some view as a jab at the fledgling VISN, the ads describe ACTS as being built “upon rock, not sand.”

Competition among religious networks is not just for viewers, but for a channel on cable systems, many of which will carry only one religious network. A concern of older religious networks is that cable operators, not viewers, will make the decision. Leaders of older networks generally feel this will work against them, given the tarnished image of television religion.

VISN is operated by the National Interfaith Cable Coalition, which includes representatives from the major mainline Protestant churches and several smaller ones, as well as from Catholic and Jewish groups. The network will start with three hours of programming per day, which will be repeated once. More programs will be added in October.

Like ACTS, VISN is committed to not appealing for funds over the air, except for disaster relief. It will try to make financial ends meet through donations from church groups, foundations, and corporations, in addition to fees from cable systems and advertising income.

By Robert E. Boczkiewicz.

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