New faces of televangelism
The switch to digital has given British religious broadcasting a boost. James Gray visits one of the new Christian channels redefining faith on TV
For most British viewers, religion on British television has generally fallen into one of two camps: the tea-time nostalgia of Songs of Praise or, in recent years, those Sunday-morning debate shows that contrive ever more loud and aggressive confrontations.
But over the last decade or so, almost entirely unnoticed by the media establishment, religious broadcasting has undergone a transformation. Thanks to the expansion of satellite and cable television, media-savvy religious groups need no longer rely on the God slot to see their beliefs reflected on the small screen – they just do it themselves. Today there are 17 dedicated Christian channels accessible via cable, satellite and digital services, around half of which are based or have studios here in the UK.
One of the most popular is operated by United Christian Broadcasters (UCB). UCB TV beams a wholesome mix of live worship, religious documentaries, family films and Christian music videos to a loyal audience. “We’re trying to create something completely different,” the channel’s co-ordinator Thom Price tells me when I visit its sprawling mock-Tudor headquarters in Stoke-on-Trent. “We’ve got to change the feeling of Christian TV.”
As Price shows me around UCB’s open plan office, it appears he’s succeeding. The décor is bright and modern, the staff are fashionable and mostly under 30. In fact, the only real give-away that this isn’t a Soho media company is the Christian rock piped around the stairwells from one of UCB’s five radio stations. Downstairs, the studios are being prepared for the filming of Hearts Wide Open, UCB TV’s strand of inspirational interviews. Price tells me some of the equipment is a little out of date, but I wouldn’t have noticed; as a presenter perfects her make-up on the sofa and technicians unravel cable around our feet, the set has the chaotic feel of any TV show.
Founded in 1986, UCB is today something of a Christian media empire. It has 110 staff – Price says just one is an atheist – and receives an annual income of £9 million. Most of this comes in the form of donations, though the channel consciously avoids the hard-sell fundraising familiar from US televangelism. “British Christians aren’t quite as open to being told that they’ve got to donate because that’s what it says in the Bible.”
The channel – available on digital satellite, live on the UCB website and now through a smartphone app – attracts a regular audience in the hundreds of thousands (though the prohibitive costs of obtaining exact viewing figures mean this is only an estimate). Impressive, but Price’s ambition is to break out of the God section of Sky’s electronic programme guide and into the mainstream. “My dream would be that we just get people watching because it’s a great channel and they want to see what’s going on.”
Like most of his rivals, Price supplements the channel’s homemade productions with content from abroad. The unique economic model of independent religious broadcasting means that UCB can often obtain such content for free – entrepreneurial preachers will sometimes even pay to appear on the channel. But unlike other Christian channels, UCB TV is careful to keep its output culturally relevant to a British audience, preferring Australian, New Zealand and Canadian imports to those from the US, the birthplace of televangelism. Price hopes this policy will help to hook in non-religious channel-hoppers, prompting them to explore Christianity in more depth. “We just want to get programming out there that is good and will excite, entertain or inform people. That would be my hope, that people turn it on and think, ‘This looks really good.’”
Broadcasting has always proved an attractive medium for Christian groups that emphasise “hearing and doing the Word” over acts of worship. The phenomenon of televangelism has its roots in the American radio preaching of independent Pentecostal evangelists in the 1920s, who were quick to spot the new technology’s potential for reaching vast audiences. In the 1950s, one of the most celebrated of these, Oral Roberts, began touring the United States, holding faith healing meetings under an enormous mobile tent. Roberts’ theatrical flair – and the unpredictability of his meetings – made him a perfect fit for the new medium of television and its accompanying celebrity culture. The big names of televangelism like Benny Hinn and Pat Robertson took Roberts’s template, injected a dose of postmodern glitz and turned it into an extremely lucrative business model.
Across the Atlantic, however, things developed very differently. British radio and television were strictly regulated and funded by the licence fee. Christianity was an important element of the public service broadcasting ethos, but mainly because it was considered morally desirable. Viewers were rarely confronted directly with the Gospel – instead, religious programming focused on the formal church service, mostly Anglican, and particularly on its music. There was simply no room for religious entrepreneurs in this landscape until 1990, when the Thatcher government’s new broadcasting act allowed religious organisations to own and run television channels for the first time. Even then, religious bodies were technically “disqualified persons” and could only be granted licences at the discretion of the regulator.
Many within the Christian television movement believe that public service broadcasters – who still have a duty to provide religious coverage – have conspired with their regulators to keep evangelical and Pentecostal practices off our screens. Whether it really is a conspiracy or not, the fastest growing Christian groups in the UK felt increasingly marginalised by the broadcasting establishment. When access to cable and satellite services began to open up, it was hardly surprising the they sought to exploit the opportunity.
While the development of religious broadcasting may have been very different in the USA and UK, the impulse behind today’s Christian channels in Britain and the televised meetings of Oral Roberts is essentially the same: straightforward evangelism. Broadcasting has the potential to reach many thousands more potential recruits than door-knocking or street preaching ever could. But whatever the hopes of those running the channels, the evidence suggests televangelism is markedly bad at conversion and may simply harden sectarian mindsets. It’s something that Price and his colleagues at UCB TV grudgingly accept. “We probably don’t convert a huge amount of people,” he concedes. “But actually, biblically we’re not called to convert people, we’re called to tell them the [Christian] story and that’s what we’re doing.”
Another of UCB TV’s aims is to offer an alternative to the perceived sexual immorality, violence and foul language of mainstream television channels – and to act as a corrective to the moral decline this supposedly represents. Everything on the channel is suitable for family viewing and the schedule contains plenty to entertain a younger audience. The team are particularly excited about their new children’s show, Jovis Bon-Hovis and the Creation Crew – “our version of the broom cupboard” – in which the eponymous presenter’s puppet friends point out his bad behaviour, causing to him to reflect on the error of his ways. “Scripture is introduced into the show as casually as any other element, as a normal part of everyday life,” says the programme’s website.
But while sex and violence are unlikely to get UCB into trouble with Ofcom, which today regulates all UK-based broadcasters, it still has to tread carefully – the broadcasting code contains a whole section stipulating how religion and belief must be dealt with on screen. Broadcasters are forbidden to promote religious beliefs “by stealth” or “exploit any susceptibilities” of their audiences and if they feature claims that a living person has “special powers” – such as the ability to heal the sick – these must be treated with “due objectivity” and not shown when children may be watching. Specialist religious channels do, however, have certain freedoms that mainstream broadcasters do not: they are permitted to actively seek recruits and, since 2006, can appeal directly to viewers for donations.
All broadcasters, religious or not, have a legal duty to ensure impartiality on contentious issues – and it is this aspect of the code that seems to cause UCB the most concern. In response to a review of the code, UCB warned that “There is a perception that secular worldviews, such as atheistic, humanist, rationalist or evolutionary, are often portrayed on mainstream stations and presumed by some that this is the norm, without considering or providing the balance of a Christian viewpoint.” There “needs to be allowance for some of the specialist interests and sensitivities of a specifically Christian target audience,” it added.
To protect against inadvertent breaches of this part of the code, UCB does not take a stance on the major moral debates affecting Christians today. But that doesn’t mean it avoids them altogether – Price sees it as his duty to give viewers the information they need to make their own minds up. Abortion, gay marriage, the occult, they all come up from time to time – as does the origin of life. “Personally, I don’t think it matters if the world was created in seven days or 7 million years,” says Price. “I believe that God started it. That’s my personal belief. But UCB wants to get out there that there are people who believe differently and we want to give everyone all the information and that’s why we discuss it.”
I begin to get the sense that Price’s view of his channel’s output is far removed from its appearance to secular Britain. He tells me about a “brilliant” documentary on intelligent design – made, he says, by non-Christians – that was recently screened on UCB TV. In his view it’s an objective look at the controversy surrounding evolution and the free speech questions it raises. It turns out that the film is the notorious Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, described by the New York Times as “a conspiracy-theory rant masquerading as investigative inquiry”.
A full-time compliance officer ensures UCB’s output always stays on the right side of the broadcasting code. Its main rival, Revelation TV, has not been so conscientious. Founded in 2003 by former Jehovah’s Witness Howard Conder and his wife Lesley – a kind of eschatological Richard and Judy – Revelation TV serves up a fundamentalist end-of-days agenda couched in peculiarly British politeness. It is altogether more urgent and confrontational than UCB – a typical day’s schedule contains a mix of Christian Zionism, creationism and apocalyptic sexual moralising. And, since Revelation became one of the first two Christian channels to arrive on the British Freeview HD service this summer, anyone with a set-top box connected to the internet can enjoy all this for free.
Until this year Revelation TV was based at studios in London, but after its landlord announced they would be demolished to make way for new homes, the Conders moved the operation to La Cala de Mijas on the Costa del Sol. The relocation also brought the advantage of taking Revelation TV out of Ofcom’s jurisdiction – the channel, and its precursor Genesis TV, always had a strained relationship with the regulator. In 2009, it was found to be in serious breach of the broadcasting code by showing images of late-stage aborted foetuses immediately before a children’s programme. It followed a string of other violations: using offensive language about immigrants; going “well beyond what is acceptable” by allowing a presenter to deliver a “four minute polemic about his views on homosexuality”; broadcasting an anti-Islam rant from a prominent figure in the Messianic Judaism movement; and making “unsubstantiated and potentially dangerous medical claims” in a programme about GC100, a preparation of “anti-tumour” plant extracts advocated as an alternative to chemotherapy.
The complaints against Revelation TV were so numerous that its management were summoned to Ofcom headquarters to discuss the channel’s compliance processes. But despite these controversies, the channel is probably best known for being the victim of an on-air prank that went viral – during a programme that invited viewers to share their stories of salvation, a presenter unknowingly read out the opening rap to early-’90s US sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Revelation TV was joined on the Freeview HD service this year by the somewhat presumptuously named GOD TV. Established in 1995 by another husband-and-wife team – South Africans Rory and Wendy Alec – it now has offices in the USA, Norway, Germany, South Africa, Kenya, India, Sri Lanka and Australia, as well as two in the UK. The Alecs are almost single-handedly responsible for bringing the big names of American televangelism to a British audience – GOD TV’s precursor was Europe’s first dedicated Christian channel.Today, the bulk of GOD TV’s programming comes directly from Jerusalem and much of its output is aimed at building unwavering support for Israel among evangelical Christians.
UCB TV, Revelation TV and GOD TV are the big three on the UK Christian television scene, but there are plenty more to choose from – Believe TV, Faith World TV, Loveworld TV, Open Heavens TV – many of which are heavily influenced by Nigerian Christian culture. One of the more interesting of these is KICC TV, the first church-owned channel in the UK. Run by the Kingsway International Christian Centre (KICC), a church housed in a former cinema in east London, the channel launched five years ago and now broadcasts 24 hours a day on satellite and online. KICC is a leading proponent of “prosperity Pentecostalism”, the Christian movement that has swept across sub-Saharan Africa and its diaspora. It fuses traditional Pentecostal practices such as healing and speaking in tongues with the conviction that faith will be rewarded with financial and personal success.
God certainly seems to have rewarded KICC’s lead pastor Matthew Ashimolowo, who stood down as chief executive after the Charity Commission discovered that the church spent £120,000 celebrating his birthday – £80,000 of which went on a sports car – and that he used its credit card to buy a timeshare apartment in Florida. The church is now being investigated by the Commission for a second time, after it emerged that £5m of its investments may never be seen again. It is with a certain lack of self-awareness, then, that Ashimolowo hosts a show called Finding Financial Freedom, in which he “shares biblical principles on finding your way through these difficult financial times”.
Despite the KICC’s travails, it has managed to stay on air. The same cannot be said for Praise TV, the channel of London-based evangelical “archbishop” Gilbert Deya. Deya claimed he could help infertile women conceive “through the power of prayer and the Lord Jesus” but, after DNA tests revealed no link between the supposed parents and their children, Deya was accused of abducting and trafficking these “miracle babies” from a Nairobi hospital. Praise TV promised to cure viewers of serious illnesses in return for donations, but it wasn’t its programming that led to the channel’s demise. Ofcom found that the Praise TV’s licensee was not in fact the person with control over its content, and that staff had deliberately misled the regulator when it investigated. As a result, its licence was revoked in August this year.
The cases of KICC TV and Praise TV would seem to justify the Church of England’s longstanding concerns about specialist religious broadcasting. When Ofcom first mooted the idea of allowing channels to ask for donations on air, the Church warned there would be “clear potential for exploiting viewers’ sensitivities” with “emotive or misleading language and images”.
In fact, the Church had always been vehemently opposed to the introduction of televangelism to the UK. When Rory and Wendy Alec set up the forerunner to GOD TV in 1995, the Bishop of Manchester told the Independent: “Hyped-up claims to heal the incurably ill and to bring financial prosperity are far removed from the authentic Christian message.” The Church, along with the Methodists and Catholics, even put funding into a new cable channel, Ark2 – its mission was to “entertain, challenge and engage but not preach” – in an attempt to head off the US-style proselytising it feared. But Ark2 never managed to get on air, despite spending over £2 million. When it folded in 1997, the channel’s managing director blamed “a lack of vision and entrepreneurial flair”, qualities that Britain’s growing evangelical and Pentecostal movements had in abundance.
It is not always easy to take Christian television seriously. At its heart is a contradiction: it seeks to draw on the technology and cultural landscape of the modern world while rejecting many of its values – a tension that is often amusing to outsiders. And, like their US counterparts, British Christian television channels have their share of brash characters and dubious fundraising activities.
It would be a mistake to dismiss it entirely, however. Despite the indifference – and at times outright hostility – of the religious and media establishment, they have built loyal audiences and strong financial foundations. They have done so by offering something far more representative of contemporary Christianity – particularly those forms practised by the UK’s immigrant communities – than anything we are likely to see on Songs of Praise. And even with the regulatory constraints put on broadcasters, that means they may yet come to wield considerable political and social influence.