Spiritual Television: Is the World Ready for a True Spiritual Network
By Yogesvara dasa
A Native American storyteller named Ron Evans tells a tale that warms the heart of all who agonise over the effects of contemporary media. Ron visited Africa some years ago and was present the day electric lines were installed for the first time in a tiny village. Along with wiring came a gift from the local government: the village’s first television. Ron describes how the entire village sat mesmerised for three days watching every programme. Then as if on cue, rose, turned off the set, and went about their business. Curious as to their motives, Ron approached the village chief and asked, ‘Why did you stop watching the television?’ The chief smiled and replied, ‘We don’t need the television. We have our storyteller.’ Delighted but not completely satisfied by the reply, Ron commented, ‘The television knows many stories, too.’ The chief bowed his head thoughtfully, then looked up with a smile and said, ‘Oh, no doubt the television knows many stories. But our storyteller knows us!’
As a practising Vaishnava wary of the media’s influence on consciousness, I am encouraged by the innocent villagers’ preference for their storyteller over pre-recorded programming. But there is a twist in this cautionary tale: I have never met Ron Evans. I heard his story on TV. As troubling as it may be, television can serve to enlighten, and we who hope for a more enlightened world must acknowledge its influence and power.
By now each hut in Ron’s village probably boasts a TV with remote control and satellite access to dozens, if not hundreds of channels, for the electronic age has arrived, and nothing will stop its penetration into every home in the world. Remote peoples, many of them on the list of endangered species, feast on a daily fare of Beverly Hills 90210, Dallas reruns, and assorted game shows where contestants vie for goods that some of these viewers have never even seen. What effect this exposure will have on the traditional values and social structures of isolated cultures is yet to be seen. What can be noted, however, is the spiritual decay it wreaks on more mainstream societies. Can this influence be corrected? Does spirituality have a place in broadcast? Can ephemeral frames of film, or pixels on a flat screen, communicate spiritual truths -or are the two realms mutually exclusive?
In this article I will argue that a spiritual television network can put this form of communication to use by educating people about the non-fanatical side of religious thought, through believable characters, humour and the kind of programming that television watchers expect. This is not to suggest, however, that technology can solve our problems. Recently, a woman told me that her daughter was seeing a psychiatrist on-line to improve, of all things, her interpersonal relationships. That type of blind faith in technology is disconcerting, as are cybergurus who point to the Net and claim it is the fulfilment of French philosopher Teilhard de Chardin’s prediction of a new stage in human evolution.1 More impressive to me are groups like the Amish who take a selective approach to technology and pay little heed to the television screen. Scriptures provide them with whatever information they need, and community events provide their entertainment. From the perspective of the Amish, television merely reflects the fraud and violence of the outside world. Why invite that into the living room?
Most of the world, however, does not take such a renounced position. For ninety-three percent of all people on the planet, television is a part of daily life. This fact must concern those of us committed to proactive spiritual and religious thought. Interfaith dialogue will remain incomplete until it deals effectively with this single-most pervasive medium.
A distinction should be made between religion and spirituality. For the purpose of this article, religion will be taken to mean beliefs characteristic of a particular people: a social and ritual structure that serves to identify that people and distinguish them from other peoples. Spirituality, in the context of this article, means ideas, truths and practices that transcend any one human grouping: wisdom, stories and truths which are found in a variety of religious cultures and which serve to unite peoples, whatever their particular religious persuasion or denomination.
In this article, I will look at evidence that suggests the time is ripe for a television network based on the stories, teachings and practices of the world’s spiritual cultures. I will examine how television has become the common language of humanity, but now faces a crisis of content; I will then go on to outline the ways spirituality was partnered with technology in the past, and consider how such a partnership could help resolve the crisis television is facing today. Finally, I will explain why I believe a well-run spiritual network is tricky but achievable, and then briefly examine what such a network might look like.
Television: The common language of humanity
Bonding via satellite
The latest James Bond movie, always a good indicator of the direction our world is taking, features a diabolical Rupert Murdoch-like character who delivers such gems of dialogue as ‘There’s no news like bad news’ and ‘Let the mayhem begin!’ He manipulates broadcast signals by pitting nation against nation, in order to feed his global network with tomorrow’s headlines today, thus beating out the competition. Here is the anti-Christ as media mogul, with satellites as the new tools for controlling people’s souls. ‘The best God ever managed’, he laughs, ‘was a Sermon on the Mount!’
Things may never reach this apocalyptic level: life is much better scripted. It is true, however, that television will soon reach nearly every person on earth by satellite, primarily because people would prefer a TV to running water, and the cost of a dish has dropped dramatically. The first satellite, a French prototype named Spot 1, went into orbit in 1986. Picking up the signal required huge electronic dishes that cost millions of dollars. Today, twelve short years later, a pizza-sized home dish costs under $100 and can pick up hundreds of channels. Recently, a Los Angeles cable television executive showed me the top end of home entertainment: an enormous dish in his backyard that receives signals from eleven satellites circling the globe. I sat stunned as he clicked through more than 1,000 channels from his lounge chair. It was a television addict’s dream and a thinking person’s nightmare.
The rate at which this proliferation has occurred is breathtaking. In the past two years, one company alone, INTELSAT, has launched twenty-seven communications satellites in geosynchronous space, meaning they are out far enough in space to withstand gravity and stay at about 22,000 miles up in one spot over the Earth’s surface. To broadcast over such distance, however, requires a very strong signal. For a satellite to hear the weaker signal of a local cable station, it needs to be in low-earth orbit-and that is the next frontier in electronic technology.
In 1997, Iridium LLC, a Washington D.C. based company, began sending up a constellation of sixty-six satellites orbiting about 480 miles up, enough of them that at least one will always be overhead picking up and passing on weak-signal transmissions to and from any spot on Earth. This year, OrbComm of Dulles, Virginia, will put into orbit its planned constellation of twenty-eight satellites, and Globalstar LP will begin launching a satellite constellation of forty-eight to support mobile-telephone service. Teledesic Corp, employed by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, has set a goal for its fibre-optic quality telecommunications to be available anywhere in the world. This will be achieved with a constellation of 288 satellites, which they aim to launch between the years 2000 and 2002.
Further, digital technology now makes it possible for one analogue channel to be compressed into as many as twelve digital channels, and that translates into thousands of channels available anywhere in the world. Just where this maelstrom of media will lead is a matter of conjecture, but soon anyone with even a basic digital television will have instantaneous, interactive access to those thousands of channels. Consider that even today from Lome, Togo, for example, with the right television set you can tune into a USA home shopping network and if you see something you want, use your American Express card to buy it on-screen. Even though credit approval involves a 46,000 mile journey over telephones and computers, the whole transaction can be completed in about five seconds.
Technology has accelerated growth in many fields-communications, science, medicine and biology-at such dizzying rates that the sophistication of our tools has far outstripped our moral and ethical ability to handle them properly. The dilemma is particularly pronounced in broadcast, however, by virtue of its omnipresence. While only forty-three percent of American households have computers, for example, ninety-seven percent have televisions. More than sixty-eight million American homes have a cable television service, and that means revenues for programmers who can command the attention of the viewer.
As the viewership of a programme increases, it becomes more valuable in terms of bringing in advertising revenue. Broadcasters are consequently desperate for programmes that will attract and hold the attention of large numbers of viewers. Spiritual programmes might be able to achieve this, but as very little has ever been done with the concept, there is little evidence to support its commercial viability. The majority of programmers choose the more predictable audience winners such as sex, violence, profane language, adult situations, gossip, crude humour and anything else that elevates mediocrity. In children’s television, such disturbing images risk permanent damage on impressionable minds and hearts.
Television: A crisis of content
To attract children’s viewership to their programmes, many producers use two formulas. One is ‘I’ve-got-an-attitude’ programmes, epitomised by Nickelodeon’s line-up of mindless game shows and ill-mannered animated characters. The other is a range of programmes flaunting vulgar and explicit sex, foul language and crude behaviour. To a large extent the tactics are working: children watch it and think they love it. That in turn creates high ratings, which generate more money from advertisers.
Vulgarity is most evident in programmes such as South Park, the most popular programme on American cable television. This show features four dirty-talking children who poison Granddad, promote a boxing match between Jesus and Satan, and converse with a talking pile of stool called ‘Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poo.’ The next most popular programme on cable television in America is professional wrestling, which boasts as many children as adult viewers. The most popular new programme among American teenagers is a series called Dawson’s Creek. In this programme a high-school boy, who plays the leading character in Dawson’s Creek has a sexual affair with his English teacher. Another boy, a football player, is mocked by some girls for being impotent. TheJerry Springer Show, a daytime talk show that also targets teenagers, features guests who reveal their sexual betrayals and then beat each other up. Springer is now challenging Oprah, a popular but less sensationalist talk show, for first ranking in daytime television. Adding to the pile of electronic junk food is Howard Stern, a radio talk-show host known as the king of ‘shock-jocks,’ who recently announced he would begin a television version of his controversial radio show. The statistics describe the situation succinctly:
- Children and adolescents spend more time watching television than any other activity other than sleeping.2
- Annually, an American youngster watching television will be exposed to 12,000 acts of violence,3 14,000 sexual references,4 and nearly 20,000 commercials.5
- By the time an American child graduates from high school, he or she will have watched 15,000 hours of television compared with only 11,000 hours spent in the classroom.6
- Despite network claims to the contrary, more than 1,000 studies and reviews now attest to the fact that heavy exposure to television violence increases the likelihood of aggressive and anti-social behaviour, particularly in males.7
Robert Lichter, director of the Centre for Media and Public Affairs in Washington D.C., told The New York Times recently, ‘I’d say there’s been a quantum leap downward this year in terms of adolescent, vulgar language and attempts to treat sexuality in shocking terms. People used to complain that television was aimed at the mind of a twelve-year-old. Now it seems aimed at the hormones of a fourteen-year-old.’
Attempts are underway to get stations to adopt voluntary codes of conduct, to restrict vulgar programming without fear of losing their competitive edge, but the effort is meeting with an unexpected enemy-indifference. Many parents think their children are discriminating enough not to be influenced by television. Others worry about censorship: ‘Popular culture is so ubiquitous it’s almost impossible to combat’, Lichter remarked. ‘It’s like the weather, everyone complains about it but no one does anything. Perhaps in frustration over their inability to do anything, some parents claim that they watch with their children and then talk about it. Lost in such weak reasoning is the fact that children are effected by seeing vulgarity glamourised on the screen.
The vacillating is enough to keep huge amounts of harmful children’s programmes on the air, and notwithstanding the few channels such as Public Television or the BBC that continue to search for quality, paranoia over religion has limited the offerings. ‘Quality’ in the eyes of programme makers encompasses literature, ‘real-life’ issues and developmentally appropriate content- but not spirit.
Lack of content for adults
Children are not the only ones to suffer from the lack of good television programmes. Contrary to earlier predictions, the proliferation of channels has not increased the quality of what is seen by grown-ups either. In his book Life After Television, futurist George Gilder forecasts a golden era of artistic expression, to be ushered in by the telecommunications explosion: ‘A new age of individualism is coming, and it will bring an eruption of culture unprecedented in human history.’8 Certainly, the balance has shifted somewhat in favour of the artist or content-provider. Twenty-five years ago, there were only three US networks: today, there are hundreds of channels, hundreds of places to take an idea. That means however, advertising revenue has been divided over a greater number of channels, and that, in turn, means networks have less money to spend on programmes. Television is churning out hundreds of hours of derivative, uninspired, shallow programmes each week. The market is flooded with too many grade-C films and too many programmes pandering to the same prurient interests – in other words, lots of really bad TV.
The antidote for many broadcasters has come to be known as ‘branded programming’: The Fishing Channel, The Food Channel, The Golf Channel, The Gardening Channel, each catering to the specific interests of a community of viewers who, programmers hope, will stay tuned and help boost ratings and revenues. No channel yet, however, caters to the interests of viewers seeking true spiritual content, and there is some evidence that such a channel would be well received.
Spirit and media
I became a producer in 1982 when I returned to the USA after living in Krishna temples for twelve years and discovered the world was raising viewers, not readers. I wanted to use film and television to bring children together with the experience of literature. The move away from literature and toward electronic media was underlined by Paul LeClerc, president of the New York Public Library who raised an interesting question: he wondered if it would be possible today for a written work to have the cultural effect that Goethe’s Faust had in Europe in the early nineteenth century. If not, he reflected,
then what we’ve seen is a huge shift in the relationship between consumption and cultural output. In our day, with so much information coming through the line, and with the constant necessity to shift between the trivial and the important it’s hard to imagine a single text having that kind of impact. In the late twentieth century, we are a society that values output, speed, and productivity, whereas art [and, one might argue, spiritual introspection] requires time, reflection, tranquility, and space-all commodities that are in limited supply these days.9
From this perspective, there would seem little hope for cooperation between spirit and media. Some evidence, however, suggests that the two have been mutually supportive in the past and might be configured to be so even more in the years ahead.
A trend in the past
It is significant that the Bhagavad-gita begins with a spiritual transmission. Blind King Dhritarastra and his secretary Sanjaya sit miles from the battlefield of Kuruksetra. As events unfold, they are revealed to Sanjaya from within his heart, and he then reports them to the king. The most important scripture in all of Vedic culture as far as Vaishnavas are concerned is, in effect, the transcript of a live transmission!
Is science not religion’s sworn enemy? Is television not somehow fundamentally anti-religious? According to David Noble author of The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention,10 the answer is clearly no. ‘The technological enterprise’, he argues, ‘has always been an essentially religious endeavour.’ Noble traces the religious view of technology back to the early Middle Ages, when innovation became associated with God’s will and monasteries became centres of invention as well as worship. The mechanical arts were not religion’s enemy but its instruments, helping to bring about a return to pre-Edenic paradise. Giordano Bruno, who stood at the brink of modern science, considered them to be a spur to spiritual evolution: ‘Always, from day to day, by force of necessity, from the depths of the human mind rose new and wonderful inventions. By this means, separating themselves more and more from their animal natures they climbed nearer the Divine Being.’ 11
It is almost impossible to separate the religious impulse from early science. Newton wrote commentaries on scripture. The English scientist Robert Boyle wrote a treatise: Some Physico-Theological Considerations About the Possibility of the Resurrection. Charles Babbage-widely known as the father of the modern computer-believed that advances in the ‘mechanical arts’ provide ‘some of the strongest arguments in favour of religion.’ The first telegraph message was a biblical quotation: ‘What hath God wrought’, while the machine’s inventor, Samuel F.B. Morse, was a generous donor to religious organisations. Oppenheimer quoted the Bhagavad-gita on seeing the first atomic explosion. And Freemasonry, with its combination of religious ritual and devotion to craft, has produced some of the most prominent pioneers of science, particularly in the field of transportation.
Vaishnavas would argue it is not mastery over technology but over the senses, that elevates us closer to God. Vaishnava history, however, boasts its own tradition of technological innovators. In the nineteenth century, Bhaktivinoda Thakura introduced use of the printing press to disseminate the teachings of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. His son Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, grandfather of the Krishna Consciousness movement, sent sannyasi disciples (devotees of the renounced order) out preaching in automobiles, much to the shock and dismay of the traditionalists who undoubtedly thought, ‘There goes the brahmanhood.’
His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Founder-Acharya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, expanded the acceptance of technology to its ultimate level: everything can be used in service to God, he taught, expanding Vaishnava saint Rupa Goswami’s definition of renunciation as yukta-vairagya, or freedom from the mentality of proprietorship. Vaishnavism views all creation as essentially spiritual energy (brahman), covered in this world by varying degrees of forgetfulness. Spirit covered by forgetfulness is called matter. Matter dovetailed in service to the Absolute regains its lost spiritual qualities. The art of yoga, in Vaishnava terms, is the art of spiritualising everything through engagement in devotional service (bhakti), and that would include television. If we look to the Vedic scriptures, at least, there is no impediment to a spiritual television network. But will people watch?
A trend in the present
It has become a clichè that people are spiritually hungry: bored by visionaries with exclusive handles on the truth, frustrated by traditional religion’s obfuscation, and hopeful of a fusion between religion and science. The hunger does not always increase attendance in churches and temples, but there is evidence that the public would support richer spiritual content on television, which reflects growing belief in God and the existence of miracles. A 1997 poll conducted in the USA reported seventy-one percent of respondents as saying they never doubt the existence of God.12 In 1987, the figure was sixty percent. The poll also found that sixty-one percent of Americans believe miracles come from the power of God- an increase of fourteen percentage points from 1987.
Some programmers are beginning to take note and cautiously respond with programmes such as Touched by an Angel. For the most part, however, television executives have not the slightest idea of what ‘spiritual’ means, let alone how to make it into good television. The Media Research Centre (MRC), a Christian media watchdog group, has for the past several years, conducted studies of prime time entertainment, charting television’s treatment of religion. No ultimate conclusions can be drawn from these studies; the data suggests, however, that religion on television is portrayed more favourably, more often, and to greater viewer satisfaction than in years gone by.
In its December 1997 report, the MRC observed a near four-fold increase in the total incidences of religious content in prime time American television programmes. MRC analysts studied virtually all 1996 prime time entertainment programmes on the six major networks (about 1 800 hours) and discovered that the ratio of positive to negative portrayals of religion was about two-to-one, a large improvement over the 1995 survey margin. The MRC concluded its report with a recommendation that networks try to duplicate the success of Touched by an Angel, which ranks among the highest-rated programmes on TV, by airing other faith-friendly programmes that show the importance of religion to everyday Americans. ‘Whether it’s a child praying before bedtime or a family attending a service’, the report says, ‘religion is an indispensable part of life for tens of millions, and prime time’s fully recognising this would be most welcome.’
This well-intending but naïve report fails to recognise that showing a child praying before bedtime is a lovely image, but it is a patch on a broken arm. We are facing a crisis of faith and morality. What people fear most in media is being misled, and every time an evangelist such as Jimmy Swaggart or Jim Baker is exposed for not practising what he preaches it feeds that fear, and ratings for religious programmes drop a few more points. Religion has an image problem. Media is both the cause and the potential cure; but it will take skilled producers and engaging programmes, not pretty nativity scenes, for television to inspire viewers spiritually. Pat Robertson did not know how to achieve that and ended up selling his Family Channel to Fox, where it is now in the hands of the enlightened beings who brought us Power Rangers and Beetle Borgs.
It is worth noting that in their thirst for spiritually satisfying programmes, seekers have abandoned television and turned to the Internet. ‘The Net encompasses many strange things, but those who use it often and understand it well know it has a rich and haunting mystical side’, writes Jon Katz, media critic for Wired Magazine. He goes on to say:
Along with pornographers and teenagers, it attracts deeply religious people of countless denominations engaged in extraordinary searches into their own and others’ souls. Ascetics, heretics, and true-believers searching for God (or his or her equivalent) flourish in zines, religious and mystical conferences, and on bulletin boards . . .The business of sending and receiving messages has always been a core notion of mysticism and spirituality. Countless millions believe, or want to believe, that there are larger forces at work in the universe. And they want to chat with them.13
Those millions of Internet users might return to watching television if they heard someone had started a truly spiritual television network.
Spiritual television–tricky but achievable
The tricky parts
When we speak of spiritual television, we need to draw a distinction between commercial fluff (miracle cures, near-death experiences, close-encounters with the Almighty) and carefully-crafted, compelling programmes that respect scriptural wisdom and convey the tenets of authentic religious traditions. The Global Network in the UK and The Millennium Television Network based out of Hawaii and Santa Monica, both still in formative stages, seek to achieve a kinder, gentler television that would provide entertainment along with exposure for issues such as human rights, and the contributions of indigenous peoples. This is ‘earth-friendly’ and a step in the right direction, but different from a spiritual network seeking to communicate scriptural truths in viewer-friendly form.
Truly spiritual television is possibly a twenty-first or twenty-second century concept being forced into existence now by the ‘autocatalytic’ nature of technology. When we design a faster computer, it lets us create an ever-faster one, each innovation hastening the next, creating an ever-increasing rate of change. In the race to keep up, quality of content is lost. Quantity is what matters, the ability to churn out enough television to fill the gaping maw of thousands of channels broadcasting twenty-four hours every day. And that is a concern that must be addressed-how can we serve the religious experience with a television network that will not fall prey to the commercial lures and artistic temptations of Hollywood? This is no small dilemma. No doubt, programmes can be created that would be both good scripture and good viewing because the technology and the creative talent are both available. What is doubtful, however, is our own moral stamina to resist the temptations of ego that are the constant travelling companions of entertainment. Several people in my experience, who started out well intending and spiritually aware, fell victim to the allures, posturings and rhetoric of the Hollywood establishment. Somewhere along the way, they suffered a loss of vision, and their original ambition of bringing spirit to television and film became just plain ambition. The religious experience must never be stylised or allowed to become fodder to satisfy a craving for entertainment. History and literature have already been victimised by that craving, and precautions are needed to avoid a similar experience with bringing scripture to screen.
The bastardisation of History
Hollywood has blurred the line between history and historical fiction. Steven Spielberg is a master storyteller, yet his recent film Amistad, to use one recent case-in-point, has mistakenly been viewed as history. An Amistad learning kit is being distributed to high school and college teachers, encouraging them to use the film in classrooms. The study guide erases the distinction between fact and fiction, urging students, for example, to study the film’s composite character Theodore Joadson, rather than the real African-Americans on whom he is based.
The troubling assumption by the film’s producers is that a subject does not exist until Hollywood discovers it. Amistad is an interesting historical film, but not in the way its producers intended. Like other history-based films, Amistad tells us more about the time in which it was produced than the events that it tries to portray. Birth of a Nation revealed more about the racial prejudices of 1916 than about the Civil War; Oliver Stone’s JFK reflected more of post-Watergate anti-government sensibilities than verifiable conspiracy. Gandhi was more about Richard Attenborough’s feeling for India than about the way independence actually came to that nation. In Amistad, white Abolitionists are portrayed as self-righteous and hypocritical, reflecting contemporary cynicism about broad social movements when, in fact, the Abolitionists were largely responsible for winning freedom for those aboard the Amistad.
For better or worse, those who make historical and biographical films are fast becoming the most influential chroniclers of the past. In part, this is because exposure to run-away technology has created a generation of viewers rather than readers-people prefer their history on-screen more than on the printed page. Filmmakers and television programmers are the successors to the widely-read historians of yesterday, like Francis Parkman and William H. Prescott. This would not be so troublesome if more of them attempted to be respectful of historical truth.
The bastardisation of literature
A glance at the movie section of any newspaper tells us something else about media today. We have as much a penchant for filmed versions of literature as we do for filmed versions of history: The Wings of the Dove, from Henry James’s 1902 novel; Swept From the Sea, from Joseph Conrad; Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens and almost any film by the Disney animation studios. There has yet to be a film greater than the literary work on which it was based. Perhaps that is because movies are the tribute illiteracy pays to literacy: filmed classics allow people to experience the forgotten delights of great literature without going to the trouble of actually reading a book.
Will spirit and the search for the self fall victim to the same formulaic reworking that has plagued history and literature? I believe that the problematic nature of spiritual representation in media does not arise from the temptation to make its reality aesthetically pleasing, as artistic expression has played an important role in the spiritual experience throughout history. Rather, the risk comes from the all too independent nature of the aesthetic process. For television, the Internet or any form of media to carry spiritual potency, content must be supervised by a council of qualified spiritual leaders. If such a council were to work in tandem with a community of like-minded programmers, directors, writers and producers, then it might be possible to achieve what history and viewers, nauseated by the overabundance of broadcast pabulum, have begun to demand: a place on television where they can receive an accurate representation of the spiritual experience in an engaging form.
The achievable parts
Entertainment today is an industry run by the Star Wars generation. While they are not yet Jedi warriors, many talented artists and directors share a sense that the world is more mysterious than their predecessors believed. Star Wars itself, which established a new mythos for the post-war generation, has at various times been described as a metaphor for the tenets of Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism and Islam. ‘The message of Star Wars is religious. [It tells us] God isn’t dead, He’s there if you want him to be. . .The major theme in Star Wars, as in every Lucas film, is the acceptance of personal responsibility, of the fact that you can’t run away from your fate.’14 This is in scriptural terms, dharma or righteous duty-one of many scripturally accurate ideas gaining favour in film and television.
The signs are everywhere that the public is ready for a true spiritual network, from Star Wars to Touched by an Angel, to the abundance of Buddhist films to emerge in the past two years; from the growing disgruntlement over fundamentalism to the surge in populist spiritual movements. There is a thread connecting publics of all persuasions- the desire for an alternative to both Western materialism and religious fundamentalism. Somebody in television is going to wake up and say, ‘Hey, that sounds like a channel to me.’
Spiritual television is achievable not because statistics say so, but because it feels right, and that instinct is as important as any supporting data in this industry. There is no science to show business: no rules, no formulas, no simple equations for success. Behind nearly every media success there is a combination of intuition, relationships, drive and karma (the result of past actions). The odds are that same formula is the best justification for launching a spiritual television network. ‘Hollywood knows it’s not a business,’ says Barry Sonnenfeld, director of The Adams Family and Men in Black in a recent Los Angeles Times interview. ‘That’s why people in Hollywood desperately want research and tracking charts, so they can feel there is some structure and predictability. It allows the people who run Hollywood to pretend it’s a business. But what it’s really about is guessing and instinct. It’s all in the ether.’ What is palpably in the ether at the moment is a spiritual open-mindedness among young audiences. Young viewers are more sophisticated and more fickle. There is no pulling the wool over the eyes of teenage television viewers -their visual instincts are lightning-quick, sharpened by years of video games and channel surfing. ‘They’re much more visually astute’, Sonnenfeld says, ‘It’s changed the way we cut a movie because they get information so much faster having grown up on MTV and commercials. They’re used to getting stories and absorbing them in thirty seconds.’ A spiritual television network can be built because the timing is right; spiritually-attuned people are in the business and know how to make it look good; the public wants it; technology is finally available that permits unearthly visions to be depicted cost-effectively, and because of the abundance of quasi-spiritual mediocrity, the scene has been set for a quality channel to garner wide viewership.
Twenty-four Hour Network verses a ‘Nested’ Channel
To launch a full-time network is an expensive proposition, requiring probably $50 million to create enough original and licensed programming to fill a twenty-four hour schedule seven days a week for the first year; build a Master Control Room to handle the shuttling of programme tapes and output the signal, and rent pace on a satellite that will bring the signal to anyone with a dish.
A more economical way to launch a new network would be to ‘nest’ it inside an existing network for three or four hours each day. This would only require perhaps $5 million. The audience would be limited to whoever was watching during those hours. As no one will want to rent their prime time hours, the viewers of a ‘nested’ network would likely be either stay-at-homes (noon to 4pm) or insomniacs (after midnight). This would limit severely the amount of material that the channel could air (we certainly would not be able to use the full contents of the schedule that is outlined above) and this option would not enable us to meet our objective to provide an alternative type of viewing for a more spiritually aware lifestyle at all times of the day. Our wonderful Spiritual Network would be an after-thought on The Fishing Channel.
If five sponsors put up $10 million, the full-time network could be built. So, let us anticipate that five well-endowed churches were to join together and finance a twenty-four hour network. Here is what we might see.
A spiritual television network: A sample
What is it that spiritual television has to offer viewers? Not fellowship or association, which requires the conscious effort of going to a meeting ground for the purpose of prayer, discourse and God-centred activity. However, a spiritually centred television network could offer positive messages, viewer comfort and it could help nurture a new community.
- Positive messages. In an industry fuelled by violence, negative role models and other negative messages, The Spiritual Network would provide good news and practical tools for solving material problems with spiritual answers, addressing the issues of today with the insights of spiritual wisdom.
- Viewer comfort. The channel would carry the seal of approval from various denominations assuring that programmes are safe, non-sexist, free of racial or religious stereotypes, and reinforcing positive values and authentic spiritual practices.
- A new community. A truly spiritual, ecumenical network would reflect the culture of democracy. It would demonstrate the ability to walk outside the conventional mechanisms of consumer society-sensationalist talk shows, exploitative movies-and develop a different, more satisfying vehicle for informing people. A big part of spiritual television will be its ability to present the experiences of people in the shared enterprise of self-awareness.
The Spiritual Network: Programme Schedule
4am – 6.30am: Morning services
Each of the sponsoring churches would have a half-hour slot for morning services. This would serve the needs of specific communities, and we could anticipate that viewers would ‘visit’ other services as well, contributing to a healthy ecumenism among congregations that otherwise have little interaction.
6am – 11am: Pre-school programming
No children’s network currently on-air focuses on the power of storytelling. Even those programmes that purport to be literature-based (PBS’s Wishbones, HBO’s Tales for Every Child) rarely delve into traditional tales of spiritual cultures. The attention spans of pre-schoolers are best suited to brief, magazine format programming, and The Spiritual Network’s unique contribution would be a morning line-up of short segments based on the characters and spiritual stories of the world’s diverse peoples.
11am – 3pm: Daytime programming
Aimed primarily at women and older people who stay at home, the daytime slot would offer profiles of people famous and unknown who have effectively integrated spiritual practices into their lives. Women have their own experiences, and The Spiritual Network would honour their unique spiritual journeys with ‘Voices of Women,’ a forum for women committed to God consciousness. Also in the daytime slot we could have cooking programmes that demonstrate how to make food a part of life’s spiritual experience; non-exploitative talk shows focusing on the challenges and ways of integrating spiritual life in the material world; travel programmes to places of pilgrimage health programmes offering practical insights into well-being as the result of a spiritually balanced worldview.
3pm – 5.30pm: After-school programming
Teen hosts would introduce younger viewers to award winning animated and live-action films, approved by an evaluating organisation for content and the age of the viewership. Each of the sponsoring churches would have a day of programmes, or a joint committee could determine the week’s line-up from the many outstanding films, supportive of spiritual concepts, available for license world-wide that have never had a place to call home on television.
5.30 – 9pm: Family programming
Every evening, the network would offer viewers a variety of family fare such as Storyteller, featuring distinguished storytellers in concert and interview; feature films with follow-up discussions by representatives of the sponsoring churches, and even game shows configured to the brand of The Spiritual Network. Programmes such as Journeyman, a dramatic series could also be shown, with characters that use spiritual wisdom instead of violence to resolve conflict.
9pm- Midnight: Evening programming
Adult viewers would have a wide range of programmes in evening hours, from biography-style documentaries to performances of dance and music, to celebrity readings of great literary works (both fictional and scriptural), to news analysis, to sitcoms and situational dramas-good viewing with a spiritual underpinning.
Midnight – 4am: Late night
For insomniacs the network would offer spoken-word recordings featuring noted artists reading great works, complemented by gentle video graphics. No need to watch-the images of purling streams, mountain pastures, or dawn over the Himalayas would be incidental to the listening experience. This is what radio used to be, an all-night friend.
Weekends would feature reruns of the week’s best programmes, plus talk shows, classes, sermons, lectures, ‘World Beat’ (a music and dance programme for teens showcasing unusual East-West fusions and interviews with featured artists) and local community access.
How would such a network be supported? A large portion of the funding could come from big business. At some point in the not-too-distant future, manufacturers and industry will recognise that their customers, the people who keep them in business, want more than a faster, sexier car: they want quality of life. If big business is to survive the next millennium, it will have to demonstrate its appreciation for a higher quality of living-environmentally conscious practices, diversity, women and children’s rights-in other words, the by-products of spiritual vision. Sponsoring The Spiritual Network would be an excellent way for businesses to demonstrate that vision to their customers. As the more enlightened companies grow (those involved with recycled goods and alternative energy sources, for example) they, too, will have discretionary cash and would likely support a television network that reflects their values.
This article avoided dealing with some of the most difficult issues surrounding the notion of a spiritual television network. How, for example, would such an ambitious venture be governed? How ecumenical would it be? Who would determine which denominations should be represented? Would this be primarily for English-speaking countries? What would keep it from becoming a battleground of ideologies? The challenge will be to create an editorial board whose point-of-view serves a wide audience. The attempt here was not to answer these complex questions but rather to suggest that the time has come to ask them.
The pastoral life of Vrindavan (the place of Lord Krishna’s passtimes that is sacred to the Vaishnavas), where the most sophisticated article of technology is a churning pot, beckons from beyond the electronic corner into which we have painted ourselves. But the inner vision of that simpler, more sublime eternal realm comes only after the lessons are learned, the senses calmed, and our dormant love of God reawakened. Until then, our darshan or vision of truth, might just arrive via satellite.