If you’ve ever attended the Sonscreen Film Festival, you’ve likely been impressed by the creativity and ingenuity on display. At this annual event, developed in 2002 by the North American Division of the Adventist church with a particular emphasis on developing young talent, you’ve watched videos by rising professionals, and students from schools like Southern Adventist University, Pacific Union College, and Andrews University — schools that have developed particularly strong audio-visual media programs.
If, later on, you’ve tuned into official Adventist media — Hope Channel, or one of the church-sponsored telecasts aired elsewhere — you may have wondered, “Where can I see some of that creativity?”
North America’s Adventist media ministries were conceived by creative people of singular vision: H.M.S. Richards, William and Virginia Fagal, George Vandeman. Each ministry focused on the needs and challenges of a particular audience, and found innovative ways to connect with those audiences. But though their ministries started out independent, in 1972 the church established the Seventh-day Adventist Radio, Television, and Film Center, bringing together such productions as It Is Written, Faith for Today, and Voice of Prophecy. The result was a mixed blessing — support from and collaboration with the church on the one hand, but disconnection from an ever more diverse demographic and diminishing of innovation on the other.
The umbrella organization was part of a wave of church mergers in the 1970s. In 1993, it changed its name to Adventist Media Center, and in 1996, became one of the first institutions to change ownership from the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists to the then recently organized North American Division.
In 2013 the board of the Adventist Media Center voted to recommend its own closure, with its ministries free to relocate to locations each found most advantageous.
“Historically, Adventist media has its roots in the vision of individual church members, not in the church organization,” observes David Brillhart, director of electronic media at Maranatha Volunteers International, and formerly the first director of Media Services at the General Conference. “In the past two to three decades the opposite became true. Adventist media was institutionalized. Ironically this happened with the creation of the Adventist Media Center.”
“The reasoning behind the Adventist Media Center was they could centralize services and potentially save on money,” says Dan Weber, Director of Communication for the North American Division. “They moved into one of the highest cost-of-living areas in the country: southern California. As costs escalated, it became more and more expensive to operate there.”
The media center’s disbanding comes in a world quite different than Richards or Vandeman ever envisioned. A hundred years ago, the church connected with its members through the weekly periodical Review and Herald (now Adventist Review) and reached out to potential converts through such magazines as Signs of the Times. Fifty years ago it had added television programs aimed at an external audience, airing as paid programming on local stations. Today it operates 24/7 satellite channels around the globe, and can communicate instantaneously with its members.
Over four decades, the media center ministries and production team pioneered numerous firsts, from Faith for Today’s live-action drama series Westbrook Hospital and the feature-length motion picture drama John Hus to the satellite evangelism of the 1990s. At the same time, it struggled with issues of funding, rivalry, vision, and approaches to evangelism.
Author and independent producer Charles Mills remembers the changes that media consolidation wrought. “I worked for Faith for Today and I worked for the media center,” he says. “When I first started working for Faith for Today, I rubbed shoulders with [founder William] Fagal, with the Bible school – I was part of the family. I was a technician, I was an editor, sound effects, lighting, etc., but I worked for the family. The mission of the family was my mission. When I worked for the media center, we would join one family as a surrogate child for a while, then another family for a while. I had the attitude, `I’m going to do the best I can, my mission is personal,’ but we lost the vision of the individual families.
“You lose a connection to the ministry when you’re being a technician for all the ministries,” Mills explains. “When the media center idea was sprung on us, we talked about this: `This is a mistake. This will not work, because we are no longer part of a family.’ We were trying to make other people’s vision come true. When you no longer have any consistency of vision, you do your best, but you lose the connection.
“When I worked for Faith for Today, I was immersed in their culture. I knew what they wanted to accomplish. I knew what they were after, and I knew when I had hit the mark. I read the letters, and I knew how to reach those people. That frees you, as a technician, to be more innovative, to take chances, because you know what the mission is.”
Brillhart remembers: “The creation of the media center was an exciting development to me as a teenaged filmmaker. When I visited in 1976, hoping to find a place where I could contribute to Adventist media, the first person I met bristled coolly that the center wasn’t there `to help young people ride the wagon to Hollywood,’ bruising my dream of being an Adventist filmmaker. Fortunately, David L. Jones, the director of It Is Written, encouraged me to carry on. Already, Adventist media was quickly becoming institutionalized.”
“In previous years production for television and radio involved professional, specialist equipment, personnel, and studios that were very expensive to set up and operate,” reflects Russell Gibbs, producer for It Is Written from 2000 to 2003. “It made sense for the major media outlets of the Church to share these costs and to ensure constant use of the facilities. The production department ventured into satellite uplinking services to the church around the world, bringing the Net evangelistic [series] to a vast audience with downlinks to thousands of Adventist churches. Their expertise in this area was greatly valued and income from this work supported the production facilities for many years.”
In 1995 the church sold the center’s original Newbury Park location and bought property in Simi Valley, California. As 22,000 square feet of studios were constructed, costs rose, and the sale of the original center did not cover the new one as projected. The facility featured state-of-the-art production equipment, as well as digital satellite transmission equipment, enabling ministries to produce all their programs in-house. The next decade saw television transition to a high-definition format, even as equipment costs plummeted. The shrinking costs of production inspired many of the ministries to use their own or other production facilities to produce programming.
“When Voice of Prophecy started [in 1929], you had to have equipment that costs hundreds of thousands in today’s dollars,” Charles Mills notes. “Now someone with a good computer and a copy of whatever software can do it. The ministries have become also-rans and they’re competing quality-wise with anybody. And today, we’re saturated with media. A lot of it is garbage, but some of it is pretty good.”
Paul Kim, former senior producer at Adventist Media Productions at the Media Center, now associate professor of documentary film at Andrews University, sees a world of missed opportunity. “The Adventist Media Center was a world-class facility with very experienced professionals running it,” says Kim. “The problem was a lack of vision that would allow its full utilization. Creating great content at large scale requires a significant amount of resources, but the appetite for these kinds of budgets has only decreased. The result is that now every single organization or even department seems to have at the least a little one-man-band operation. Most everything has become small scale.”
The biggest issue, Kim believes, is a fundamental misunderstanding of the medium. “I think the reason why we fear what I see as a renaissance in visual culture happening around us is because we really do not understand it. Most of our leaders see these things not as a core part of who we are and how life’s truths come to be known, or even as elements that fulfill our innate desire and ability to create, but rather as some kind of trump card handed down from the divine to help fulfill the apocalypse. And so rather than studying and seeing these visual and narrative mediums for what they are, we are truly ignorant about both their origins and processes, using them as replication tools to regurgitate what it is that we are already doing. For example, we are most likely to use media to simply recycle something that you can already experience live (and more effectively) in person, such as a one-to-many sermon or talk. Only a handful — and God bless them — recognize that the most effective use of these still fairly young visual forms come through its ability to deliver transformative narratives. Stories. And that is much more difficult to do, requiring a pool of professional talent that goes beyond the average pastor and his tech-savvy youth.
“Every year, we have dozens of students graduating from Andrews, PUC, and Southern, who are gifted and extremely passionate about filmmaking,” Kim says. “They’re already creating some astounding material. While we’ve made progress, as a community we still have yet to understand how to give them affirmation and resources to continue to use their gifts. A number of years back, I joined the team there in Simi Valley because I saw the best odds I’d seen in many years that something great could happen in the combination of creatives and management there at the time. But we were never given a green light, and nothing came of it. This is indicative not only of what is happening in media today, but in all aspects of our community. We always talk about younger generations leaving — well, it’s because the only rooms left in the inn are for others of a different mind. The talent is there, they just don’t want anything to do with what they’re currently seeing. So if we could flip the model as [Adventist Media Center manager] Warren Judd and I often talked about at the media center — rather than trying to pull the talent in to work for us, and instead try to find ways in which we might grow and support our talent pool — I think all of a sudden we would see some amazing things happen.”
“What if the North American Division were to keep [the Media Center] and make it a laboratory for innovative Adventist media?” Brillhart asks. “A Sundance for Adventists. Maybe even broader — a Sundance for Christians. Encourage Adventist and Christian filmmakers, writers, musicians, and creatives to use the facility to make the next big thing(s). Subsidize it for five years and see what happens. Use the co-working concept to provide small shared offices or groups of offices to creatives, providing a centralized service center and studio operation. Minimize expectations and costs to these `media missionaries.’ Develop a center where there is potential for a creative explosion of Christian media. Why not? If you want younger church members to engage in this kind of activity, perhaps even pay tithe, this is the type of leadership that must be demonstrated.”
As the Media Center is closing, the ministries are scattering, and taking the opportunity to reboot. The television ministry Breath of Life, targeted at an African-American audience, has relocated to Huntsville, Alabama, where its speaker/director, Carlton P. Byrd, is senior pastor of the Oakwood University church. Faith for Today, the Spanish radio ministry La Voz de la Esperanza (Voice of Hope), and Jesus 101, hosted by Pastor Elizabeth Talbot, have joined together and are moving to Riverside, California. The 85-year-old radio ministry Voice of Prophecy, now hosted by former It Is Written speaker Shawn Boonstra, is reestablishing itself in Loveland, Colorado. It Is Written is moving to Chattanooga, Tennessee, with the possibility that it may align itself more closely with Southern Adventist University, known for its strong communications department, in the future.
Elizabeth Talbot hosts `Jesus 101,' one of the North American Division media ministries that airs on Hope Channel.
The ministries see the current time of transition, along with broader changes in the industry, as opportunities to refocus their work. “We intend to produce programming different from what we’ve produced before, to reach a wider audience than ever and — by God’s grace — make a greater impact for God,” says John Bradshaw, speaker/director of It Is Written. “As a ministry that pioneered satellite evangelism in the ‘90s, and internet evangelism in the years that followed, we’re always seeking to reach people wherever they are — whether in person or via their phone, computer, tablet, television, you name it. And our goals for the future reflect that.
“There’s no question the audience is changing,” says Bradshaw. “On top of that, delivery methods are changing too. We’ve taken some very concrete steps recently to change the way we approach our programming. We also have on the drawing board a couple of programs that will deal with the subject of homosexuality. My intent for these programs is to engage with some members of the homosexual community, ask them about their viewpoint, talk with them about the tension between Christianity and the homosexual community, and do a little more listening and a little less pontificating. The end result will still be an examination of certain biblical principles, but we might look at it through a slightly different lens than we might have used in Pastor Vandeman’s day.”
Though a decade ago It Is Written did a significant amount of shooting “on location,” in recent years productions have remained largely studio-bound. Bradshaw notes that that is changing as well. “The vast majority of Christian television is filmed in a studio, talking-head style, and there are some good reasons for that,” Bradshaw says. “But in recent times, we’ve frequently gotten out of the studio and filmed on location in places like Berlin, Auschwitz, Paris, and many more. We’ve found that this is engaging an audience that has slightly less time for watching a preacher on a manufactured set. They respond to something a little more authentic. These programs are slightly less sermon-y and slightly more documentary in their orientation, and yet they still manage to teach important biblical principles. We’re able to do some of this owing to our evangelism travel. If we’re in Prague or London, why waste a fantastic location when there are stories that matter just waiting to be told?
“We’ve got new programming in the pipeline as well. After all these years, it’s past time for us to roll out something different — not radically different, but different enough to move with the times and make a greater impact.”
Making a connection
When the General Conference launched Hope Channel in 2003, it came nearly two decades after the independent Three Angels Broadcasting Network started broadcasting. In the decade since, Hope Channel has grown exponentially, and today comprises 23 channels around the world. Hope Channel airs its own programs, as well as productions by North American Division broadcast ministries and independent ministries like Amazing Facts. Its vision statement is: “Hope Channel will be the premier Christian television network.”
In 2010, the General Conference opened a $5.2 million extension of its Silver Spring, Maryland headquarters building: a 2,800-square-foot studio for Hope Channel. The new studios called into further question the future of the Adventist Media Center.
Hope Channel is available free over the air in such cities as New York and Philadelphia, on DirecTV (which has 20 million subscribers), via satellite, through the Roku streaming device (which has about 10 million users), and through online streaming. An average of 13,000 viewers stream programs online each week through hopetv.org.
“Hope Channel is a public-facing television broadcast, primarily focused at reaching non-Adventists,” says Derris Krause, Hope Channel’s vice president for marketing and fundraising. Naturally, though, Adventists make up a large portion of Hope’s viewership. Though concrete ratings information is hard to come by, among viewers calling Hope Channel’s primary phone number in August 2014, 7% were 18 or younger, 16% were 19-29 years old, 29% were aged 40-59, 46% were in their sixties or older, and only 2% were in their thirties. 73% of respondents were female, 27% male. 52% were Adventist, 31% other Protestant, 15% members of no church, and 2% Catholic.
The demographic reached per program varies. Cross Connection, a roundtable program focusing on the life of Jesus, primarily reaches viewers aged 25-40. Let’s Pray and Go Healthy for Good attract primarily women 40 and older. Hope Sabbath School attracts a wider range of viewers.
At its beginning, one of the top Hope Channel programs was the weekly Adventist Newsline. It enjoyed an approximately million-dollar annual budget, allowing field production around the globe. The church slashed its funding when it found that, for the same money, it could buy satellite time around the world.
“We produced Newsline for a year and three months,” says Rajmund Dabrowski, director of communication for the General Conference from 1994 to 2010. “We built it around professional news people. Then a crunch came. When Hope Channel was building a budget for the following year they pulled us together and said, `You are spending far too much per program. We would like you to produce a program based on Adventist News Network and the wonderful news output you have. All you need to do is put somebody behind a desk, and you don’t need to do much editing. It will be read by one of the editors. The whole thing will cost seven hundred dollars an episode.’
“Hope Channel is generally producing programs that are attractive to the audience that is giving money to it,” Dabrowski says. “Many viewers are happy to say, `This is Adventist; I will support it.’ They are not discriminating in terms of what would be attractive to and speak to the needs of viewers. And they’re not focused on what would reach an audience younger than their fifties and sixties. Mass media is a media of the youth. Of course we all watch TV, but look at who is watching what. We are not producing programs that would be attractive to the `Whatever’ generation.”
Typical cable programming features a host of "you are there" programs like Dirty Jobs, Deadliest Catch, Top Gear, or Mythbusters. Such shows engage viewers with questions of how they'd relate to given situations, or allow them to explore intriguing issues or scenarios they may not encounter in real life. Considering Adventism's holistic emphasis, the lack of such programming is striking.
“Raw, unbridled storytelling is what people have an appetite for today,” says David Brillhart. “Talking head TV is cheap to produce. The downside is that it presents Adventism as all in the box and out of touch. I was once proudly told by a leader at headquarters that the budget for an hour-long show was $350. What is better, spending $350,000 for an audience of two million or $350 for an audience so small it cannot be measured?”
Hope Channel’s annual budget is just under $10 million for its flagship channel. Of that, $4.9 million is appropriations from the General Conference, and $2.1 million donations, along with miscellaneous income and assorted other appropriations. In 2013, Hope Channel produced 315 hours of new content at its Silver Spring studio. On average, about 10 percent of Hope Channel’s programming each week is new content.
The spinoff network Hope Church Channel airs programs specifically for Adventist viewers, including the Pathfinder camporee nightly programming and CLIFF, hosted by Adult Sabbath Study Guide editor Cliff Goldstein.
“Hope Channel quickly learned the challenge of filling a full-time schedule with the quantity of fresh and compelling content necessary to build and sustain a viewing audience,” says Derris Krause. “Extensive investment must be made not only in broadcast and distribution infrastructure, but also in quality program production. A significant area of continuing improvement for Hope Channel is to refresh frequently repeating programs with newer content. Hope Channel continues to learn the best ways to present message points that champion Seventh-day Adventist beliefs, faith practices, and mission in ways that are relevant to a public audience. It is often easy to incorporate into shows Adventist language, news, and organizational references that have limited value to a public audience.”
“We recognize the need for production variety,” says Krause. “While budgetary limitations often keep us studio-bound, we have started making great strides over the past few years. In 2012 we began live shows with viewer participation. One of these shows, Go Healthy for Good, features cooking and exercise segments as well as practical demonstrations of best health practices. In 2012 we introduced packages produced outside the studio that were incorporated into the typical studio based interview program. In 2013 we produced GOD?, a series of sermons by David Asscherick preaching to a studio audience. While not a complete departure from preaching or [an] interview format, the production is a definite improvement to this type of production.
“This fall season introduces a new show, Natural Lifestyle Cooking, that combines a cooking demonstration of a three-course meal as well as a short devotional that shifts from the kitchen set to a family room set. In a partnership with Quiet Hour Ministries this season, we have a reality/on-location show that will add variety; more partnerships and program acquisition plans are underway. 2015 will [premiere] our first completely out of the studio show, Jesus Revolution, that will compare Jesus’ life while on earth and Jesus conveyed on the streets today — the entire production will be in the Middle East and New York City.”
In September 2014, Hope Channel appointed 36-year-old Gabriel Begle as vice president of Programming, Production, and Broadcast. “Modern TV is all about stories, and we’ll work diligently to make Hope Channel the best storyteller in Christian media,” a Hope Channel news release quoted Begle as saying. “It’s about making a connection with a world of people who are looking to God for a better life.”
At hopetv.org, you not only can web surf, you can channel surf, checking out fifteen of Hope Channel’s affiliates from around the world. Two stations will likely stand out — the Spanish and Portuguese channels broadcasting from the South American Division media center in Jacarei, Brazil. Called Novo Tempo and Nuevo Tiempo (“New Time” — trademark issues kept them from using the Portuguese and Spanish translations of Hope Channel), they demonstrate a technical creativity and audience awareness that goes beyond typical religious fare. For instance, instead of just showing musicians singing live in studio, their creative team produces their own artistic music videos. The studio carefully tracks audience response to each of their programs.
Located about an hour outside of São Paulo, the twelfth largest city in the world (with a metro population of 20 million), the SAD media center employs over 300 people, including journalists, social media specialists, advertising developers, and graphic artists. According to a 2012 Adventist News Network article, the average employee is under 30 years old.
“Novo Tempo is growing faster than any other gospel TV channel in Brazil,” says Isaies Moraes, a public school teacher and church member in Brasilia, Brazil. “It is on the two top cable television systems in Brazil, and available over-the-air in many cities. Lots of people are studying the Bible by mail or internet without any previous contact with the Adventist church.”
Part of Novo Tempo’s success, Moraes says, is the contrast between it and other religious broadcasters that offer more sensationalized programming. “Neo-Pentecostal churches, which are totally money-oriented, with their `theology of prosperity,’ can afford good time on over-the-air television,” he says. “Novo Tempo is getting attention from people who are really tired of these common religious TV programs, which are full of supposed stories of cures and miracles. Novo Tempo is attracting people with an educated background.”
“We would like to see what is happening [with] Novo Tempo happen in North America,” says Derris Krause. “Seventy percent of [Brazilian] households have access to Hope channel on their chosen television viewing platform. To the public in Brazil Novo Tempo is synonymous with the Seventh-day Adventist church. Most people’s first encounter with the Adventist church is a positive one and is through Novo Tempo. Many churches co-brand their facility with the Hope Channel logo. Their positive learning experience and discovery of Jesus through Novo Tempo has them yearning for a like-minded faith community. As in Brazil, we want Hope Channel to be [an] instrument to introduce people to a loving God and a loving church family.”
“[Novo Tempo] talks with people in Portuguese with cultural values that are understood by most of the people,” observes Dabrowski. “One of the big problems Hope Channel has and will continue to have is that it does not understand the nature of the medium fully. TV is entertainment! And a little bit education. And a little information. Television is based on communication. I have been challenging those saying, `We are all about evangelism.’ I say, `Wait a minute, evangelism yes, but evangelism without communication means little.’
“The South American media center does a lot of research in terms of the audience,” Dabrowski continues. “They constantly evaluate, evaluate, evaluate. And much of their programming is entertainment, including a lot of music, on the top level. And also, they don’t stay away from controversy. They have debates on TV.”
As a consequence of the General Conference headquarters being located in the United States, the North American Division is the only one that does not oversee the content of the Hope Channel in its territory. In July 2014 the NAD elected Gordon Pifher as its first vice president for media. Though the NAD already had a VP for Communication, that office is focused on public relations and internal communications. Pifher is tasked with overseeing the former Media Center ministries’ efforts to reach North America’s urban areas, and will work with Hope Channel to develop programming for a particularly North American audience. Along with Dan Weber, NAD Director of Communication, Pifher serves on Hope Channel’s Program Development Committee.
The growing ranks of unchurched people in North America is of particular concern to NAD leadership. “It’s easy for us to lose focus on who we need to reach out to,” says Weber. “It’s not all about baptisms — a lot of it’s about going in and creating a presence in a community, so when we share the gospel it’s not `I don’t know anything about Adventists.’ Or if they’re totally secular and know nothing about God, we’re talking about the mark of the beast or whatever when they just want to know who God is. Instead of going from A to Z we need to bring them on a gradual journey and present the full alphabet of who we are and what we believe, in different steps and different phases. A huge part of that is letting the average person know who we are and what we stand for — health, education, family development. That’s creating an environment where people know and respect each other and can share what they believe. That’s going to take a changing of a mindset as we try to deal with the changing demographics and society in North America.”
The NAD recently built its own small studio to produce material to support its departments, such as a resource for Family Ministries called Help, I’m a Parent.
“In my many years collaborating on Adventist projects in the North American Division, I worked with very talented and dedicated people,” says David Brillhart. “I have been told on more than one occasion by highly respected non-Adventist colleagues and peers that they are amazed at the dedication the Seventh-day Adventist church has to media.”
Though the bulk of commentary on Adventist media and publications tends to come from strident critics, Brillhart encourages church members to speak out. “Watch what is put out there by the church and have an opinion about it,” he says. “Your tithe dollars paid for it. Support what is speaking to you. Send feedback about what concerns you or puts you to sleep. Promote via social media church-produced and independently-produced media that you like.
“The democratization of media brings some interesting challenges and opportunities,” Brillhart notes. “Anyone can say anything to just about everywhere. Controlling the message is a thing of the past. Perhaps the greatest challenge, at least when it comes to the external market, is relevance. Even with instant access to the entire North American Division, we cannot expect the `tried and true’ methods of communicating the gospel to be effective. Don’t be `one-idea men’ were the words Ellen White penned to Adventist workers sharing the Gospel a century ago.
“This is the challenge for those in Adventist media today,” Brillhart continues. “Think outside the box, question the box, repaint the box, put some doors and windows on the box. Add wings. Be willing and courageous enough to try new things. Wait: Isn’t that the story of the recently completed series The Record Keeper? It is the institution, in this case the very institution that wanted to communicate in a new way, that is experiencing numbing dissonance when it comes to widely releasing the finished product. I am of the opinion that God cannot be embarrassed by us. God cannot be harmed by us. Adventism® thinks it can be harmed. Remember the ancient [advertising] adage: `Any press is good press.’”
As It Is Written’s John Bradshaw notes, “We’re really only limited by our imagination.”
Tompaul Wheeler directed the feature-length documentary Leap of Faith: The Ultimate Workout Story. His half-hour program Adventist Aviation Services: Uniting, Building, and Serving Papua New Guinea aired on Hope Channel in July 2014. The author of the devotional book GodSpace, he’s working on a Master of Fine Arts in Film and Creative Media at Lipscomb University, in Nashville, Tennessee.
Top image: Programming from Brazil's Novo Tempo.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6301