By John Aman
Christian broadcasters are crying foul over a new proposal to deregulate cable television, issuing grim warnings that it will lead to the disappearance of Christian TV.
Legislation introduced by Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., scraps “must-carry” rules that currently force cable and other pay-TV operators to include less popular broadcasters, including local Christian stations and affiliates, in their channel offerings.
“I think it’s ill advised,” said Colby May, an attorney for Trinity Broadcasting Network, one of the nation’s largest Christian networks.
“Anytime you decide that you’re going to change the marketplace without really understanding the marketplace we think it is a mistake, and I’m sorry that Rep. Scalise didn’t seem to know that. He certainly never reached out to any of us in the religious broadcasting community and certainly none of the local broadcasters that I’m aware of.”
The Scalise bill is a comprehensive overhaul of what he calls outdated laws. It relies on free market principles and dismantles various FCC media ownership rules.
“Decades-old broadcast, cable and satellite laws dramatically restrict access and limit consumer choice,” Scalise said in a statement.
“Valuable local affiliate programming, strongly demanded by consumers including myself, is proof that archaic government regulations are unnecessary today,” said Scalise, who is chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee.
But without must-carry, the National Religious Broadcasters, the NRB, an association of Christian communicators, warns that cable and satellite companies would drop local Christian TV stations.
“There’s no question in our mind that given the very unique broadcast landscape that Christian television would soon disappear from not only cable networks but also from satellite networks as well,” says Craig Parshall, NRB senior vice president and general counsel.
In place of wholesome fare, the NRB predicts that cable operators will dive for the bottom and “seek profits from programming that includes sex, violence, and profanity inimical to the development of healthy families and communities.”
A spokesman for the Christian Broadcasting Network predicts that the death of must-carry would make little difference to its broadcast offerings, which include the daily “700 Club,” hosted by CBN founder Pat Robertson.
“A change to the must-carry laws would have minimal impact on CBN, as its programming is carried both nationally and on stations that would not be affected by the proposed changes,” said Chris Roslan, a CBN spokesman.
At the same time, Roslan said CBN opposes ending the must-carry mandate, recognizing that doing so “would be devastating to many small local stations, not just Christian stations but also local news affiliates and independent stations.”
While most in Christian broadcasting argue strongly for the preservation of must-carry, some industry watchers argue that cable and satellite operators should not have programming decisions made for them in Washington, even if they serve the interests of Christian broadcasters.
“No one has a right to have their particular type of programming run on any particular medium; that includes religious broadcasters,” says Adam Thierer, senior research fellow at the George Mason University Mercatus Center.
“As a matter of ethics, I just don’t like the idea of forcing people, forcing particular platforms, to carry content or channels that they don’t want to carry.”
But there’s more to the issue than just the property rights of private cable or satellite TV platform owners, says the NRB’s Parshall.
“We’re great believers in the free market system, but we’re also believers in the congressional mandate that broadcasting services provides a public interest,” he said, referring to the 1934 Communications Act, which mandated that broadcasters serve the “public interest.”
“We think Christian broadcasting is distinctly public interest in ways in which general market broadcasting cannot be because they’re not designed to address spiritual issues of communities and their needs.”
TBN attorney Colby May argues that cable and satellite systems have no financial incentive to carry Christian TV. Nearly all Christian broadcasters are ad-free, and pay TV systems cannot generate ad revenue by inserting ads into the Christian content they carry on their platforms.
That’s why, May argues, consumer demand alone for faith-friendly shows “isn’t going to persuade cable.”
“Cable is going to be persuaded by its own bottom line,” he said.
May promised that TBN will line up beside the NRB and actively oppose the Scalise bill, even enlisting its massive nationwide TV audience to call and email Congress to preserve must-carry.
“The local guy, the little guy, needs to make sure they’re protected in this context.”
Still, it’s open to question whether Christian broadcasters still need the helping hand of government in a world where a viral video can reach millions online in just days. Jefferson Bethke’s video poem, “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus,” generated 14 million views in eight days and has now been watched more than 26 million times.
Easy access to video content via YouTube, Hulu, Roku and Apple TV is reshaping how viewers consume video. Glenn Beck’s TV network, TheBlaze TV, uses the Internet to offer viewers more than 170 hours of new programming each month delivered via computer, iPhone, iPad or Roku.
And Christian broadcaster Sid Roth has launched the It’s Supernatural Network, available at sidroth.org and via smartphones and tablets. The ministry plans in the future to deliver its content by Roku and Apple TV and grow ISN into a 24/7 network.
The “good news,” says the Mercatus Center’s Adam Thierer, is that “there are more avenues for religious broadcasters to get out their message than ever before, and there is a greater diversity of religious programming not just on television but on all media platforms today than at any point in history.”
“It has never been easier for religious broadcasters to get their message out to their people,” he said.
John Aman is a writer and communications consultant. He is the co-author of Team Obama: All the President’s Real Men and Women and formerly worked for one of the nation’s largest Christian broadcast ministries.