An electronic media revolution occurred in Britain with the establishment of a Christian television network GOD DIGITAL. Tony Cummings reports
Four mysterious figures stand silent and still, gazing over the twinkling lights of the city stretched beneath their feet. The metropolis, once a seething mass of activity, is quieter now as millions of people, home from their workplaces, reach for their remote controls. Soon an electronic torrent of images and information, talent and trivia, lust and laughter, entertainment and enticement sweep like a deadening pall over the millions caught in their front room cocoons. And slowly, inextricably, the city darkens. Still the figures stand gazing as the shadows envelop the listless throng as the darkness continues to close in. Suddenly, one of the watching figures stirs. There, a shaft of light springs from a distant house. Then another. Soon the inky blackness is pierced by hundreds, then thousands, of brilliant shafts. All over the city people are turning on the God Channel.
Dave Kangas once played a vicar on Coronation Street but if a misguided telly soap writer today tried to portray his daily activities at God Digital, media professionals would howl down the story line as totally unrealistic. For Dave spins plates in an awesome display of multi-tasking dexterity. "People are impressed when they hear God Digital has 135 employees. But for the amount of work we cover conventional media wisdom would say you'd need 500," laughs Dave. To prove the point the TV jack-of-all-trades is hurrying from a Creative Development meeting with the quixotic founders of God Digital, Rory and Wendy Alec. Now in the next few hours Dave has to brief the production team on what they'll be working on, voice some links for God Digital, edit some segments for Friday Night Live - the weekly programme hosted by Rory and Wendy - and edit the rough cut of a new commercial of the Cross Rhythms festival. As if he doesn't have enough to do, every Wednesday Dave produces and presents a Dream On TV programme, a fast moving show of music videos and guests. Before Dave rushes off, I pitch him the often repeated criticism that Christian TV is nothing more than an insular cultural ghetto. "On one level there may be some truth in that view. But ghetto implies a very small community while in fact people turning to Christian broadcasting are one of the fastest growing sections in the community today. God Digital isn't promoting a subculture, it's promoting a lifestyle which puts God in the centre of everything, not leave him on the margins where culture, and sadly sometimes religious broadcasters, wants him kept. I believe we're truly broadcasting not narrowcasting. But if religious broadcasters want to argue with that and say we're a narrow ghetto because we broadcast programming only about the Living God and refuse to promote crystal gazers or World religion or spiritualists or whatever, then so be it."
The whole of Britain's Church seemingly has a perspective about God Digital. For some, they are a spiritual lifesaver throwing out daily lifelines of anointed Bible teaching and faith building testimony; for others they are dangerous purveyors of prosperity preachers and OTT American religiosity. For some they are the embodiment of Christian ghetto cultural insularity; for others courageous media pioneers pushing back mainstream TV's tidal waves of filth and humanism. For followers of contemporary Christian music they are the primary way of catching sight of the latest CCM videos. And for just about everyone working in the electronic media God Digital, particularly as seen through its public face to the non-Christian world, the God Channel (available to five million homes as a free service on Sky Digital), it is an inexplicable broadcasting phenomenon, a minnow who insists on swimming with the huge media sharks in the staggeringly expensive ocean of television, and is not only surviving but growing.
It's mid afternoon on a typical Thursday at God Digitals studios in Gateshead. The TV in the reception area shows what's currently on air: On the God Channel, Ze Markee is talking to camera. The wife of well known muso and pastor Dave Markee, Ze, filmed in her kitchen, offers an engaging mixture of cosy homeliness and spiritual morsels. Meanwhile, on the Revival Channel, there's an American Bible conference in full sway which soon overcomes my British resistance of American accents and the pronouncing of "God" as "Gad". Down the corridor, production of programmes is going flat out. In Studio 1 Dave Aldous is being filmed in conversation with South African Bible teacher and psalmist Tom Inglis. The guests on his In Depth programme read like a who's who of the world's most significant Church ministers -Reindhart Bonke, David Pawson, Francis Franjipan - each has been a recent guest on the programme. Dave Aldous, an actor and drama teacher for most of his work days, deftly plucks the spiritual gems from his guest Ruth Roley, who researches and produces In Depth, laughs when I point out the gruelling nature of the production schedule, often four or five guests, filmed in one frantic day of interviewing/filming. Over in Studio 2, presenters Michaela Hyde and Chezz Cherry are filming G T Extreme, a zippy kids programme with "the hottest games and the newest bands". I make my way to Studio 3, empty for the moment but where soon Chris Cole will be filming the first of three Dream On TV programmes. Coming out after a quick technical check is Rick Brock.
In a nearby office strewn with paper, coffee cups and CDs, Rick explains his work duties. "I'm assistant producer to Dave Kangas for the Dream mainly, which means all of the elements for The Dream On TV I make sure happen for every show. I check all the music is available on DVC Pro which is our format to play it out on. I get together the What's On information, any inserts, music news, things like that, are scripted up and ready I make sure anything to go on the TV as a strap - names, address, competitions, things like that - is ready. Everything, so that the one hour show goes as smoothly as it possibly can. Then during the recording or live broadcast I operate the cameras and all the technical aspects of that. All the direction and production part is left up to me and all the audio side is left up to the presenter, checking the microphone levels are fine, mixing live if we have guests in."
I make my way to the Green Room, a reception area-cum-dressing room which, perversely, sports a purple decor. Rory and Wendy are there to talk about an extraordinary broadcasting vision. It really began when a young married couple arrived from South Africa in 1991. Rory and Wendy Alec were married in 1987 and had worked together in the advertising industry. They had also developed their own company, producing commercials for TV and radio. Rory, who is South African, and Wendy, who was originally from London, had both become Christians and began to feel God had a large challenge for them. They moved to the UK, with a three week old daughter and very little money. For the first two years they felt as if they were in a wilderness. They were not used to British culture and did not find any easy openings into the media. They were asked by Cornerstone Christian Centre in London, and Hugh Osgood, the minister, to set up a TV department at the church. They managed to make some contacts with cable TV and organised some programmes from their local church.
One day they were at a meeting when a visiting speaker, Jonathan David, who had never met them and knew nothing about them, singled them out in the crowd and spoke prophetically that they would launch a TV network. This was the confirmation they needed for their belief that God was calling them to set up Christian TV and they started knocking on all the possible doors. They had no finance, but during 1993 to 1995 things began to happen against all the odds. In October 1995, they were able to establish the first daily Christian station on satellite and cable for two hours a day. This soon increased to three hours a day and by 1997 it was up to seven hours a day.
When they first started, they were working in almost impossible conditions in a small rented studio in Maidstone, Kent. At the beginning of 1997 they were able to move to Gateshead and in a very short time a large facility became available to them, complete with studios, editing rooms and a host of offices - some 16,000 square feet in all.
Says Rory, speaking with the rapid syllable enthusiasm of the true visionary, "We have grown to 135 people working on staff; we have multiple television studios, we have multiple edit suites. God has really blessed us with all the equipment that we need. We broadcast on three satellite platforms; we're on cable across the United Kingdom and Europe, our signal now can be reached in 58 nations with a potential audience of 75 million homes. So it has been an astronomical growth. It does leave one reeling sometimes. You sort of go home and say, 'Lord, you've got to be in the middle of this to have come this far this quickly. Don't go away otherwise it's not going to go any further.'"
I ask Rory how he would respond to those prophets of doom who would suggest he and his wife were presumptuous or mad to enter the rich man's game of TV. I'd say they're absolutely right. But then I'm not called to build a television network and neither is Wendy. We've been called by God to preach the Gospel and to see the Church equipped. The only difference is that we use the medium of television. If we were out to build a television network we would never have entered the rich man's game because it literally does soak up millions and millions of pounds. I'll give you an example. Sky's annual budget on programming alone is 780 million pounds. But as I said, we're not in the television business, were in the ministry of preaching the Gospel."
We bring Wendy into the conversation. As the person responsible for putting the programming together at God Digital, how does she respond to the criticism that too much of God Digital's output is aimed solely at Christians? "That was very true in our beginning years. But that's why we've instigated the Revival Channel, specifically for teaching believers, because we absolutely believe there is a real definite split between evangelism and building up Christians and discipling people. The reason we're so excited about the Revival Channel is that we can film Christian conferences that are there to equip believers. That is what the Revival Channel is there for. What we've decided is that the God Channel on Sky Digital is really the mass marketplace. As we get subscriptions, which we believe is the new financial paradigm that God has given us, we are going to be able to reach the British public in a far more contemporary and relevant manner with programming that we originate here. We've started, we've got about five flagships, what we call our 'premier programming' which are really meant to reach the lost with programmes which are culturally relevant, which are British and which are going to reach the non-believers. The response that we get on the God Channel is that they really are. People are channel hopping, find the God Channel and their lives are really being changed. We get thousands of letters every month. The Friday Night Live, which is a flagship programme Rory and I do, is mainly to communicate the vision. We have video diaries. The testimonies of people's lives changed by God are so exciting. There was one couple from Manchester who were watching Dream On TV and saw Cameron Dante from the World Wide Message Tribe. He said that watching Cameron, for the first time there was someone on TV he could relate to. I'll never forget, he said he was in Tesco's and he called out to God. So it wasn't a Damascus Road experience but a Domestos experience! But the TV programme really impacted him. He came to the Lord and his wife came to the Lord, and it's changed their whole family."
What about those who criticise God Digital for its reliance on American TV preachers? "I would say our analogue broadcasts in the morning are mainly American. The old paradigm of Christian channels in the States... CBN, which was the first Christian TV network, has been going 40 years now, and TBN is about 30 years old. In the USA, the ministers, the tele-evangelists as they're called there, pay for programming. Through their paying for airtime is how Christian TV has survived in America. When we first started that was all we knew, that was the only paradigm there was. So we started with our two, three hours a day. We started with American ministries who paid. No one in Britain or Europe had programmes anyway and no money to put them on. And airtime costs are HUGE. Our airtime costs on Sky and Sirius is a huge amount of money for us. We found that during the last five years that system of paying for airtime helped us bridge the gap. Now, because of subscriptions, we are not going to have to depend on ministries who can pay but do far more of our own programming. On the Revival Channel we have complete freedom with our schedules. In America they don't, their hands are totally tied."
Tied hands or not, didn't God Digital broadcast an uncomfortable amount of US prosperity teachers, I ask Wendy. "Word of faith, the prosperity message, name it and claim it, all the negatives that have been talked about - it's been there in the American Church scene for the last 25 years. And God DID need to put victory in people's hearts. But, this is just my opinion, I believe that particular teaching emphasis is long over. So we broadcast Kenneth and Gloria Copeland and Joyce Mayer, who's also very evangelistic - the ladies do love her because she's very direct. God has said to us, That's fine. Europe also needs to have its head lifted up and know that I'm a God who's going to bless them.1 But God has also said, 'let's, move into the new realm, let's move into the End Time move.' So were very excited. We had the ability to phone Rick Joyner at Morning Star Ministries -which is part of the new prophetic dispensation. We phoned Rick and he said, 'I've got no TV.' But we said we've read Final Quest and The Call, please can you just make something? It ended up with us going out to the USA and filming the Morning Star conferences, Heart Of David. We've filmed them for the last two years and now they're sending us their material. So we have Rick Joyner and Paul Kayne and Bob Jones and Francis Franjipan all on British TV. To match that as well we have Cindy Jacobs and Dutch Sheets and Peter Wagner and the prayer side of teaching. In America you find it is mainly word of faith and it's stopped there. But we believe we have a real mandate from God to be one of his tools to bring in his End Times move."
Rory sums up Wendy's impassioned defence of God Digital's programming. "We're not moved by how much money you can pay us as to whether you're going to be broadcast on the God Channel, or the Revival Channel, or any of the channels we put together. That's not what motivates us. Sometimes our board might argue, to our hurt, we'll put on what we believe the Lord is saying put on. So it's not the money that drives us, it's the anointing."
It's 1O.OOpm and Chris Cole is onto his third Dream On TV. Unlike the previous two though, this one's live. He introduces a Steven Curtis Chapman video though soon runs into his first problem when he has difficulty reading an email sent in from a viewer requesting a Smalltown Poets vid. "I don't have my other glasses on," he explains cheerily and the crisis passes. Chris' guest is a fresh faced young singer/songwriter called Michael Lovelock who in interview recounts an amazing tale whereby, while studying for a degree in popular music, he was able to pursue contacts of his dad's - namely British born, Nashville-based record producer John Hartley - to record a demo with a bevy of Nashville's finest session musicians. It's when he sings a song live though that the programme ignites. Opting to take a big risk and sing a number he'd only composed that day, Michael's brand new composition proves to be a wistfully expressive exploration of the impossibility of trying to encapsulate in words our feelings toward the Lover of our souls. "I wanted to write down my heart," Michael poignantly sings across his strummed acoustic. He certainly does that.
It's nearly midnight. In thousands of homes God Channel viewers are watching the final minutes of Ray Bevan as the Welsh singer-turned-preacher passionately exhorts the inspired reliability of God's Word. Gazing from a distant building, four figures watch... and smile.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.