Methodists take to the tube
Changing channels in search of meaning
By Susan Passi-Klaus*
Over the past 65 years, plus or minus, television has stretched our worldview, just as TVs themselves have stretched from 3 inches to 116 inches. More than 113 million U.S. homes have them. In fact, Nielsen estimates the average home has more TVs than people.
Even before NBC’s colorful peacock logo debuted in 1956, the Methodist Television, Radio and Film Commission (TRAFCO) began producing two programs, "The Pastor" and "The Way."
Methodists had more than an inkling that television could inspire, encourage and teach. Television was the revival tent and electronic circuit rider of the future. Though "I Love Lucy" and the World Series ruled the ratings, television wasn’t just show business, it was soul business.
75 YEARS OF cOMMUNICATING fAITH
Don’t miss the boat!
Charles Cappleman, president of the Joint Committee on Communications, was just one of the visionaries who urged church leaders to become part of the growing universe of telecasting.
“Television seems to have become the main enculturing tool for our society,” he said, “rather than the home, the church or the school. And this is where the church is missing the boat. Mainline Protestant influence in the television community is almost invisible.”
United Methodists did indeed climb aboard the boat, but waters were often rough. For years supporters fought an uphill battle to get The United Methodist Church behind the camera.
“There’s power in the spoken word and visual images that can and have changed lives,” said Nelson Price, one of the church’s TV pioneers. “We believed that the ripple effect occurs when a changed person interacts with others.”
On with the show!
Over the years—programs were offered to “meet people where they were.”
"Talk Back" featured local pastors as moderators guiding a panel conversation about ethics and moral issues. "Breakthru" was a children’s series that covered everything from bullying to divorce. Actor Eli Wallach hosted "Begin with Goodbye," a six-parter focused on endings in life.
"Learning to Live," which became a resource in local churches, used best-selling books like Games People Play by Eric Berne and I’m Ok, You’re Ok by Tom Harris as a catalyst and grossed $750,000 in sales (equivalent to $3.4 million today).
Six American Families may have been one of the first “reality” shows. Writers and film crew members lived with six different families to record their interactions and lives.
Something new catches on!
"Catch the Spirit" was a half-hour magazine format show shot on location using reporters to tell United Methodist stories. Hilly Hicks, who had appeared in Roots and M*A*S*H, hosted the show along with Emily Simer.
“'Catch the Spirit' made people enormously proud to be a United Methodist … that a mainline church could have a voice on television and that United Methodists could affect mass media,” said Hicks.
The production team brought high profile newsmakers to the Nashville studio like former Surgeon General C. Everett Coop, author Tipper Gore, actor Lou Gossett, and entertainer Sarah Cannon (a.k.a. Minnie Pearl).
“If people couldn’t come to us, we went to them,” Hicks said. “Our cameras went everywhere—from Africa University to cover its birth to China two months before the demonstrations and massacre at Tiananmen Square.”
But after eight years and 208 episodes, "Catch the Spirit" was cancelled. “The medium was calling for 60-90 seconds of storytelling,” Hicks said. “It’s difficult to get to the heart and soul of things in that length of time.”
Ready for the big time
In 1988, United Methodist Communications joined with 21 other denominations and faith groups to develop the Vision Interfaith Satellite Network, later known as the Odyssey Channel, which provided all-day religious programming to cable systems.
One of the network’s shows was "News Odyssey," a program that brought religion and values into the world newsroom. Demetria Kalodimos of Nashville co-anchored the show and believes it was “well ahead of its time.” One of her best memories includes covering the visit of Pope John Paul to Cuba … live as it happened.
“It has often struck me in the years since 'News Odyssey' how what we were doing then was so innovative ... and is now mainstream,” said Kalodimos. “The crew at United Methodist Communications had vision, courage and a true commitment to enlightening its audience.”
Kalodimos also recalls writing a documentary narrated by actor Hal Holbrook. “To hear a famous voice like that say words you put on paper was magic.”
The Odyssey Channel eventually partnered with Hallmark and became the Hallmark Channel.
In 2002, United Methodist Communications went in a different direction with the launch of UMTV, producing short video features that could be inserted at the end of a news broadcast -- uplifting, positive stories with a United Methodist tie, like “The Buzz on Campus,” about a hip-and-happening coffeehouse in a church basement where college kids can hang out instead of a bar.
“UMTV was created to provide content to be used by secular entities, especially broadcasters who often avoid anything considered ‘religious’ programming,” said Fran Walsh, who currently manages the 13-year old channel.
But the Internet also gave media makers the capacity to reach audiences directly versus sending it through a distribution service as in the early days. YouTube, social media and Web use of UMTV stories help to reach exponentially more people and churches have access to use the videos as needed. Walsh says the UMTV YouTube channel has had great success, garnering more than half a million views and a single Facebook post usually reaches upwards of 100,000 people.
Methodists were there when TV screens turned on and the faithful tuned in. But times change and people change. Technology reigns. As Nelson Price has said, “You use the media people are using.”
As media consumption habits change, United Methodist Communications will keep on “changing channels” to keep up with the times.
*Susan Passi-Klaus is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tenn.