Digital salvation

by Donald F. Robertson

Satellite Broadband, Apr 1, 2001

Space exploration and humanity's religious impulse have always been closely linked. At their best, both address fundamental questions from before the dawn of history: Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going?

Science fiction films — especially those that try to deal realistically with spaceflight — often have overtly religious themes, most famously Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke's “2001: a space odyssey.” Returning the favor, some organized religions now distribute their messages via an idea invented by that very same Arthur Clarke — the geostationary communications satellite.

The Christian Broadcast Network founded by Pat Robertson claims to have been the first religious organization to broadcast via satellite, beginning 24-hour Christian programming as early as the 1970s. Today, they have been joined by other organizations, including the Vatican itself, broadcasting services in many different languages via satellite.

Why satellites? In their unique style, the Trinity Broadcast Network probably puts it best. Only satellites can allow “this Gospel of the kingdom” to be “preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.”

Until the end, the Trinity Broadcast Network will leave virtually no corner of the Earth un-saved. Its microwave message floods the United States from the Galaxy-V satellite located in geostationary Clarke orbit (125 degrees west), and over both the DirecTV and Dish direct broadcast satellite networks, according to Trinity. Their word also flows to Europe and the Middle East over Intelsat-804 (64 degrees east) and Europe's Hotbird-5 (13 degrees east); to Asia via Japan's JCSAT-3 (128 degrees east); to Australia, New Zealand, the South Pacific, and Southeast Asia via Intelsat-701 (180 degrees east).

Trinity continues to dedicate new satellite links, throwing “big switches” during “Praise-A-Thons.” Translated broadcasts reach Spanish speakers in both Europe and the Americas with PanAmSat-9 (58 degrees west), Italians via Eutelsat's Hotbird-3 (13 degrees east), Brazilian Portuguese speakers on Brasilsat-B2 (65 degrees west) and Asian Hindi via JCSAT-3.

Mainstream Christian organizations use space technology for the same reasons that the Christian Right does. Satellites are the cheapest way to reach the largest number of people with difficult-to-sensor broadcasts, especially in areas where ground-based infrastructure is poor or non-existent. This is true in under-developed areas of Asia and Africa, but it is also true in some of the United States' inner cities. An organization called The Word Network provides religious programming to urban African American Christians via DirecTV. Even in wealthy cities, one of the big surprises of the satellite television industry was that it was also a hit in urban areas where cable should have had a lock on the market.

Asked about religious organizations using PanAmSat, company representative Donald Mayer said the Global Catholic Network's Eternal Word Television Network is its “largest [religious] customer with the greatest reach.” The network is broadcast worldwide over Galaxy-IR, Galaxy-XI, and PanAmSats-3, 8 and 9. In Europe, it is broadcast over Eutelsat-4 (13 degrees east).

Gayle Armstrong, a representative at Loral's Cyberstar division, said that both Opus Libani and the Christian Church use Loral's satellites to distribute Internet content. Opus Libani, produced in Lebanon, is the information source for Christian churches of the Orient. Vanessa O'Connor, corporate communications manager for Eutelsat, listed the following religious organizations as using her company's satellites: La Cadena del Milagro; SAT 7; the Three Angels Broadcasting Network (also available throughout the world on other satellite networks); Neuapostolischer Kirche (the New Apostolic Church); Sat 2000; Telepace; Miracle; and Good News.

Many religious organizations use satellites to distribute health information and education to remote communities, which cannot easily be reached in any other way. This is especially true if the target audience is a thinly spread minority diffused through a much larger dominant population.

A registered charity called Sat-7 broadcasts analog and digital Christian television over two satellites to the Arab world's Christian minorities. According to Sat-7, “The Middle Eastern skyline was transformed in the 1990s with the advent of the satellite dish and uncensored international broadcasts. By [2000], one-hundred million people in the region had direct access to satellite television [and] 90 percent of the population had at least one television set.”

In fact, “even the poorest, including those who live virtually on the street, seem to have at least a black-and-white set. A television is a priority purchase for any family and, for most, their only source of information or entertainment.” At the same time, “increasing numbers of people are illiterate,” many of them children, and television is the only way to reach them. Soon, Sat-7 expects new 90-centimeter satellite television dishes to cost the equivalent of $100.

Well over half of Sat-7's programming is locally produced, according to the organization. This includes street interviews, drama, discussions, investigative reports, children's programming, and micro-enterprise programs showcasing small business entrepreneurs. This is “in a region where unemployment is rampant and large amounts of capital for business activities [is] difficult to obtain,” according to Sat-7. In the future, bibles and other books will be available for download via Internet connections over Sat-7's satellites.

Sat-7 was formed by 25 Christian agencies and started broadcasting in 1996 with only two to three hours per week of Arabic broadcasting. In 1997 this was up to 18 hours over two satellites. The year 2000 saw daily two-hour broadcasts and experimental Web casts, and a move to an evening prime-time slot. In 2002, Sat-7 expects to introduce non-Arabic language broadcasts and increase service, ultimately to a 24-hour digital television and Internet broadcast via a single satellite. John Rogers, Sat-7's chief operations officer, says, “The conversion to digital receivers [in the Arab world] is happening faster than was previously expected. … Industry momentum may be such that the majority of Sat-7's viewers throughout the Middle East and North Africa will have digital receivers within two years.”

Compared to some organizations, Sat-7's solicitations seem decidedly low key. Sat-7 requests donations for “initial capitalization and recurrent annual operating budgets, estimated at about $6.5 million.”

Another global operation is the Three Angels Broadcasting Network, a 24 hour Christian television and radio network based in Illinois. 3ABN offers what they call “divorce recovery programs,” as well as “drug and alcohol rehabilitation, cooking and health programs, stop smoking and weight loss, programs that deal with children and family issues, organic gardening, natural home remedies, gospel music programs,” and others.

One of the most well-established satellite services is distance learning, where educational materials are distributed to remote locations via satellite. The United States, with its vast areas of low-density population, is ideally suited for this type of service. LearnAtChurch — the “t” is displayed as a cross — distributes Christian education programming to the local church, and to reach the unchurched.

The service is broadcast over the EchoStar Dish Network's satellite used for specialized programming (61.5 degrees west). A special antenna, or a second one, is required to receive these broadcasts in addition to EchoStar's regular television programming. LearnAtChurch says it supports “church pastors and elders by equipping them for excellence in ministry using cutting edge media tools, innovating programming, and state-of-the-art equipment.” The Campus Crusade for Christ International imposes “spiritual content oversight and approves the network content.” In turn, the CCCI uses the service to communicate to staff and field offices around the world.

The monthly basic fee starts at $49 for an individual or small church, rising to $149 for a large church with 1,000 or more members. For an additional charge, LearnAtChurch provides Bachelor's and Master's degree religious courses via the American Open Learning University. No fundraising is allowed on any channel — “You can count on quality programs without solicitations” — however, congregations may raise funds by selling supplemental materials and hosting the educational programs at their church.

Brigham Young University also offers educational programming via both EchoStar's Dish Network and DirecTV. Seventh Day Adventists offer the Adventist Communications Network's satellite service. They broadcast complete religious services and “special satellite prayer meeting series” like “Israel in Prophecy.” The Adventist “satellite ministry is hastening the coming of Jesus as it simultaneously touches thousands with the gospel.”

Two new companies, Sirius and XM, each plan to entertain us with 100 channels of satellite-delivered radio. Sirius plans Christian music programming, while XM expects to broadcast Christian-oriented talk and music from Salem Communications Corp.

Space technology allows religious content to be broadcast to the world. The technology also allows programming to be uploaded from a single religiously significant location, then broadcast via satellite.

The Christian High Adventure Global Broadcasting Network moved its programming facilities to Jerusalem when Israel withdrew its military presence from Lebanon and Lebanese Christians followed. According to a report in the Maranatha Christian Journal, this network “broadcasts gospel [radio] programming to different parts of the world through daily satellite feeds,” becoming “the first such organization to work from a base in Jerusalem.”

The group's leader, John Yockey, says, “It's amazing to think that we have the opportunity to reach every country in the world from this strategic location via satellite.”

Paul A. Soukup, professor of communication at Santa Clara University and author of “Media, Culture, and Catholicism,” wrote about this subject in an academic paper. He thinks, “The rapid adoption of new communications technologies by Christian churches stems [among other factors] from a generally optimistic view of technology [which] leads to a willingness to try new tools.” He quotes Paul VI as saying, “The church would feel itself guilty before God if it did not avail itself of those powerful instruments which human skill is constantly developing and perfecting. With their aid, [the church] may preach ‘upon the housetops’ the message which has been entrusted to it (Evangelii Nuntandi, No. 45).”

The Eternal Word Television Network agrees. “Throughout history, men have used the means available to spread the revelation of God … Continuing to the present day, the technological advances of mankind have made it possible for the Word of God to be spread to the farthest corners of the world.”

Another motivation was suggested by John L. Allen Jr., writing in the National Catholic Reporter. “A rejection of secular media [leads the Christian Right] to feel much more enthusiastic about creating a sub-culture of religious programming.” The Christian Right also has the money. While the cost per viewer may be low, broadcasting via satellite and cable “is an extraordinarily costly undertaking,” wrote Mr. Allen. “To some extent, the ability to get on cable [and satellite] turns on the ability to raise money. The combination of a theological commitment to proselytize and access to the resources to pun it off have given the Christian right a near-monopoly on religion on cable [and satellite].”

Christians appear to dominate satellite use in the United States, but are not quite the only ones distributing their message from on high.

A beautifully designed United States-based Web site called IslamiCity — “For Soul and for Spirit” — re-broadcasts daily prayers from Masjid Al-Haram and Masjid An-Nabawl via “Live Satellite Webcast.” IslamiCity includes readily accessible links to a number of religious sites that are overtly opposed to the Middle Eastern policies of the United States.

Religious broadcasting uses a much smaller segment of the world's satellite capacity than expected. PanAmSat, Cyberstar, and Eutelsat all agreed that religious organizations use a tiny percentage of their spacecraft. Eutelsat's Vanessa O'Conner said her organization is “currently broadcasting about 850 channels.” She listed only eight of those as religious. Yet, religious broadcasting from satellites to rooftop antennae is clearly of great importance to some religions.


Donald F. Robertson is a freelance space industry journalist based in San Francisco.


NOTE: Full disclosure: The author is a small shareholder in Loral Space & Communications, a company mentioned in this article.

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