Not long after his appointment as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Newton Minow famously delivered a keynote speech at the annual convention of the National Association of Broadcasters.
He challenged the television executives gathered in the convention hall “to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you.
Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off,“ he said. “I can assure that what you will observe is a vast wasteland. You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons.”
Minnow spoke those words all the way back in 1961. And since then, television has become an even more vast wasteland.
Indeed, the game shows of yesteryear have been supplanted by reality shows that celebrate decadence and depravity, like E! network’s “Keeping Up With the Kardasians,” whose star, Kim, is know for her explicit sex tape, her 72-day marriage to a pro jock, and her recent out-of-wedlock birth to a daughter whom she cleverly named North (because her baby’s father’s surname is West. Get it?).
The formula comedies about totally unbelievable families have given way today to sitcoms glorifying dubious families like the homosexual couple with an adopted child on NBC’s “The New Normal.”
The blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism and murder that appeared on the small screen in 1961 has been ramped up a half-century later with such popular shows as AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” Showtime’s “Dexter,” CBS’ “Criminal Minds” and Fox’s “The Following.”
And the benign cartoons of a generation ago have been replaced with today’s decidedly unwholesome cartoons, like FOX’s “Family Guy,” which regularly caricaturizes both God and the Son of God in the most offensive ways.
Yet, the Christian faithful should not entirely despair of what appears on television. Because the Lord often shows up on TV, when and where least expected. And His light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.
We’re not referring here to Christian television, like Trinity Broadcasting Network, Christian Broadcasting Network or Daystar.
We’re not talking about the television ministries of such pastors as Joel Osteen, John Hagee, David Jeremiah and Charles Stanley.
Nor about programming specifically targeting people of faith, like “The Bible,” the miniseries produced by the Christian couple Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, which aired on “History” channel this past spring.
No, what we’re talking about are the instances when God shows up on mainstream TV. When He sends a shout-out to a television audience that is not expecting Him; when He reveals his ominpresence those with eyes to see, and ears to hear.
Like last week, when ABC’s “Good Morning America” aired a segment on Leon Harris, longtime news anchor at the network’s local affiliate in Washington, D.C., who recounted his recent near-death experience.
“On two days,” said Harris, “I died,” only to be miraculously revived by an otherworldly force. “God kicked my butt out of heaven twice,” Harris told Claire Shipman, who interviewed him for GMA. “So,” he said, “I’m supposed to be here.”
God similarly showed up unexpectedly last week on the season finale of “Jungle Gold,” the reality show that airs on the Discovery Channel. The show chronicled the travails of George Wright and Scott Lomu, who left their homes in Utah to mine for gold in the African nation of Ghana.
They stuck a deal with Dave Thomas, a British expatriot, who makes Ghana his home and somehow controls the rights to 70 square miles of prime gold-bearing ground in the country’s Ashanti region.
The way Thomas was portrayed on the show made it appear he was trying to take advantage of the Yanks to enrich himself (notwithstanding that Thomas agreed to give Wright and Lomu a 70 percent split of a gold stake worth an estimated at $2.5 million).
Not until the season finale did we learn that Thomas is a man of faith; that he and his wife have planted a church in the Ghana town of Accra; and that he plans to use the money gleaned from gold mining to grow the ministry to the glory of God.
The Almighty seems to have a thing for the Discovery Channel. Because the network recently re-aired the documentary, “Life Before Birth,” narrated by actress Courtney Cox.
“The journey from conception to birth is miraculous and mysterious,” said Cox, who may be a Hollywood liberal, but sounded very much like a pro-life conservative in the film.
Indeed, she said, a mere two weeks after conception, “miraculous changes have taken place. The embryos are developing the germ of a brain and a spinal cord. And, just a few days later, a tiny heart, no bigger than a poppy seed, begins to beat.”
That the actress used such words as “miraculous,” and such New Testament references as “poppy seed,” suggests that she secretly shares common cause with Christians who believe that life begins at conception.
Many others who appear on television are unabashed in their promotion of the Gospel.
Like the kids on season 7 of FOX’s “American Idol,” who delivered a powerful rendition of the well-know praise and worship song “Shout to the Lord.” Like Nik Wallenda, who tight-roped across Niagra Falls, calling upon the name of the Lord the entire way. And like Phil Robertson, patriarch of Louisiana family that stars in A&E’s “Duck Dynasty,” who pays homage to the Lord before every on-screen family meal.
Who knows? God just might show up on TV this evening at the Miss America Pageant. We understand that Miss Kansas, Theresa Vail, is not just the first contestant to publicly display a tattoo, she also has publicly professed that she is a Christian.
Wouldn’t it be something if she turned out to be a pageant finalist?