June 4, 2017

The Hospital TV and Me

Randy Fishell

I’ve always regarded hospitals as places to be eluded. Having avoided an overnight stay in such a facility for some 40 years, I should have figured my luck would finally run out.

I write from Room 1522 in the Meritus Medical Center in Maryland. A whopping sepsis infection carried my fever to new highs and my blood pressure to personal-worst lows.

But the past few days showed me there’s another kind of sickness that pervades this facility, and no amount of hygienic scrubbing has proved effective in providing a lasting solution. I’m talking about the gigantic cyclops of a TV screen staring back at me from high atop its wooden perch.

By choice I’ve not watched much TV over the past few decades. My life has enough drama in it without worrying that a Kardashian might have acid reflux or was caught picking her nose in public. (OK, maybe if I could figure out how to make millions from being a nonproductive member of society, I might give it a shot too.) But with nothing to do but scan through dozens of TV cable channels, I decided that doing so would be better than just lying here in my hospital bed going into a boredom-induced coma.

I was wrong. My disbelief at what was apparently considered engaging entertainment soon morphed into genuine despair. Not so much for me, but for a society—and maybe an entire planet—that actually tunes into such garbage on a regular basis: judicious demeanor that makes illicit sexuality seem normative; more bleeped-out swearwords than actual verbiage, pointing to the accuracy of the late comedian Steve Allen’s book on the subject of modern media:
Vulgarians at the Gate.

Who Is Our Audience?

Now comes a startling twist for the reader: this article is not about the vast sewage pit that passes as modern entertainment. Rather, my concern is how the Seventh-day Adventist Church plans to engage those who don’t see a problem.

Almost two years ago a decision was made to close my former place of employment, the Review and Herald Publishing Association. Many of us had known for years that we must change quickly or die, and the latter ultimately took its natural course. As editor of Guide magazine, the church’s official publication for 10- to 14-year-olds, and former employee representative to the Review and Herald board of directors, I accept my own portion of responsibility for not being able to implement many of the course corrections that I viewed as essential.

Yet my purpose is not to point fingers regarding that very difficult situation. What I want to share is my firm conviction that unless we learn from this experience, Adventist media in general will not only become increasingly ineffective, but also perhaps even grow silent (trust me, it can happen).

Toward that end, I suggest it is prudent to admit that Adventism’s propensity for giving the trumpet a “certain sound” more often results in simply blowing our own horn, with few paying attention to what it all means. If we are going to make a difference to a culture swept away with
American Pickers and Dating Naked, we have to make some serious adjustments, and some of them aren’t going to be pleasant.

No, I’m not suggesting we jump headfirst into the network, cable, and online sewage pits, but I am saying that an awful lot of what we think is connecting with the world isn’t.

Engaging the Culture

Some leaders get it. When it became clear that the Review and Herald would be pulling up stakes from its Hagerstown, Maryland, moorings, a series of town hall meetings was held with employees. During one such gathering, from the back of the huge room I cried out to the denominational representative chairing the meeting (I was no longer on the board), “Please, whatever decisions you make, engage the culture!”

I simply meant that if Adventism’s flagship publishing house was ceasing print operations, that did not require completely throwing in the evangelistic towel. If our publications weren’t working (and some of them weren’t, in my opinion), we needed to try something else.

As I finished my plea, North American Division president Dan Jackson leaped from his chair on the platform, strode purposefully toward the microphone, and leaned into it. I’d been scolded in public before (not by him), and I wasn’t sure what nerve I might have hit this time. I needn’t have worried. The president looked directly at me and said with conviction, “Randy, I couldn’t agree more.” He repeated the same statement, then returned to his seat. I think he got it, and I think he still does.

This all had to do with print publishing, of course, but here’s my concern: Is it possible that at least some of the same dynamics that led to the end of Review and Herald’s print operations might lead to the same sad end within the broader context of Adventist media? Have we learned anything from our propensity to provide content and packaging too often targeted toward an Adventist audience of yesteryear, let alone a “secular” person?

The challenge at hand is not easy; that much I understand. The hospital TV remote led me to astonishingly childish, morally crude, and highly scripted “reality shows.” Since at least many viewers have apparently developed a taste for such fare, where does that leave Adventists who hope to convey “present truth” to this very same audience? What can be done to gain viewership numbers closer to that of Downton Abbey rather than those associated with Fantasy Island reruns? Here are a few considerations.

Don’t rely on the Adventist Church to take the lead. I write this with all due respect and admiration for Adventist leaders at many levels, But the truth is, the Adventist Church as a corporate entity simply cannot take the kinds of risks that independent Adventist content creators and producers can afford to take. Denominational leadership must rightly strike a balance in many areas that embraces and reflects the wide range of values and spiritual understanding of a worldwide body of believers. But godly Adventist media creators whose paychecks do not come from Silver Spring must use their gifts and seize the moment. There is astonishing talent throughout the Adventist Church, and current church media is exploding in powerful ways.

Still, we do our Creator proud by truly reflecting His creativity in media. That means that while there is certainly a place for denominationally affiliated media production, only when independent Adventist media creators foray into areas that the official church structure cannot tread will we begin to capture greater attention with those who most need what we have to offer.

Bottom line: no single denominational media entity can be everything to everyone. We’re in this together, and independent creators must step up.

2 Become a patron to the best creative Adventist minds. Producing truly effective media is unbelievably expensive. If you or a group is in a position to help financially, I urge you to find those who possess the talent and vision to create breakthrough productions that take the gospel message to startling new levels. This does not mean lowering media standards, but rather raising the creative bar so high that others cannot help paying attention. Find out which students from your local church or conference are enrolled in media classes and find out how you can help to support their efforts.

Why not make it a church project to contribute regularly to these students’ and others’ media production dreams? Several Adventist universities are taking strong leads in the area of media production.

3 Foster a culture of wise risk-taking in Adventist media production venues. This includes filmmaking, animation, print media, and other content created for a wide range of distribution. A strong professional mentorship component ineducational settings can help students and educators alike learn to discern wisefrom foolish risks.

Limiting our media adventures to those involving the leastrisk will undoubtedly produce the least results. Tapping into the knowledge andexpertise of a wide range of media producers and leaders can result only in a moreeffective use of talent and funds.

4 Encourage postgraduate media production work in non-Adventist settings. While there are strong undergraduate media programs, to understand fully whatcaptures secular viewers’ attention, it may be necessary to venture onto non-Adventist turf. It seems unlikely that Adventist creators will ever fully connect witha secular audience unless we learn from, and alongside, those who think differentlythan us.

I’m not talking about checking our values at the door. But if we think we’regoing to not only compete with but also rise above much of secular media’s appeal,it’s not going to stem solely from holding creative sessions with ourselves. We cancontinue to admire our own brilliance as the rest of the world ignores our work, orwe can do something Adventists aren’t always very good at: we can change andgrow.

5 Drop the “We can’t compete with the world” mentality. Instead, focus on outfoxing them. The devil will always find a warm welcome in Hollywood, but sex and violence won’t satisfy the heart’s deepest longings. Don’t tell me Adventism doesn’t harbor the talent to turn heads.

We boast some of the best authors, scriptwriters, producers, and others whose work is second to none. We must find ways to bring to market their stunning, captivating, and evocative work that reaches into the neediest places of the human soul.

Whatever genre we work in, we must never settle for mediocrity in writing or presentation.

A Wake-up Call

My physical illness was pretty serious this time around. The docs had to pump me full of some big-gun antibiotics. But a combination of modern science and some very bright medical professionals who knew how to employ medicine and various technological devices brought me back from the edge. Could the next generation of Adventist media accomplish something similar in the spiritual realm?

I don’t envision pitching a new reality show based on my recent ordeal. One of the scariest parts was being short of breath. The caregivers cranked up the oxygen, and that helped get me over that particular hump. My hope is that Adventist media creators will increasingly—and prayerfully—conjure up content and productions that do take people’s breath away, minus the pathogens.

We Adventists have a job to do, one that involves alerting a choking world that an eternal change looms just over the horizon. Getting that message out is worth taking some huge risks, maybe one that involves you.

Randy Fishell is honorary editor of Guide magazine.

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