by Rev. Eric C. Shafer
It was 1987 and America was riveted by the “televangelist” scandals—celebrity TV ministries collecting millions of dollars in donations that ended up supporting their own lavish lifestyles. In response, the leaders of the cable industry met with major US faith leaders, all determined to restore the integrity of faith on television. Together they founded the National Interfaith Cable Coalition (NICC) and underwrote what would become its Odyssey Channel, giving the new interfaith offering carriage on cable systems throughout the United States.
Fast forward to 2011: Today the media is not plagued by scandal but fueled by it. “Controversy sells.” In religion this means an emphasis on conflict rather than cohesion, strife rather than working together.
We saw this most clearly last year in the controversy surrounding a Muslim-sponsored community center in Lower Manhattan. Its construction was welcomed by the community and media until a set of bloggers and interest groups latched onto the story and made it appear controversial, bringing with it all sorts of attention — mostly negative — from the national media. Odyssey addressed this controversy and the people of faith who favored this community addition in a video covering an interfaith rally held on September 12th in support of the center.
This is but one example of how Odyssey Networks has found a new niche as America’s largest multi-faith coalition, with nearly 100 member faith groups, faith related organizations and individuals. We tell the stories of people of faith working together for the common good, promoting understanding among people of different faith traditions or even no faith tradition.
Other stories we have told recently include faith perspectives to on the death of Osama bin Laden, World Interfaith Harmony Week, the unprecedented Peter King hearings on American Muslims, the move to divide the Sudan into north and south, Archbishop Timothy Dolan’s visit to quake-devastated Haiti, and the “Politics of Hunger.”
Unsurprisingly in this era of “viral media,” these reports all first appeared on Odyssey Networks but then traveled around the Internet to sites like CNN online, Democracy Now, and the Huffington Post.
Yet not all of our work is “viral.” We recently sponsored an in-person national gathering to foster conversation around the topic of 9/11, the Conversation We Never Had. And although no longer a cable television channel, cable television remains a vital platform for Odyssey. On July 28, the new Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) will air Odyssey’s Serving Life, the story of a unique convict-staffed hospice program in at Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana. In April Odyssey’s production of The Shunning, based on Beverly Lewis’ best-selling novel, debuted on the Hallmark Channel earning top ratings and critical acclaim.
And now, instead of a cable television channel, we have a growing “channel” for the fast-growing mobile telephone platform: our Call on Faith smartphone application. Odyssey has also increased its presence of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and plans to begin a channel on Roku, one of the new “over the top” Internet television providers, in 2012.
We like to call these efforts “Odyssey Everywhere,” meaning that to tell the stories of people of faith working for positive change in the world in 2011 we must use all of the so-called media “platforms” available to us and use them well.
Our world has become increasingly multi-media. Odyssey Networks is working to spearhead innovation, especially technological innovation, within the multi-faith movement. As people of faith with the important overall message of God’s love for the world to share, we must use all of the new technological advances to help us share this story.