Faith, Media & Culture

1. Odyssey CEO Nick Stuart talks about his personal journey and the path he’s forging with the multi-faith media group he heads.

In case you don’t know, Odyssey produces a wide range of multi-faith video programming over a wide range of platforms, including traditional TV, the web, smartphone and other emerging distribution technologies (i.e. web-to-TV channels).  It is comprised of several member organizations representing the diverse spectrum of religious traditions (i.e. Christian, Jewish, Muslim and others) that are dedicated to utilizing faith and media to build bridges rather than walls.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Stuart for a half hour or so last week to discuss a wide range of topics, including his transition from the U.K. to the U.S., the future of Odyssey and of television in general.  Here are some of the highlights.

JWK: How long have you been at this job now?

NICK STUART: Two years and nine months.

JWK: Are you enjoying it?

STUART:  Yeah. I mean it’s a huge challenge.  One of the things that always strikes me is the irony of religion in the media and religion in the media in the U.S.  (compared to ) the U.K. Because in the U.K. we have a state religion but people tend to think we’re a post-religious society. But, ironically, you get quite a lot of religion on mainstream television in (British) prime time.  In America, where a broad belief in God lives, you can scour the networks and the channels and find a very small percentage of such programming compared to the U.K.

JWK: I know. I think that most overt religious programming I’ve seen on network television this year was found in the coverage of the royal wedding.

STUART: That was a good service, wasn’t it?  (There’s) a history of Christianity on PBS. But, apart from that, there used to be (programming) coming out of Nat Geo, Discovery and History on biblical archeology and history and that seems to have fallen away as well.

I think what excites me is actually being broader than that. We’ve just done a single doc for the Oprah channel  called  Serving Life (about a prison hospice program in Louisiana in which hardened inmates care for their dying fellow prisoners). That wouldn’t be seen as a religious program in the old way of putting it. But, if you look at the motivation and the way some of the people –the warden , the inmates — see what’s happening and their transformational experience, some name it in religious terms.  And I think that’s the way to go because otherwise you’re preaching to the choir.

JWK: It would make a good feature film.

STUART: Yeah, it would be brilliant. Tom Hanks! Another Green Mile!  But, you’re right.  for me that’s the doc I wanted to make when I came over.  I’d heard about (the prison program) in the U.K.

JWK: So, you seem to be saying that you can tell stories about faith without hitting people over the head it.

STUART: You don’t have to shove the message down viewers’ throats.  The story doesn’t have to involve religion with a big “R.”

JWK: So, it’s not about dogma.

STUART: It has nothing to do with that…To me (it’s about) people who are inspired by faith, people who can live a life which is inspired by faith.  Sometimes maybe they’re not even aware  (of  it) but essentially we’re made in God’s image. There is potential within the human being to do the most amazing things.

JWK: I’m always amazed both by how extraordinarily good and kind people can be and how cruel.

STUART: There’s a piece in (the sci-fi movie) The Fifth Element  at the end – at a moment when (a character) wants to destroy mankind because she’s seen the destructive power that we have  and Bruce Willis argues, yes, that’s true but we also do this (the good things) . And that sort of stops her and he stops mankind from being destroyed.  Within us all there is this potential for greatness, potential to live out our potential in a positive way.  And yet we can also give in to our dark side  The pieces we try and tell are stories of transformation – going from the darker side to the light.

JWK: I think NYPD Blue on TV was a great example of that. We followed Dennis Franz’s Detective Sipowicz character on a twelve year journey  from bigoted drunk to a healed and respected squad leader and it was all done so believably.

STUART: That is the hallmark of a great viewing experience because something changes and you’ve invested as a viewer emotion in seeing how this character is changed.  For me, if you look at it spiritually, theologically, the thing that I find so wonderful about Christianity is the incarnational aspect of it.  Now, to be truly incarnate, the darker side or the… There has to be that interplay.  You know, Christ Himself had those moments where the temper came out. The olive tree which became barren because He was angry. The bit where He said to the Gentile feed the scraps to the dogs. The bit on the Cross and in Gethsemane.  “Lord take this away.”  You know, those moments where weakness, confusion, anger came through to me were very important because that showed how much God cared, how the Incarnation was real.  So, when we see our lives depicted on television, I think you need to see that.


JWK: May I ask about your religious background?

STUART: Yeah, I’m Church of England which can mean virtually anything. No, the wonderful thing about the Church of England, I’m an Anglican, is it breadth – from liberal to Evangelical, Conservative Evangelical, Charismatic Evangelical, across the spectrum. In my career,  I’ve had wonderful opportunities to make documentaries  and features about every part of that spectrum and I’ve been (enthralled) by making docs and meeting Evangelicals.  That’s not the tradition I come from but I am strengthened in MY faith by seeing how they live out THEIR faith. It doesn’t mean to say that I’m going to join an Evangelical church but I’ve admired them. So, that’s my background.

I did study for a theological and philosophical degree with the Jesuits  in London, Heythrop College.  I think it was started in the 17th century on the banks of the Rhine and then moved to Oxford after persecution and then came to London and that’s where it is now.  So, I was an Anglican at a Jesuit college and I did theology and philosophy and, because my ancient Greek was rubbish, I opted for comparative religion as well. I did sort of (look into) Buddhism as well.  A pretty wide spectrum. I think I’ve made more documentaries on Islam than any other producer in Britain.  So, I’ve got a broad spectrum.

JWK: A perfect background for a multi-faith media organization. We’re you looking for this opportunity or did it find you?

STUART: If you made programs about religion in the world, you knew of Odyssey because they were the big boys making  films, etc.  And so, looking for co-productions, when I was making programs for the BBC or ITV, we would talk to Odyssey about possible co-productions.  So, when the opportunity came — three and a half years ago when I was first asked — I thought “Well that’s an exciting new challenge.”  Technology was moving apace and there were no opportunities.


JWK: Speaking of technology, I’m told you have some pretty significant web-to-TV plans, perhaps involving a channel delivered to television through streaming players like Roku.

STUART: It’s not so much a channel as a new way of delivering television. It’s like internet television but it’s gonna take a while for it to take over from more traditional viewing. I mean, the thing that I wanted to do when I arrived was to…have Odyssey Everywhere.

Basically, what’s going on is a proliferation of platforms. You can view video over numerous platforms now and I felt that programming about faith, and inspired by faith, should be available at a high quality on all those platforms.  So, we started from the word go here to look to see how we could get A.) the programming improved, in terms of quality and B.) on as many platforms as possible.  So, I brought in Mat Tombers. He had been influential in launching Discovery Channel in Australia and India and was one of the foremost thinkers in terms of new media.  Basically, I pay him to live in the future.   Not too far – just enough to say “Nick, I think in two years, three years this is where we’ll be watching – on this device and this is how we’ll be doing it.”

So, when I arrived, he talked to me about smart phones. He took the projections of the cost coming down and then looked at technology – how you could actually compress video.  We took a bit of gamble but we thought the next big thing for a platform for video would be on phones. And, of course, luckily, iPhone took off.  So, the cost came down and, hey, we’ve got a double whammy because we’ve also got Tablet.  Tablet arrived and so mobile is a very exciting platform. And, then you think “Well, how do people consume video when they’re on the move?” Because, another thing we do is work out psychologically…what they need on the different platforms. If you’ve got a smart phone you’re probably going to be on the subway and you’re coming home from work or going to work.  You may be a bit stressed.  So, we work out, what do people want?  Meditation? Inspiration? Things that aren’t too long, aren’t too demanding, are quite visual, relaxing music.  So, that’s what we’ve put on that platform.

Roku will take us next year, our 25th anniversary, back into the living rooms of America.  We had a cable channel, five years ago.  Hallmark took it over, bought it, we went off cable.

Now, we’ve found new ways to reach people – Call on Faith on smart phones and on Tablet. We’re expanding that. We have 14 channels on that with our member channels.

We wanted to get back, though, into the mainstream living rooms of America. I’m thinking it’s gonna cost a little bit of money to have a cable channel but there is another way in.  That’s through Roku or Boxee.  There are a number of set-top boxes linking your huge plasma living room TV to the internet.

It’s non linear (though) some use Boxee and Roku for linear programming.  They put their linear programming on that.  It’s really up to you what you do with it.  And the cost of delivering a channel to your living room through that is a pittance compared to what it would be run a cable channel.  So, there’s a wonderful coming together, I felt when I took this job, of technology providing the opportunity to be more adventurous than before at a fraction of the cost.

JWK: That would seem to solve the distribution problem — because, I’ve always found that, while there’s no shortage of an audience for faith-based programming, and no shortage of producers, writers and actors wanting to create it, distribution always seems to be the breakdown point in getting more of it out there.

STUART: You’re spot on, John. The issue of distribution, linear distribution, was always the problem…There were gatekeepers and you couldn’t get to your audience without going through them. They would skim off lots of revenue but would also editorialize and your voice would be muffled by the time it got to audience.

What we have now is a mechanism and systems which are professional, which enable you to deliver your product in high quality to people’s high-quality receivers – whether they be mobile smart phones or whether they be 42” plasmas.  And, who would have thought you could have done that not even five years ago?  So, that’s the exciting bit for us.

The hard part is that there is so much noise out there, how does your voice get heard?  What excites me is  (that) Odyssey has its membership.  Now, we’ve grown from I think 45 organizations to (over a hundred)…So, we go from the Baha’i through the Salvation Army, Seventh-Day Adventists, the Episcopalians, the Catholics, you know.


JWK: So, you can market your programming through congregations.

STUART: That’s true and that’s one of the benefits of having membership.  The thing is we also want to be there for the mainstream.  I mean there’s always this false distinction. There’s the mainstream and there’s congregations, as if the congregation is not made up of regular guys who go to the supermarket and watch ballgames.

I think we want to be there for everyone. And you can reach directly through the congregations or you can reach them wherever they are.  I talk about Odyssey Everywhere – wherever YOU are we want to be able to reach you to share the inspiration that we believe our programming offers.  So, they might meet us online by accident. Or they might meet us through viral video.

JWK: Does fragmentation — the fact that there is so much programming out there over so many platforms — make it more difficult to produce traditional movies?

STUART: Fragmentation is one of those things that is both a blessing and a curse. At one level you go “Oh no! How am I gonna reach them all now?” Because there’s not just one way…But the thing is technology helps you so much these days.

A fragmented audience means that they’re also not just in one place. They’re in many places because they’re on their website, they’re on their smart phone, they’re on their whatever.  You don’t have to reach them at every one – just one.  So, yeah, it’s a blessing and a curse.


JWK: Reading your bio, I find it interesting that you’ve created a couple of quiz show.

STUART: Yeah, that was fun.  In fact, I did a religious comedy quiz show in the U.K. It was for Channel 5…5 was always a pretty irreverent channel in the U.K. but they wanted to do religion.  And one of the things that I picked up from working and knowing quite a few Evangelicals was how smart they could be – funny. I don’t mean that in a patronizing way but they really got popular culture in a way that the rest of the groupings, the mainstream, the liberals, perhaps, didn’t get. They seemed to be ahead of the curve when it come to utilizing (technology) in worship or outreach or whatever.  They always got it.

I did a series for Channel 5 called Alpha Zone  which was contemporary Christian music and, in the U.K., it really was a pretty uninspiring genre. The U.S. was way ahead  with great crossover bands and one of those bands (we featured) came from the Evangelical quarter and that first got me thinking that faith coming out of that sector was dynamic and alive and very in touch with popular culture. So, I began to explore where else you could go with faith  — with popular genres but still be true to the faith roots.  So, humor was the next one that I moved to after music – and we had two teams of people. It was more about wit and speed and being clever…It became cult viewing for some reason amongst Church of England ministers in the Midlands.  They used to swap tapes because it would go out over Sunday morning when they were delivering their sermons.

JWK: Any chance of doing  a U.S. version?

STUART: That’s an interesting question.  I’d love to do it but one thing I’ve probably learnt  is that faith is lived a lot more in the day-to-day life and on the surface of people’s lives in the U.S.  than it is in the UK. I think to say you’re doing a religious comedy show is intriguing in the U.K. and people’s faith isn’t as prickly at times because it’s not lived so openly.

JWK: Do you think the U.S. is more religious than the U.K.?

STUART: The U.S . is far more religious and faith is more acutely lived on the surface.  I don’t mean to say it’s not lived with depth — it is lived with depth —  but Brits tend to be thicker–skinned, I think,  about their faith.  Sometimes it’s a good thing, sometimes it’s a bad thing but I don’t know if I could do a religious comedy show in the U.S.  If I did do it, it would be with the Evangelical sector.


JWK: Where do you see Odyssey going over the next five to ten years?

STUART: I want us to be the go-to people if you want a story about faith.  If you are a channel and you want to do a story with insight into faith then come to Odyssey.

I talk about an image that I have which is the hour glass. The top of the hour glass with the sand running through, that’s the mainstream media. At the bottom of the hour glass you have the faith communities. Both want to reach out to each other. The faith communities want to be able to share what they have. The mainstream wants to reach out because it’s a significant market, the faith market in America, and neither understands nor trusts each other.

But in the middle is Odyssey because we are a member organization  which understands the sensitivities of faith and the members  but we are made up of program makers. I mean our head of production for mainstream has got two prime time Emmys. Our head of new media launched Discovery  in India and Australia. Our head of content, Maura Dunbar, was, I think, EVP of features at Hallmark. She was an exec at ABC.  So, when we talk to the mainstream, they see people who’ve got medals, as it were, who’ve got the awards. They trust us.

Note:  Odyssey continues to produce TV movies for Hallmark Channel, In development is The Confession,  a sequel to the Amish-themed drama The Shunning (based on the Beverly Lewis novel)  which drew strong ratings for the network when it aired  on the network earlier this year.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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