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Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Values have value. I just got off the phone with Dick Rolfe, the visionary founder of The Dove Foundation.  The Dove CEO filled me in on some details about his group’s just-announced deal with the independent content distributor Cinedigm to create a subscription-based online streaming platform. The Dove Movie Channel will be similar to Netflix but will be aimed directly at the traditional values audience. For over twenty years Rolfe’s organization has been informing consumers (notably parents) about the content of films. Dove movie reviews are note overall quality while paying particular attention to presentations of traditional Judeo-Christian values. Each film is broken by a “Content Description” chart that specifically describes instances of sex, foul language, violence, drug and alcohol abuse, nudity and other things (i.e. general cruelty). An alternative to the relatively-vague MPAA rating system, the reviews provide important information for consumers seeking to make informed family-entertainment decisions. According to Dove data, Dove-approved films are about three times more profitable than non-endorsed films. The Dove Seal of Approval, in fact, has become a sought-after prize for studios and distributors seeking to reach a reach a family audience.

JWK: So, how did this idea and the deal with Cinedigm come about?

DICK ROLFE: We’ve been working on this long and hard and all of a sudden things came together very quickly. We were actually working on another platform called The Dove Theater which is a video-on-demand platform where you pay a fee to download a movie, similar to iTunes or VUDU or Amazon, those types of services — but strictly with Dove-approved movies. It’s being branded The Dove Theater. So, we went to our partners — people who are producing and/or distributing Dove-approved movies to acquire content for this new channel. Cinedigm was one of the organizations we contacted. They informed me that at the same time we were developing this video-on-demand system they were interested in talking to us about the development of a subscription-based program that they would like to brand The Dove Movie Channel. It would also contain only movies that were approved by Dove.

JWK: What’s the timetable for launching The Dove Movie Channel?

DR: We don’t know. We’re in development. That’s a question for Cinedigm really. They’re the technology people. It will take several months to build out the system and get it up and running. I’m hoping by the first of the year we should have it functional.

JWK: You say all programming will meet Dove guidelines. Obviously, in a broad sense, that means programming that is both faith and family friendly. But, specifically, what are those guidelines.

DR: It means that the content in the movies and programs resonate with people who have conservative values. We analyze films from six criteria. That is sex, violence, profanity, nudity, drug and alcohol use and “other” which includes everything from the occult to disrespect for authority.

JWK: So, you’re going to get content from the Cinedigm library, which is used, as well as other content providers. DR: Cinedigm will, first of all, (provide) their content which is Dove approved and then, beyond that, they will be looking to partner with other content providers and acquire the rights to other Dove-approved content from other parties. JWK: Will this include original content?

DR: Yes. They are also very interested in developing relationships for co-production of original content. As is very clear from the Netflix model, original content is very important — especially with subscription-based (services).

JWK: Will that include series, as well as movies?

DR: I would think so, yes. We haven’t gone into the specifics but I’m fairly certain we would be interested in developing original one-off films and (continuing) series.

JWK: So, this is a streaming service, similar to Netflix? DR: That is correct.

JWK: So, we’re not talking about a linear network where programs are assigned time slots and debut on a specific night at a specific time? DR: No, this is not a 24/7 linear channel. JWK: Will the channel be available on cable systems?

DR: John, in that case I would defer to the press release. If you look at the press release I think they list the various platforms it’s expected to be available on. That includes, I think…(web-to-TV devices like) Roku, Xbox (among others).

JWK: Will all the programming be aimed at kids or will there also be inspirational programming that is aimed primarily at adults? DR: Dove approval covers a wide range of programming. We have programming for children which receives our seal for “all ages.” Then we have a 12+ seal (which includes films that) are appropriate for an older audience, ages 12 and up. We have a “faith-friendly” seal for all ages and 12+. That seal indicates that the content falls within the same guidelines as the “family-approved” seal but it indicates that there is faith content in the story.

JWK: Where do you see The Dove Movie Channel being in five or ten years?

DR: As I think the (statistics) show, the faith-and-family audience is a very large market segment. It think something like 72% of the public believes in God. I think 63% or 65% percent of the people polled believe they’ve had a born-again experience. That’s a pretty large market segment. It’s not exactly what you would define as a niche.

JWK: I always find it amusing that they describe this kind of stuff as niche programming. I think what they do on HBO is actually more niche. DR: Exactly.

JWK: To clarify, will The Dove Movie Channel be coexisting with The Dove Theater? DR: Yes. They are two different platforms. The Dove Theater is actually a video-on-demand system. It’s pay-per-transaction. In other words, there’s a fee to download a single movie. Some people prefer that. They don’t want to be tied up in a subscription. Other people prefer the subscription because they can just watch. The video-on-demand system, Dove Theater, will also be able to acquire titles earlier in their release phase. Subscription channels usually have to wait longer before then can get licensing access to the titles. So, the VOD channel — which would be The Dove Theater — will actually have earlier and newer content in its cycle.

JWK: But original content will be more like to be found on the subscription server.

DR: Yeah, exactly.

JWK: Do you see any prospect down the road for Dove linear channel?

DR: We’ve had conversations with various organizations and corporations who have suggested that to us but I haven’t seen anything yet lends itself to something that we would be interested in.

JWK: How long has The Dove Foundation been around?

DR: We started in 1990.

JWK: And you’re the founder. DR: That’s correct.

JWK: How did the idea come to you?

DR: I was confronted by a group of friends who asked me if I felt confident making entertainment choices for my family. At the time, there was really no indicator (of film content) other than the MPAA ratings. If you remember, back in the early days of video, a lot of the videos were without a theatrical release so they didn’t have an MPAA rating. So, we decided the only way we could feel comfortable (making entertainment choices) was to go out and review movies before our families would see them. We did that and the list of titles (we reviewed) eventually grew to 600. We shared that list with friends and family and then an Associated Press reporter interviewed me and that article appeared in 165 newspapers nationwide. Within ten days we had over 1000 phone calls from people all across the country who wanted a copy of this list.

JWK: I think you’re going to find some amazing pent-up demand for The Dove Movie Channel, as well The Dove Theater.

DR: I think so. I think this is very much the same because access is much easier with digital platforms — but that’s a good thing and a bad thing. The good thing is that you have access to more content. The bad thing is there’s nobody out there curating that content and identifying those titles that are safe for the family. That’s what differentiates us from a lot of the other services.

JWK: I think what you’re doing will revolutionize television even more than movies. You — and people like you — have already made quite an impact on the film industry by providing information about content. I’ve written about this before. Movies, I think, have gotten better because they are responsive to what consumers actually want since consumer choice is directly linked to the studios’ bottom lines. Television, on the other hand, has created a system in which cable bundling funnels your money to channels you don’t watch and may even find objectionable.

DR: There are so many forms of entertainment that are coming to us through the fire hose that we had to pick one channel of entertainment that we felt we were best qualified to deal with — and that was film. We do review television series that are submitted to us once they go out on DVD but we don’t have the capacity and the infrastructure to review television programs on an ongoing basis.

JWK:  And, of course, through your efforts movie goers are better able to identify films that adhere to their values — turning more of those films into financial successes. And, since they have been doing so exceptionally well at the box office, we are seeing a lot more family and faith-friendly films than we were even a few years ago.  

DR: Correct.

JWK: But with television, that direct connection to consumers has become dysfunctional.

DR: You’re right. I think subscription and VOD channels are really an alternative to television and to cable. There are a lot of cable cutters across the country that are opting for something more selective. We feel that that is the audience we’re trying to reach and appeal to — those people who don’t want everything in a fire hose. They want to be very selective about the kind of entertainment that they watch and that they allow their families to watch. That, I think, is where The Dove Theater and The Dove Movie Channel will really make a major contribution to the family audience…For the last 24 years, Dove has been focused on providing information about movies and programs that are appropriate for the family but, for the first time, because of technology, we’re going to be able to provide instant access to that content.

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IMHO, Supreme Court is wrong on its Aereo ruling but there is another way. In a 6-3 vote, the High Court ruled that the service that, for a mere eight bucks a month, allows (or allowed) consumers to access over-the-air broadcast content and digitally stream them digitally to their computers and mobile devices (i.e. smartphones or tablets). The broadcasters prevailed in their claim that the system amounted to a theft of service since it cut them out of any retransmission fees of the sort they have so profitably negotiated with cable and satellite conglomerates over the years. But, wait a minute. Don’t the airwaves belong to the public? And for many years haven’t those airwaves provided to corporations at relatively low cost in exchange providing the public with FREE access news, information and entertainment? And, for decades, haven’t those corporations generated very sizable revenues from advertising with rates calculated by measuring how many people actually watch their programming? It’s only relatively recently that broadcast networks have become addicted to the huge windfall of income that is heaped upon them by cable fees. The broadcasters have grown, ironically, disconnected to the public they serve through those deals because, coupled with the creative use of demographics, have made the tastes and moral standards of the overall public less and less a factor in determining programming. My point is that the public owns the airwaves and broadcasters are more than adequately compensated via the airtime they are allowed to sell to advertisers. How the public, in turn, accesses those airwaves would seem to me to be none of the broadcasters’ business. In fact, it seems to me, somebody should bring cases against broadcast networks profiting from cable and satellite retransmission fees (money which belongs to the public) and against the practice of cable bundling (which is akin to forcing consumers to buy every item in the supermarket because they want milk). Those are issues I would like to see the Supreme Court decide (against the networks) on.

Fortunately, technology that is making possible streaming services like the game-changing Dove Movie Channel discussed above, is changing things. On top of that, however, here’s what I’d actually like to see: It would be some sort of digital media player, let’s call it The Standard Bearer, that would be similar to Apple TV or Roku in that would offer a menu of online channels for streaming onto television sets but would be marketed toward individual viewers and families who actually miss old-fashioned network standards and practices. It would offer a mix of linear and VOD channels that essentially adhere to Dove-like guidelines regarding such things as graphic and gratuitous depictions of violence, sexuality and coarse language. Those channels accepted onto the system would adhere to standards that would include offering programming that honors and respects faith in a loving God, as well as such universal values as kindness, forgiveness, gratitude and basic tolerance and respect toward people whose views and lifestyles we might disagree. The latter would not disallow the tackling of contentious issues but would rather require that such issues be addressed with acknowledgement of the God-given dignity of every human being. The programming would also be essentially optimistic — providing both children and adults (we need it too) with the overall sense that, in the end, good does triumph over evil and that virtues like wisdom, courage and self-confidence tempered with humility prevail. Humor would flourish but the arrogant, in-your-face nasty humor that is too prevalent on cable TV would be discouraged. Pricking hypocrisy (whether it be secular or Christian hypocrisy) is fine and even good — but, when the goal become simply making other people mad, the pointed quickly becomes the pointless. These values are neither conservative nor liberal, Democrat nor Republican. They are not religiously sectarian. They are simply matters of Supreme Truth – the source of all great drama and comedy. As for channels that would meet the standards described, beside The Dove Movie Channel and The Dove Theater, obvious choices would include offerings from Hallmark Channel, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries (soon to be renamed from the current Hallmark Movie Channel) , UPtv, ASPiRE, gMoviesINSP, BYUtv, Bounce TV, ME TVOWNPBS, PBS Kids and  The Hub. An addition as assortment of news, sports and information channels (i.e. Animal Planet, Food Network, DIY, HGTV and Travel Channel) could be offered, as well as some new online channels (i.e. values-friendly versions of MTV and Comedy Central). Values-friendly video games could also be offered. My feeling is basically this. It’s great that people can seek out channels to match their values — but it is hard for them to stand out amid the cable and satellite clutter that emphasize and promote the ones that don’t and which utilize the echo chamber that is the internet to create phony buzz around shows that have very few actual viewers (see HBO’s Girls). Moreover, it’s important for consumers to have a means of not only finding what they want but of sending a clear-cut message as to what they don’t want. The Standard Bearer would be a means of sending a clear, unequivocal message that vast numbers of people are choosing the light over the dark. In the end, I think you’d see a redefinition of who represents mainstream and who’s appealing to the so-called “niche” audience.

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3rd annual Cantinas Christian Song Search underway. Finally, in support of the many talented, undiscovered, and independent Christian artists everywhere, the non-profit Cantinas Foundation, in association with Dream Label Group, has begun this year’s nationwide search for that special song that deserves to be heard by the masses.  The panel of judges includes Grammy winning recording artist, Michael W. Smith, the Dream Label Group, and the Cantinas Foundation along with additional celebrity judges to be announced.  The contest winner will be awarded a $2000 cash prize, an opening performance slot for Grammy nominated and Dove-award winning group  MercyMe at the California Mid-State Fair, and the opportunity to record their song with a leading Christian music producer through Cantinas Music and then marketed with the Dream Label Group. To enter, eligible contestants must be 18 years of age or older and are required to submit a video recording of an original song to cantinasmusic.com before July 1.

BTW, the winner of the 2013 Cantinas Song Search, James Powell of Apopka, Florida, entered last year’s contest with his original song titled I Do.  Powell recently flew to Nashville to record the song with award-winning country music recording artist and producer Mark Collie and Grammy award-winning songwriter and producer Gordon Kennedy at the famous Columbia Studio A on historic Music Row. Raylynn Records, the 2013 contest label partner, is currently drafting promotional plans to release the song nationwide.

For more information regarding the Cantinas Christian Song Search, you can go to www.cantinasmusic.com.

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

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