Digital TV for Jesus

Mark A. Hadley

I think the best way to begin an article like this one is with some friendly advice: do NOT be afraid. Digital television may be the best technological development for Christians in a decade, and though it involves lots of cables, you can cope with its arrival.

There comes a time in most people's lives when the arrival of new technology no longer brings the thrill it once did - quite the contrary. We can easily find ourselves staring at the titanium-silver rectangle shrouded in wrapping paper and wondering whether we would have actually been happier with another book this birthday. I can well imagine the expression in the face of the Bronze Age farmer presented with the first scythe by his son.

'What was wrong with just pulling the wheat out of the ground? It's worked well enough for centuries,' he thinks, looking down at the shiny object. 'Maybe I can get the kids to program it for me.'

The federal time-table for the delivery of digital television to Australia has finally been set. The end of the analogue service will begin in regional Victoria in 2010 and finally reach the capital cities by 2013. However early adopters will know that digital television is already available in the large population centres, and with it a whole range of new services that could mean a great deal for the Gospel.

Sound like an exaggeration? Let me explain why it is actually an understatement.

Christian television viewers like you and I have historically had two beefs with television. Firstly, we're not happy with a lot of what is 'on' and just as much with what is not. Secondly, we find ourselves being pushed around by the programmers. Every time we sit down to relax in front of the box, we find ourselves having to choose between six channels of what we don't want to watch. Usually it's the 'lesser evil' that wins out. And what we want to watch is inevitably on at some time that is not going to be helpful for other important activities, like reading the Bible with children, praying with a partner or attending a Bible study. I am not the first to observe that prominent sporting events and big release films have been known to create major holes in evening church services.

However a range of recording devices associated with digital television promise to give Christians more viewing freedom than ever before. To begin with, Digital Video Recorders (DVRs) allow you to access Electronic Program Guides (EPGs) - on-screen versions of your normal TV guide. Choosing a week's worth of decent television is as simple as pointing and clicking. Furthermore, the launch of the 'Freeview' digital service in November means that there are now 15 channels of free-to-air digital television to choose from. Now go and do the things you should be giving priority to, safe in the knowledge that your entertainment will wait for you.

On top of this, the use of hard disks rather than tapes mean you never have to face the moral question of recording over your daughter's dance recital again. In fact, you don't have to remember to insert a tape at all. Arguably the best feature of DVRs is the ability to 'pause' live television. Is there something you want to watch, but something you really should be doing? Answering that telephone call from a friend in need? Press pause and walk away. No need to struggle with regret and distraction, watching a flickering tube from the corner of your eye. And when you come back to your program you can also fast-forward through the ads.

I have been trialing a DVR in our household for the past three months. I am a big advocate of 'intentional TV viewing' - I try to only turn on the TV when I know there is something I want to watch. So the first thing we did was spend ten minutes at the beginning of the week 'clicking' on all of the programs we wanted to view. The hard disk recorder did the rest.

Three things happened almost immediately. Firstly, we noticed is that we could telescope our television viewing nights from four to two because we group our favourites on to convenient nights. Secondly we were able to end our evenings earlier because we were no longer tied to the broadcast schedule or forced to wait through tedious ad breaks (strangely we also ended up having fewer snack breaks) The third? By collecting together programs from all over the free-to-air schedule we were able to watch what we wanted, rather than what was on. In short, we no longer watch rubbish.

DVRs promise to do for television what the iPod did for radio, allowing every user to become the programmer of their own personal channel. There are pitfalls, of course. If you are not careful you can quickly end up with a hard disk choked with programs you clicked on at a whim - and actually end up watching more television for longer. So there is no technology that will replace self-discipline. Some may also wonder, beyond the sheer convenience, how DVRs are any better than the old faithful VCR? It is the second generation of services that make all the difference.

Australians have always had access to additional pay-channels through subscription broadcasters like Foxtel and Sky TV. However these companies are busy bringing out their own digital devices that offer a range of extras. Much of the focus has been on the provision of high definition content - better looking pictures and sound, basically. But new 'set top boxes' like the iQ2 will allow viewers to download entire series to watch in advance, or request the films they would like to see, rather than the ones programmers have selected. Digital television devices like TiVo and Apple TV stretch the envelope even further.

For the Christian viewer the last barrier to acceptable television has always been with the broadcaster. Certainly the above services provide much more control of what you can watch, but the broadcaster still controls the list you select from. Devices like TiVo and Apple TV, however, allow you to listen to and view on your television images, audio files and videos that people may have sent to your computer. More importantly, they allow you to view video that resides on the Internet.

Pause and consider that for a moment.

Currently Apple TV, for example, is limited to viewing material from the web site YouTube. However YouTube is a community site - anyone can upload videos, and anyone includes Christians. In fact the Sydney Anglican diocese already has its own YouTube channel. Imagine adding Christian documentaries, talks and series to your programming whenever you wanted. Consider how it would affect evangelism if you could encourage someone to watch a program like The Christ Files without having to physically give it to them on a DVD? And the likelihood that these devices will remain tied to single web sites is also very small. In short, the Packers and the Murdochs are no longer kings.

Let me finish where I began: DON'T be afraid. Installing a device that accesses even the most basic digital television services is not that hard. The chances are your congregation has someone who has already done it and would be happy to give you a hand - and, properly used, the benefits to you, your family and your church could be significant. I know this is not what you would expect to read in a Christian publication, but you owe it to your family to consider buying them a digital video recorder this Christmas.