The increasing demand for cable television content means the rise of more and more specialized networks to fill that vast, ever-expanding bandwidth. Interested in watching only programming that caters to your interest in professional horseracing, lawn-and-garden maintenance, or the specific sensibilities of Oprah Winfrey? There are now entire channels devoted to nothing but—all self-contained ecosystems existing far beyond the perimeter of mainstream TV, all populated by foreign civilizations of personalities harboring their own unique languages, value systems, and ideas of what constitutes entertainment. Most of these go completely undiscovered, happened upon only by an accidental slip of the remote and quickly fled after an exclamation of, “What the hell am I watching?” TV Outland cuts a machete-swath through the TV thickets and explores the strange indigenous tribes living just out of sight on your cable package.
The channel: Jesus Christ Television (or JCTV) is part of the Trinity Broadcasting Network, co-founded in 1973 by Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and their former youth pastors Paul and Jan Crouch. While the Bakkers are long gone, having left the following year to found their PTL Network and succumb to the worst temptations of televangelism, the Crouches have fruitfully multiplied, with Paul and Jan’s sons Paul Crouch Jr. and Matthew Crouch hosting shows and holding prominent positions at TBN, and the entire family working together to find new ways to spread the gospel to all age groups, nationalities, and varying degrees of piety.
In the sense that TBN is a family affair, JCTV is the slightly rebellious teenager: Launched in 2003 by Paul Jr. and his then-22-year-old son Brandon, it’s envisioned as a “cutting-edge” version of Christian programming, revolving primarily around music videos, extreme sports, comedy, and other traditionally secular forms of entertainment, all underscored by a biblical message. Like TBN, it’s both widespread—its programming is available in more than 450 cities, as well as online—and hard-working, broadcasting its message of faith 24/7. Unlike TBN, however, it never begs its viewers for money, arguing in its mission statement that the difference between JCTV and other channels is that “most television networks are profit-driven, meaning that they need to get something out of their viewers regardless of the social or emotional impact on their lives.”
That’s ostensibly a dig at secular cablers chasing the almighty ad dollar, which JCTV avoids by not having any commercials at all (save the occasional spot for TBN’s Holy Land Experience theme park), but JCTV’s eschewing of “Praise-A-Thons” and other totally uncool appeals for donations is also one of the major aspects setting it apart from TBN and other religious networks. It’s the freewheeling college kid who gets to let grandma and grandpa worry about how to pay for it.
Target audience: In an interview timed with JCTV’s debut, Brandon Crouch talked about his plan to “bring the same intensity and edginess that viewers see on secular music networks into a faith-based setting,” thereby luring its target demographic of young people aged 13-30 away from MTV and the like. If that sounds a bit overly optimistic—and Crouch’s “guarantee” that channel-surfing kids who happen upon JCTV will “get hooked” is definitely that—it’s probably because faith-based programming rarely has any sort of crossover appeal. You’re either looking for shows that speak to your love of Jesus or you’re not, and for all of Crouch’s well-intentioned appeals to a broader community, most of JCTV’s fare is decidedly pitched at Christians rather than potential converts. Still, it’s definitely a certain kind of Christian, ones whose religiosity doesn’t preclude them from enjoying earthly pleasures, like listening to rock and hip-hop music, surfing and skateboarding, and adopting the sort of crazy hairstyles, clothing, tattoos, and piercings that signify you’re a non-conformist (just like everyone else).
What’s on: While it may never actually steal viewers from them, JCTV does have one thing going for it that the “secular music networks” do not: It actually plays music videos, frequently and devotedly—and in terms of introducing and supporting new artists, it’s arguably the best music TV channel there is. And when it comes to proving Christian music is a viable commodity, it’s unmatched. There’s the old saying, “The devil has all the best tunes,” and though that may have been true in the dark days of Petra and Stryper, as JCTV argues quite persuasively, the lines between secular and Christian music have never been blurrier, at least in terms of variety and stylistic approach. (Whether the end result sucks, as with all music, is still a matter of taste.)
In fact, pick a subgenre of music—keening indie-pop, snotty street punk, aggro alternative metal, Dirty South hip-hop—and JCTV will show you its often-indistinguishable Christian equivalent. Without listening too closely to the lyrics, for example, it’d be easy to mistake Houston’s Lecrae (a JCTV favorite) for just another devotee of swag and steez, until you realize he wants to “Go Hard” not for himself or his H-Town streets, but rather for “the Messiah.”
And more often than not, even parsing the words fails to provide any distinction. The rap-rock bro-downs of P.O.D. may be filled with Book Of Revelation imagery and shout-outs to “Jah,” but they are still essentially songs about universal adolescent feelings like believing everyone’s against you and wanting to kick someone’s ass. Similarly, the upbeat, pop-sort-of-punk of groups like Relient K play it both ways, writing love songs like “Must Have Done Something Right”—with its refrain of “If anyone can make me a better person you could” and “You rearranged my life”—that might be about a girl or Jesus, whatever you want to believe.
Of course, one thing you’ll learn while watching JCTV is that not every genre translates so successfully: The kind of smooth R&B purveyed by GI (God’s Image), for example, sends out a lot of mixed signals—as seen in the video for “Temptation,” which sets the viewer for up some twisting in the sheets, only to have the guy turn down the “shorty” trying to get him into her bedroom, choosing instead to fight his sinful urges and just watch ComicView.
But overall, JCTV successfully argues that contemporary Christian music is a far cry from the Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant anthems that for so long defined it—that it does, in fact, make the same sort of sounds even non-believers could conceivably get into, just as Crouch contends. And while the Christian music industry has long been derided as a “ghetto” from which few artists ever escape—and thus a label that some, like JCTV’s reluctant hero Switchfoot, have actively shunned—the network does its level best to make that ghetto look like a thriving neighborhood. Obviously, that neighborhood exists in a strange, alternate universe where Jars Of Clay is still considered huge, and it’s populated by groups bearing alien names like Abandon Kansas, Kutless, and Stellar Kart. But in the realm of JCTV, they are all treated like kings, spoken of in awed, reverent tones and often filmed performing in front of tens of thousands of fans at evangelical festivals like the Harvest Crusades. It certainly beats the way MTV treats its musicians, where an artist is lucky if they can get one of their songs to soundtrack another Sammi and Ronnie fight on Jersey Shore.
It’s only when it steps away from playing music videos that JCTV more or less becomes the network that secular viewers likely assume it is, i.e. the cable equivalent of a pastor dropping videogame or Lady Gaga references into his sermons. That co-opting of “cutting-edge” begins with its VJs, many of whom are featured artists themselves, bear names like “T-Bone,” “Richie Righteous,” and “Eddie Da’ Preachin Puerto Rican,” and are constantly asserting that they are “your boy.” Their fervent adoption of street slang undoubtedly comes naturally, but its constant barrage just feels desperate. Especially when it emerges as, in the words of The Playlist host D Fletch, “Yo, it’s your boy with another ministry highlight!” That awkwardness extends to the rest of JCTV’s programming, a panoply of extreme sports clips, teen reality shows, and sketch comedy that, like the on-air personalities, works overtime to convince viewers that being Christian doesn’t mean you can’t be cool. And of course, trying to be cool is the essence of not being cool.
The viewing week: To be fair, skateboarding is still pretty cool, as is surfing, skydiving, and watching a guy bounce a BMX down a flight of stairs, and no amount of supposed religious subtext is going to change that. In fact, it would be easy to mistake JCTV’s popular Xtreme Life and G-Rock—which stitch together random clips of dudes grinding and performing tricky ollies set to Christian hardcore—for any of the other extreme sports shows airing on a network like Spike TV, were it not for the occasional pause so the athletes can offer their testimony to the Lord. But it’s when the links are made more directly, such as G-Rock’s exploration of the rise of mixed martial arts in churches, that the general attitude of these shows—and arguably, JCTV itself—becomes clear: Jesus is not a pussy, nor is he for pussies. He may have preached a “turn the other cheek” attitude, but he also chased the money-lenders out of the temple like a badass (an oft-referenced bible story on JCTV), which shows that Jesus was a fighter, and that following him is its own everyday battle for which one must be properly pumped.
While that’s a worthwhile idea, it’s caused some controversy among more traditional Christians who believe that the meek are still meant to inherit the earth. Those people would be especially hard-pressed to find much to like about Youth Bytes, a series of 15-minute interstitials spaced throughout the programming day. Host Chad Daniels runs around in a kinetic, handheld documentary style that makes him sort of the Dan Cortese of JCTV, staging backyard wrestling matches, wrangling snakes, and learning to snowboard in vignettes that are stretched to the metaphorical breaking point to illustrate some sort of biblical lesson. Because really, there’s elucidating the word of God through visually exciting symbolism, and then there’s a dude mowing down a watermelon with a machine gun and saying, “That’s what God really wants us to understand about prayer.”
The need for meaningful speed also plays a part in Ultimate Choice, a reality show that brings together college students from various ethnic backgrounds who all seem to share a history of problems with drinking, promiscuity, or juvenile delinquency that they are just now getting over with the help of their faith. Ultimate Choice is what would happen if The Real World only filmed those regret-filled mornings after, as the kids talk about all the wild things they and the people around used to do while discussing their intentions to stay away from them now. Fortunately, their struggle is abated somewhat by good, clean group activities, such as an episode that finds them skydiving, then talking about how their peers preferred less wholesome thrills like drugs and hooking up. The “ultimate choice” is really just exchanging one extreme for another and getting a rush any way you can without deviating into sin, which is obviously what JCTV is all about.
But while today’s Christian rock and hip-hop provide convincing soundalikes, and hopping on a skateboard gives you the shots of adrenaline and dopamine required to make a sin-free lifestyle tolerable, is there any substitute for secular comedy? Some might argue that ridicule and subversion are two necessary evils required to make people laugh, and that neither fits into a worldview based on love, tolerance, and morality. They would not be easily dissuaded by JCTV—particularly a show like Three 60, which is built almost entirely on summer-camp-level sketch send-ups of pop culture. After all, there’s nothing quite like watching a group of adults in bad wigs ham their way through a God-themed Grease homage called Grace (“I got sins—they’re multiplying!”), or listening to The Baldie Boys’ “Jesus Christ Is The Life (Of The Party)” to make one long for the two-drink-minimum clubs of hell.
Three 60’s lack of divine inspiration reaches its nadir in satire-of-a-satire send-ups of The Lonely Island, which are almost shot-for-shot remakes of the group’s Saturday Night Live Digital Shorts with a few Biblical references thrown in. (“Revelation is the best / True that / Double true!”) Apparently, “thou shalt not steal” makes allowances for parody. Popular sketch show Laugh! With The Skit Guys, on the other hand, at least aims for a more original form of humor, blending taped sketches and live performances from lifelong best friends Tommy Woodard and Eddie James, who mine jokes out of physical comedy, funny voices, and—one of the lynchpins of Christian comedy—poop jokes, but they always make sure they’re silly and spiritual in equal measure. For example, they’ll set out to build a lesson around a passage from Psalm 139, then turn it into a goofy skit about God (played by Woodard) “searching” a man’s troubled soul by pretending to give him a rectal exam.
Of course, almost every big laugh The Skit Guys get comes from the barest hint of naughtiness—an ass joke, a winking reference to sex or lust, an irreverent line about the Holy Spirit being like “Casper The Friendly Ghost, but holier”—which suggests that even Christian comedy requires the aura of sin. But surprisingly, that’s not the case with The Adventures Of Roman And Jorge, a mockumentary-style single-camera comedy about two friends embarking on a reluctant mission of evangelism whose efforts are thwarted time and again by their own constant humiliation. What sets the show apart is its own understated, self-deprecating jokes about how awkward—even downright lame—preaching to the streets can be, as well as its willingness to delve into moments of absurdist or dark humor as Roman and Jorge are constantly ridiculed, insulted, or even arrested. In the realm of Christian comedy, it’s practically Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Still, Roman And Jorge reinforces the idea that comedy needs at least a hint of impiety to be effective. Conversely, Christian dramas get along just fine walking a straight and sanctimonious path—it’s just that they always lead to the same place. With Walk On Water, which aims to be a sort of devout Degrassi or 90210, the ever-present divinity almost takes on an eerie otherness. It’s a boilerplate teen soap opera, albeit one where the stereotypes all have a Christian twist, such as making the “bad girl” an agnostic. (Though the “funny fat guy” is just a funny fat guy.) But the other characters mention God and Jesus so often, they basically serve the same function as, say, Jacob on Lost or Omar on The Wire, lurking around the edges of the storylines and forcing their outcomes without ever being seen. You half-expect the Walk On Water season finale to find Jesus finally emerging from the shadows and explaining his sinister master plan.
But even if Walk On Water’s plots almost always end up being resolved with simple prayer, at least it remembers that conflict is the key to drama: With TBN import 7th Street Theater, which follows a group of community actors who put on plays illustrating Bible parables, all the major storylines seem to revolve around a disagreement over what to stage next, or an actor considering leaving the company. When this happens, the characters inevitably talk about praying on their decisions, then come to a mutual understanding that it’s all part of God’s plan, thereby erasing any potential for genuine tension or suspense.
It’s much like another import from TBN, the game show Virtual Memory, which pits teens against each other in answering relentlessly obscure Bible trivia. Here even those who lack the retention of a Rod or Todd Flanders are never really considered losers: Host Jamie Alexander puts a spastic, smiley face on absolutely everything, unfailingly responding to every incorrect answer with, “Good try!” (It also probably takes away some of the pressure knowing that you’re just competing for a backpack, sport watch, and a pair of Heavenly Gear shoes.)
Other than broadcasting seemingly every straight-to-video movie Stephen Baldwin has made since being born again, the rest of JCTV’s non-music programming is mostly dedicated to shows like Second Take or Edge TV, in which teenagers who have struggled with issues like anger, racism, or addiction talk about their problems over dramatic reenactments, then discuss how Christianity has helped them deal. It’s here that JCTV comes closest to straightforward preaching, and furthest from its goal of being the fun side of fundamentalism. Not that it ever stops trying to blend the two, which creates a sense of desperation in Edge TV’s splashy graphics and omnipresent DJ Jazzy Jeff-style soundtrack, both of which try their damnedest to liven up talking-head interviews where troubled teens talk about being abused. It’s as though the show fears that if it gets too serious for even a second, it’s at risk of losing its audience entirely.
Signature show: You can tell that JCTV is much more at ease with a format like its popular Top 3, a talk show that’s a bit like The View for hip Christians. Previously co-hosted by Brandon Crouch himself, the chatfest has since replaced him with four different trendy twentysomethings who banter and lightly tease each other as well as their guests, in between in-studio performances from Christian bands and hip-hop artists. Each episode culminates in “Top 3’s Top 3”—a roundtable discussion about issues pertaining to the state of being young and Christian that always ends in a prayer.
The show is modeled on TBN’s signature series Praise The Lord, and it’s the differences between the two that provide the greatest illustration of the divide between JCTV and its parent network. Praise The Lord’s pulpit-pounding speeches, heightened emotions, exclamations of “Hallelujah”—all of the theatrical flourish that’s associated with (and that turns so many people off of) televangelism is blessedly absent from Top 3. Instead, faith is talked about as casually as fashion or Facebook, as an accepted part of one’s daily life that doesn’t preclude behaving like a normal human being.
Defining personality: Still, while shows like Top 3 make good on JCTV’s promise to deliver the next generation of ministry, taken as a whole the network tries so desperately to be “in your face” that it often feels as though it’s wearing a costume—a choirboy who’s had a Hot Topic makeover. In that sense, it’s perhaps embodied by Second Take host Landon Schott—though you can call him “The Rev”—who delivers what amounts to the same barreling, blustering sermons that have been the stock-in-trade of evangelists for centuries, yet does so under a super-fresh nickname while dressing like Dane Cook.
But singling Schott out would be unfair to what is unquestionably JCTV’s defining personality: the young man who started it, Brandon Crouch. As with Schott, there’s definitely a knee-jerk reaction to the sight of Crouch—his lank ponytail and scruffy half-beard (his “tribute to Jesus,” according to him), his taste for skinny jeans, deep V-necks, and keffiyeh scarves—that causes an immediate cynical mistrust, as though he’s the calculated hipster marketing arm of his family’s empire. But looking beyond the superficial, Crouch seems like a genuine person: His messages, without exception, boil down to loving your fellow man, they never delve into the castigation of sin that is his grandparents’ idiom, and they always encourage positive actions like feeding the hungry and helping the homeless. He also seems to be having a lot of fun—and not in the strained, “Yo, it’s your boy having fun!” way of so many other JCTV personalities.
Switching off: Watching JCTV, it’s hard not to be reminded of the great 2003 King Of The Hill episode “Reborn To Be Wild,” where Bobby falls under the thrall of a tattooed, skateboarding, guitar-playing youth minister named “Pastor K” and subsequently becomes “tight with the Lord,” which leads an increasingly frustrated Hank to deliver this line: “Can’t you see you’re not making Christianity better? You’re just making rock ’n’ roll worse.” That sentiment, as well as Hank’s final admonition to Bobby about the dangers of embracing worship as just another “cool” fad, is the unspoken quandary of JCTV: Is it really providing a Christian “alternative,” or is it all just a repackaging of an established commodity for a Christian audience?
Considering how thoroughly it models itself on secular forms of entertainment—much as the musicians it features are just doppelgangers of the secular bands they obviously worship—the answer is probably the latter. Deep down, JCTV is no different than any other cable network catering to and reinforcing its niche audience, with its Christian message just another facet of its marketing. As to whether that marketing encourages the idea of religion as a disposable fad, well, that’s for believers to decide for themselves. (But if someone’s faith is tied into their love of P.O.D. videos and skateboarding, it probably isn’t that strong in the first place.) At the very least we can say this: Unlike other religious networks, JCTV asks for nothing from its viewers besides loving each other and thoroughly enjoying life, which makes it easy to forgive its trespasses—and other than rocking out to the extreme, of course, forgiveness is what Christianity is all about.
Up next: Are you Latino but don’t care for telenovelas and Sabado Gigante? Sí TV may be for you.