The idea sounds unique, if not slightly far-fetched: a successful, non-profit, multi-faith network that consistently attracts viewers, maintains a policy outlawing on-air confrontations of faith, and embraces instead a wide spectrum of religious beliefs and programming; one that has become a model of survival for all non-profit broadcasters in times of increasing competition. And yet, that is exactly what Toronto-based Vision TV has managed to achieve in the more than ten years it has been on the air in Canada.
Originally launched in the fall of 1988, Vision TV is the only multi-faith network in the world, recently ranking in the top five of Canada’s English-language specialty nets*. With half of its programming allotted to the 50 faith groups and broadcast ministries associated with the channel, Vision reserves the second-half for docs, films, and comedies, among others.
According to Peter Flemington, VP of programming and development at Vision, the channel was launched due to a lack of suitable broadcast outlets in Canada, especially for documentaries. ‘Most of us were in the independent production industry,’ he explains, ‘and we felt that we were having increasing difficulty at the time getting good docs to air. Broadcasters at that time, I think, felt that no one wanted to watch docs.’ He adds, ‘Basically, it was to provide a home for a different kind of programming which seemed not to have an opportunity in the system…’
With a programming mandate to ‘present general interest programs that explore, or are inspired by, spiritual, moral, ethical, and humanitarian concerns,’ Vision’s track record for documentaries speaks for itself. They not only air docs most nights of the week, but claim to coproduce more documentaries than any other network in Canada. Coproduction partners include the BBC, RTE Ireland, Odyssey in the U.S., and London’s TVE. Vision also works extensively with Canada’s National Film Board.
Available in 6.4 million households across Canada, Vision counts their relationship with Canadian and international producers as key to their success. International programs, however, must have some relevance to Canadians in order to be considered by Vision. ‘The only international [docs] we deal with are ones I’m convinced that Canadians will appreciate as well,’ says Flemington. ‘A lot of the international stuff, because it’s being broadcast in other countries, travels well. In some cases there are Canadian stories within international coproductions. Other times the stories are set elsewhere but have universal appeal.’
Some successful docs for Vision have included: Absolute Truth, a BBC/Vision coproduction examining the revolution in the Roman Catholic Church since the second Vatican Council; Behind the Glass Door: Hannah’s Story, a copro with Vision and Toronto’s Windborne Productions about a mother’s quest to find a cure for her daughter’s autism; and Young Eyes: Mozambique and Mali, two 60-minutes that follow a group of teenage boys on a journey to examine the socio-political issues facing their country (produced by TV3 in association with Vision).
Vision’s interest in rights is simple: ten plays over five years – three years if necessary. As Flemington explains, ‘We try to discourage long exclusive periods. In fact, we try to work cooperatively with broadcasters who have second-windows to our material and want to play it before the year is up.’ License fees for first-window coproductions range between CAN$15,000 – $30,000 for one-hour, with acquisitions set at CAN$2,000 – $2,500.
Vision’s status as a charitable corporation, added to the fact that it receives no direct government funding, has opened avenues not readily available to most other broadcasters. For instance, if funds are not available for pre-sales, commissions or coproductions relating to a particular project, Vision can receive funds allotted specifically for the project from people wishing to donate a charitable contribution. This is a unique source of revenue for a channel that relies heavily on the goodwill of viewers, and is good news for filmmakers having trouble finding financing.
Vision has also established itself as a network that can stand tough competition and low budgets. Just last year, Flemington was invited to Prague to speak with members of the European Broadcasting Union about survival tactics in the new millennium. He explains, ‘Because I can’t stop talking about Vision, there are a lot of people who know about it…The onset of the specialty phenomenon came here [to North America] first, before it went elsewhere. When budgets are getting much tighter at the public broadcasters in Europe, when they are losing money… then they start looking around for models of survival.’
Flemington is candid when he talks about the effect that competition from the host of new specialty channels now available in Canada has had on Vision. ‘We’ve all suffered somewhat from the increased numbers, as we expected we would,’ he says. ‘Overall, our audiences have doubled over the last three years, but over the last number of months, we’ve had less audience than we had this time last year, for example.’ He credits Vision’s forced move to the high end of the cable spectrum by their carrier as a key reason for the decline, as it left many viewers unable to access the channel.
Although Vision has admittedly suffered somewhat, they remain optimistic about their place in the growing marketplace and the international potential of the channel. President Fil Fraser puts it best when he says, ‘There are millions of people looking for meaning in their lives and we are there to share that quest with programs that are inclusive and illuminate all faiths and cultures.’
*Ranking based on the Nielsen rating for weekday average minute audience primetime viewing for Fall/Winter ’97/’98