Culture Notes


Issue: "Follow the Greenback Road," Jan. 25, 1997

Free (-market) TV

The Supreme Court will rule on the constitutionality of the government's &quotmust carry" regulations that require cable operators to carry all local TV broadcasters in their coverage areas. The decision could mean life or death for lower-power Christian stations. No matter how small their audience, the locally owned shopping channels, foreign language feeds, PBS affiliates, and--significantly--Christian television ministries must be carried by the local cable franchise. Cable companies, of course, would much rather carry lucrative national offerings, such as the new collaboration between CNN and Sports Illustrated, which offers sports news around the clock, than the sermons and talk shows of a local TV ministry. With the oft-heralded technological promise of unlimited cable space yet to materialize, cable companies have taken the issue to court. According to conservative theory, the free market--not the federal government--should determine what gets on TV. Conservative justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia have signaled their disapproval of the regulations. Ironically, mostly conservative religious broadcasters are allying themselves with such mostly liberal groups as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Consumer Federation of America, and the Federal Communications Commission in fighting to keep the existing rules. On the other side, cable tycoon Ted Turner has reportedly halted production of a movie on Justice Thomas out of fear that it might antagonize him and affect the way he votes. The decision is scheduled to be handed down this summer, but most observers predict that &quotmust carry" will be struck down. In the meantime, small local stations--already left out of satellite systems since their signals are not carried by satellite--must develop programming that attracts a bigger audience that demands their services.

By the book

Statistics on the best-selling books and movies of 1996 have been compiled, providing a good-news/bad-news portrait of American culture. The top-selling book of the year was The Runaway Jury by Baptist Sunday-school teacher John Grisham. The biggest-grossing movie was the semi-patriotic, alien-bashing Independence Day. The top video rental was Braveheart, Mel Gibson's epic about medieval Scotland's culture wars, and bringing home the bacon for top video sales was family-friendly Babe. While these success stories show the marketability of works based, for the most part, on traditional values, the statistics also reveal that the best-selling author of the year was R. L. Stine, author of horrific books for children. In second place was Stephen King, author of horrific books for adults. The best-selling sports book was Bad as I Wanna Be by the cross-dressing basketball star Dennis Rodman. The top humor book was Al Franken's Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot, a sign of the liberals striking back. In the category of &quotInspiration," the top book was Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus by John Gray. Another book disliked by feminists came in at number 4: The Rules by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider, techniques by which women can win a husband by for the most part following traditional courting roles. Numbers 2 and 3 were the feel-good, uplifting Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen and Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Brethnach. Number 5 was The Seven Laws of Spiritual Success by New Age self-help guru Deepak Chopra. As usual, Christian bookstores were not included in the best-seller calculations--the USA Today survey tracked sales only in 3,000 &quotlarge-inventory, diverse-content" bookstores such as Barnes & Noble and Waldenbooks--but it is surely significant that no explicitly Christian, Bible-centered book was represented, even in the &quotinspiration" category.

Wanted: A new song

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The music industry is in the doldrums, waiting desperately for the next big sound. Half of the top-selling albums of the year were actually continued sales of 1995 releases. And this year's releases by last year's stars--such as Hootie and the Blowfish--have been bombs. With today's promotional costs, a record must sell a million copies just to break even, and the number of such platinum records has declined 17 percent. Teenagers are still buying records--alternative rock sales are up 12 percent and rap is up 36 percent--but music bought by adults is down: Country music dropped 12 percent; rhythm and blues fell 8 percent; and classical music is down 10 percent. &quotEveryone is just desperate to find the next big thing," Nancy Jeffries of Warner Music told The Wall Street Journal. &quotMusic-business people are just panicked." As record executives wait for a new Elvis, Christian musicians may find new opportunities. But this will mean more than simply writing Christian lyrics to secular sounds. Those are the sounds that have become used up. Christian artists must develop sounds of their own and must lead, not merely follow.


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