Tucked away on a quiet side street across from a Roman Catholic choir school and not far from the bustling Eaton Centre, is a modest low-rise building that houses a multi-faith, multi-ethnic, not-for-profit network which celebrates its 10th anniversary on air this year.
Vision TV provides Mosaic programming, a forum for about 65 different faith groups for and about their membership along with documentaries, public affairs shows, films and entertainment.
“We provide a way for faith groups to reach out and say hello to their membership,” says Peter Flemington, Vision’s director of programming. “We have even been instrumental in some smaller faith groups founding national organizations. Vision is important to smaller faith communities who don’t have big budgets and who are spread out across the country.”
Mr. Flemington said until Vision, it was impossible for faith groups to buy any air time on national networks.
“A lot of people thought we would never survive,” says Fil Fraser, a veteran broadcaster who has been president of Vision for three years. “But we’re going into the next decade in good shape. We’re economically sound.”
Not only is Vision on firm footing, it is developing a sister station in Quebec, Réseau Vision, whose application to the CRTC will be heard on Dec. 7.
“We can now buy, commission or co-produce for both the English and French markets which helps to spread our costs,” Mr. Fraser said. “And the new station will also operate according to our code of ethics.”
Faith groups who want access to the Mosaic programming must qualify under four main points of the code, Mr. Fraser said: they are able to solemnize marriages, they exist in seven provinces or territories, they are at least 75 years old and they have charitable status.
The diversity of Mosaic programming, which one staffer describes as the “heart and soul” of Vision, is overseen by a volunteer management group comprised of members of different faiths.
European and Asian countries have expressed interest in developing Vision-like stations. Mr. Flemington is consulting with a group in the United Kingdom.
“I think it’s important for any country to have a civilized platform for differing views,” he said. “It has the potential for national reconciliation between faith communities.”
Vision buys or co-produces independent documentaries and programs for the other half of its programming, Cornerstone.
The programming budget has grown in 10 years to $7 million from $300,000 per year. Viewership is up as well, consistently lodged in the top five English specialty channels along with Newsworld and Discovery.
And don’t dare mess with Vision viewers. When Telemedia’s TV Guide dropped Vision listings, the protest from viewers was so loud and immediate the station was back in the listings after just two weeks. Then Rogers Cablesystems Ltd. bumped Vision from channel 24 to 59 in the Greater Toronto Area last fall. The problem is that 125,000 viewers in the area live in buildings that have 59 as an in-house security channel. Many viewers contacted Rogers expressing their displeasure. Vision is now on channel 60.
“We need to develop a new hierarchy of access to cable, to put public service stations and local broadcasters first,” Mr. Fraser said. “The slices of the broadcasting pie are becoming increasingly small, so you have to know who you are and what you do well.”
And Vision has a clear idea of who it is.
“In a business full of sharks, we have managed to stick to our mandate and ethics as well as remain the only truly independent broadcaster in Canada,” says Rita Deverell, vice-president of production and presentation, who is also the senior producer of Skylight and probably the most recognizable face of the station. “We don’t have any big corporate partners and, therefore, no financial clout. But no one faith or ideology has control either. And we have been deficit-free since our fourth year.”
Income comes from three main sources: “pass through” fees (from cable subscriptions), revenue from broadcast sales and advertising and from viewer donations.
It didn’t take long for Vision to start taking risks. In its first year, it presented a 13-part series on Jean Vanier, son of a former Canadian governor-general and founder of L’Arche, a world-wide spiritual community of homes for mentally and physically challenged people.
“Can you imagine mainstream television presenting a series that is basically one man talking on camera for six-and-a-half hours?” she asked. “Yet it was so popular that we are bringing it back as part of our anniversary retrospective.”
Appreciation for Vision is felt by many in faith communities, including Anglicans.
“Up until Vision came along, there was no public forum for faith groups,” says Doug Tindal, director of information resources for the Anglican Church, who sat for several years on the Mosaic management group board. “This year was the third time that we have presented synod programs on Vision. I just wish we had the budget to do regular programming and advertising through the station. I think it’s an important resource that we’re not utilizing.” While there is no Anglican programming at this time, Anglicans regularly pop up in regular programming. Rev. Dawn Davis was featured in a series on clergy stress. And writer-broadcaster and Anglican priest Tom Harpur appears regularly on Skylight as well as having been involved in several series such as Harpur’s Heaven and Hell.
“While I don’t agree with some of the programming, I am sure there are those who don’t agree with everything I’ve done on air,” Mr. Harpur said. “I guess that’s the whole point of Vision.”
Mr. Fraser is not content to rest on the successes of the first 10 years. He feels there are opportunities many faith groups are missing to “be better communicators through broadcasting.” He points to the recent addition of a Roman Catholic mass airing weekday mornings that has produced numerous letters of support.
“The reality is that a lot of people say they belong to a faith but they don’t show up at their church, synagogue or mosque; they’re in their living rooms. Faith groups are caught in the conundrum of shrinking attendance, ergo shrinking budgets … I hope they can see beyond their money problems and use us to help reconnect with people who aren’t in the pews. ”
Margaret Dinsdale is a Toronto freelance writer.