God provides in miraculous ways
“Yes, it is a miracle.” Although Terence Ascott, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of SAT-7, admits that the word “miracle” is overused, he is happy to apply it to the Christian broadcaster’s achievements over the 20 years since it was launched.
“Without a doubt God has provided in a miraculous way in terms of people, funding, security, and overcoming obstacles,” he says. “We’ve had disappointments, most of them to do with people messing up, but that’s the same in all Christian organisations! But after twenty years we now have people who know how to make programs as good as those seen on any other Arab channel. It’s really very exciting to see how God has raised up these people and provided for us year by year.”
AN AMAZING STORY
Terence Ascott laughs at the suggestion that he thought SAT-7 would ever grow to the size it has. He says, “When we first launched, we were hoping we could have a full-time channel eventually, but in multiple languages: Arabic, Turkish, and Farsi. I thought if we ever managed that it would be amazing, though I couldn’t really see how we would get there. But we had to try!”
AN IDEA TAKES ROOT
By the mid-1980s the idea of broadcasting Christian television into the Middle East via satellite was occupying Terence’s mind.
“The growing importance of television became clearer to me in the early 1980s, and we had several consultations with church and mission leaders, mainly in Egypt, to talk about what we could do,” he says.
“There was Christian radio, which was doing a good job, and there were Christian publishers, but there was only one Christian television station, Middle East Television – a local terrestrial broadcast station based in South Lebanon.
“In 1986-88 I began to write about the possibilities, but it was a bit early. People in the region hadn’t seen Christian television, and so they thought it was science fiction.”
Key technological developments helped Terence to believe his dream could become a reality. These included the launch of Arabsat in 1986, which connected Arab countries with television services through satellite; the first satellite broadcasts over Europe, which could be picked up in the Middle East by the late 1980s; and the launch of the first Arabic satellite TV channel (MBC), funded by Saudi Arabia and seeking to imitate the success of CNN, whose satellite coverage of the Gulf War in 1990-91 set a new standard in news broadcasting.
“From 1980 to 1989 there was a gradual technological evolution that began to reveal the potential,” he explains, “but when we shared the vision with people in the Arab world, we were faced with the common objections.” Arab Christians would not risk showing their face on camera; it would be impossible to fund the station; governments wouldn’t permit it to make or broadcast programs; and local church leaders did not want Christian television based on the American models they had seen.
“Of course we have had many, many requests from ministries in North America asking for air-time or offering to help us financially if we carried some of their programs, and it’s been tempting to agree when we’ve been in financial difficulty, but this is not a model we want,” Terence says.
“It’s not appropriate for many countries in the Arab world, certainly not when there’s so much anti-Western feeling. We don’t want the Gospel to look like it’s a foreign import.”
A MIDDLE EAST ETHOS
Terence says that these thoughts motivated him to ensure the ethos and policies of SAT-7 were driven by Christians from the Middle East and North Africa. “We worked with the Middle East Council of Churches on a program policy and a business plan and we responded to their concerns. From the very beginning of SAT-7 we designed the structure so that at the highest level of decision-making (the SAT-7 International Board, which is now the International Council) the majority of voting members would always be Middle Eastern Christians living in the Middle East.”
A RELUCTANT DIRECTOR
Terence says that he was not expecting the role of a Christian broadcaster in the Middle East to become his next career move and to be a major part of his professional and personal life over the decades to come. “I wasn’t envisaging being the CEO at that time,” he says. “I was just heading up the feasibility studies and was hoping I could find a director with experience in television, but everybody I spoke to just backed away in horror. It was too scary.
“It was one of the hardest decisions of my life to leave the organisation that I was with at that time, Middle East Media, where I was the International Director. It involved stepping into a new ministry, which was exciting and challenging, but there was a sense of guilt at leaving a ministry that I had helped to grow over a period of 20 years, so I wasn’t comfortable taking that step.”
DANGERS AND DIFFICULTIES
The success of SAT-7 has come at personal cost to many, including Terence himself. “There’s wear and tear,” he admits.
“In my 40 years in the Middle East I’ve encountered a number of dangers and difficulties: ill-health, security issues, deportation… I’ve been arrested a few times, been shot at, had the windows of my apartment blown in twice. But when you look at the current unrest and the challenges that our offices in various countries are facing, my problems don’t seem very significant or unusual.”
Terence also points to the bravery of current staff members who ensure that SAT-7 has programs to air and Christians to present them.
“Some of the Egyptians were concerned at the beginning,” he says. “They weren’t sure how the government was going to react to SAT-7. But perhaps the bravest people we’ve had on air are the Algerians and Tunisians. They are willing to go on screen and publicly testify to their faith, even though they’re not from a Christian background. One of the SAT-7 directors was once in Algeria and explained to a congregation that they were going to record a program for SAT-7 and that if anyone didn’t want their face shown they should move to the back of the church. Nobody moved; they were ready to have their faces seen and to be known as believers in Christ.”
Terence says that some of SAT-7’s key rules have helped it to be accepted into millions of homes across the region: the use of local presenters and the network’s refusal to criticise other religions. “Our children’s channel would not have been accepted into millions of homes if we had attacked other people’s religious beliefs or been politically or culturally insensitive. But parents of all religious backgrounds can entrust their children to this channel,” he says.
SATELLITE OR INTERNET
As Terence had not dreamt that SAT-7 would grow to the size it is with the reach it has, he has had to reassess what it might achieve in the future. He says that despite satellite television’s undoubted strengths, the Internet will become increasingly important.
“The Internet today is still heavily censored, and it’s very expensive for many, especially if you’re watching video and you’re paying by the megabit,” he says. “And you need to be literate to navigate the Internet, even literate in Latin scripts, so intentionally or unintentionally its development is being held back in many areas. But although satellite television is still the best option for the efficient delivery of content, there’s no doubt that this is going to change over the next decade.
“We’re beginning a series of consultations to look at what our response will be. Do we need a social media strategy that doesn’t just support the television ministry but is a media ministry in its own right and, if so, what will that require of us?”
SAT-7’s achievement is not measured solely by the number of channels and programs, but also in the change it brings to people’s lives. Terence says that by this measure too the broadcaster has been a major success.
“If you remember the ignorance among our viewers in the early 1990s about Christ, Christianity and the Church, you can see what a difference it’s made,” he says. “People no longer call a show to ask the basic questions about who Christ is. They now understand this much better.
“The first phone call from a viewer that we took, on the first day of broadcasting in 1996 was, ‘I saw a lady speaking Arabic wearing a cross around her neck. What is this? Who is this?’ That viewer had never realised that you could be an Arabic speaker and a Christian, and it was a real shock to them.
“That shows you where we were then, but today there is a much higher level of awareness of who Arab Christians are, what they believe and what they practice.”
GOD IS THE PROVIDER
So has God done a miracle with SAT-7? Terence says that the collective evidence of the past twenty years amounts to an overwhelmingly affirmative answer.
“I remember that a few years ago we didn’t have enough money to pay local salaries, and then suddenly, in the middle of August when all the Cyprus government departments are closed, we got a long-awaited VAT refund for 80,000 Euros”, he says.
“How did that happen in August when everything stops here? And the timing was just perfect. We were able to pay the rent and the salaries and move on. God has provided miraculously at the last minute on many occasions and has shown that He is our provider. We’ve never missed paying the salaries anywhere in 20 years, which is amazing when we consider our cash flow and some of the difficulties we’ve had.
“So yes, there have been miracles, and we thank God for each of them!”