Volume 12 Number 3
A Broadcaster With Vision
01 June 1999

Vision TV, Canada, is a network with a difference--religious but multifaith, incisive but non-confrontational. Choice Okoro meets its Vice-President, Rita Deverell.

Anyone who doubts that faith has a place in the profit-driven world of television today should talk to the Vice-President of Canada's Vision TV, Rita Deverell.

Deverell, aged 53, has spent the last 11 years of her career showing that the spiritual quest is still a valued component in people's lives--and that it is becoming increasingly popular. Vision TV, which she helped to found in 1988, is the world's only multifaith television network and now has over six million viewers.

A visit to the Vision TV office in downtown Toronto quickly tells the visitor that this is a television station with a difference. Flowers, warm lighting and artefacts from different faiths and cultures reflect the diversity of the network's staff as well as the focus of its programming. 'When you have a network that says faith is a major dimension in people's lives, you have a network that looks and feels totally different,' explains Deverell.

For Vision TV's approach is certainly different from the mainstream. Christopher Waddell, CBC TV's bureau chief in Ottawa, admits that while events such as the Pope's visit to Canada attract media attention, there is virtually no coverage of faith issues on a daily basis. He argues that religion does not rank high among the priorities to cover. The drive for profit and a perceived lack of interest in viewers have also caused faith, religion and spirituality to take the back seat in television programming.

'Until this recent birth of spirituality, faith was almost absent from mainstream media,' says Deverell. 'Not to mention the diversity of faith.' Vision TV has over 60 faith groups on its roster.

Unlike other Canadian networks, Vision does not have a 'large corporate entity' behind it. It runs on an annual budget of C$12.5 million, a shoestring in broadcasting terms. 'We survive day by day,' says Deverell. 'We don't spend more money than we have and we have no debt. We work with talented dedicated people.'

The network focuses on issues of social justice, human rights, values, ethics, faith and spirituality and has grown to become one of the leading speciality networks in Canada. It presents a mixture of music, documentaries, drama, comedy and human affairs programmes.

'We believe TV reaches beyond the television set and can have a profound, positive impact on our lives,' says the network's President Fil Fraser. 'Vision TV is committed to programming that illuminates all faiths and cultures, which reflects the world's diversity and builds bridges of understanding.'

Skylight, Vision TV's half-hour signature programme, was launched four years ago, with Deverell as senior producer. It describes itself as 'a human affairs programme that injects a moral dimension into the headlines'. It unabashedly explores people's quest for faith-led lives. Vision TV in general and Skylight in particular has become a significant forum for many faces, issues and religions maligned by Canada's bigger television networks. 'We work with the belief here that people make choices and these choices make a difference, and that morality and ethics count,' says Deverell. 'We have no religious favourite.'

Canada is a highly multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multiracial country. There has been much debate on how to reflect this diversity in a way that shows respect and appreciation for difference. Deverell addresses this on Skylight by reflecting diversity in her staff.

Skylight has no host. Each of its segments or mini-documentaries is presented by one of the show's producers. Its interviews are inquisitive, yet non-confrontational. Deverell says that it takes a deeper approach, which raises questions which are both tough and sensitive. 'It takes viewers beyond the headlines and provides them with a more life-affirming alternative to conventional current affairs programming.' The aim is to stimulate the heart, fuel the mind and touch the soul.

The show lasts half an hour and goes on the air twice a day, at 10am and 7pm. Its editions on two consecutive days in April illustrate its approach.

April 12's show focused on the Islamic faith, exploring issues of Moslem stereotyping and highlighting religious teachings from the Qur'an. One segment, Mysterious ways, introduced the viewer to a Moslem woman who shares stories from the Qur'an with the wider community, in the belief that this will help to break down anti-Islamic stereotypes and biases.

Another segment focused on the controversy over the portrayal of Arabs and Moslems in the Hollywood movie The Siege, which shows New York City under martial law after a terrorist threat. The Canadian film critic Barrie Zwicker and a spokesman from the Islamic Social Centre presented different sides of the argument, but in a non-confrontational way.

The programme ended with a spot called The power of choice: 'By making wise choices, we can heal our hurts and anguish and transform a situation over which we have no control'.

The next day's programme had a similar format, but this time explored issues from a Christian perspective. A church minister, Brent Hawkes, talked about the challenges of building relationships, in terms which carried a clear relevance for all faiths. The programme also featured Shannon Aldridge, founder of the Peacemakers Club for six- to 13-year-olds. She described how she started the group because of her concern about providing a spiritual life for her son. Another spot told the story of a recovering alcoholic, who had been helped by horticultural therapy.

Skylight gives viewers the hard facts about conflict, but provides them with hope that things are 'do-able'. This approach earned it a Media Human Rights Award last year for its coverage of the abuse of aboriginal peoples in church- and government-run residential schools.

When Deverell talks about her love for multi-faith broadcasting, it is hard to imagine she ever wanted to do anything else. But, she says, 'I did not intend to work in television. I intended to be an actor.'

She went into broadcasting because she could not find work as an actress: 'the world of theatre at that time, unless you could find somebody to go against the stream, did not employ a black woman'. Instead, she got a four-month research contract with Religious Television Associates, an ecumenical broadcasting group that predated Vision TV.

Deverell made her broadcasting debut 25 years ago when CBC asked her to host a segment of its daily current affairs show Take 30 on television, children and violence. As a result of her performance, she was asked back to specialize on the rights of children the following year.

In 1988, Deverell left a tenured professorship at the University of Regina to become one of Vision TV's six founding members. 'I was giving up a tenured position to work for a television station that had no money and therefore possibly no future. It was essential that I worked hard to make it work: I couldn't go back and say "I was kidding, guys".'

Vision TV got on the air, thanks to bank loans guaranteed by the major faith communities. The broadcasting industry has come to recongnize Deverell's contribution: last year she was a winner of the Gemini Canada Award. But she is quick to add that the challenges are not over. 'We are on air this year and whether we will be on air next year, I don't know.'

In the meantime, she says, 'This is my life work. I don't want to work in just any kind of broadcasting. I want to work in this broadcasting.'
Rita Deverell

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