Asia Catholics Linked by TV, News Service

Article excerpt

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- The day after Christmas, an E-mail from a professional broadcast colleague in Thailand to Jesuit Fr. Jerry Martinson said, simply, "We have a problem."

The problem quickly turned to opportunity when the Catholic church in Thailand decided to accept an offer from Thai Sky Television Co. for a free satellite TV channel. The problem that made church officials hesitate at first, said Martinson, was "they didn't know how they would feed the monster. How do you fill 24 hours a day for 20 years -- which is what the offer was -- with programming?"

They think they've found an answer, and the TV channel late in the summer joined other technology -- computer communications, radio programs and news services -- that helps the far-flung Asian-Pacific Catholic church stay in touch.

Martinson directs Kuangchi Program Service in Taipei, which for 22 years had created and produced television programs -- many of them for Taiwan public television. Kuangchi's president, Jesuit Fr. David J.C. Yen, said that Kuangchi's archives and Martinson's two decades of experience will be invaluable to the Asiawide service.

Martinson said his idea was to run the Thai-Sky channel like Radio Veritas, an Asiawide Catholic radio service for which each country produces an hour or so of programming a day. This gives Radio Veritas an hour or two of Chinese programming, an hour or two of Japanese, Korean, Indonesian.

"In that way," said Martinson, "we could maybe make eight hours of television programming and repeat it three times a day for 24 hours." The Asian Bishops Conference accepted the plan, Martinson became the regional coordinator and broadcasting began Aug. 15.

The pope sent his apostolic blessing, there was a videotape message from the Vatican social communications director, and all of Thailand's bishops were on hand for the opening Mass broadcast live from the Bangkok cathedral.

"For a Buddhist country, its kind of remarkable," said Martinson. Meanwhile, the Buddhists had started their channel three days earlier. The Muslims have not yet made a decision.

As coordinator, Martinson has to ensure Catholic participation from all the Asian countries. The Thai church owns the channel and supervises its operations.

Thailand is broadcasting one hour of Thai programming a day, catechetical instruction, religious instruction, religious news, all in Thai to the 300,000-member Thai church. And there's an additional "one hour international," said Martinson, "whatever they can get, plus one hour of religious music videos. And that will go on for a test period of six months. Currently there are five countries within the satellite `footprint,' Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Vietnam and Thailand."

By next year, he said, operations will move to a wider band and a "footprint" big enough to cover most of China, Taiwan, Philippines and extend to Indonesia.

On the ground, Catholic institutions can receive the program themselves or local cable operators might be persuaded to carry it.

The worst possible scenario, Martinson speculated, is "that nobody wants to watch it. Nobody buys the decoders or the dishes. Even then, it's worth it. The church would have learned something about satellite broadcasting. Now we know nothing and the best way to learn is to just dive in and do it. …