Sheriff John was out of town today and the little Wild West community of Billy Joe, Jake, Pedro, Pocahontas, Hop Tjing and the others was not happy that his temporary replacement as lawman was so young. As the women, in their checked skirts, head-scarves and pinafores, bought provisions from the corner store to make apple pies, there was much talk about giving the young man a fair go.
The half hour television show has Indonesian actors and sub-titles, but is scripted in English by Indonesian evangelist Evelyn Nadeak. The American frontier setting seemed glaringly incongruous, when broadcast from the tiny GO-TV station in Tondano, a district of about 30,000 in North Sulawesi, on Thursday evenings. Its Christian theme (from 1 Timothy 4:12) was underscored at the show’s conclusion: ‘don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young.’
Detective on a mission
Sheriff John stars Reverend John Hartman, an American televangelist who also produces the show. This show, and other evangelical Christian material made by the Gospel Overseas Television Network (GOTN), is broadcast on stations throughout Indonesia. Hartman, a former Californian detective and celebrity bodyguard, moved to Indonesia in 1991 to begin his proselytising mission.
The Gospel Overseas organisation’s initial 15-minute Indonesian program went to air nationally on the country’s first private television channel, RCTI, in December 1991. Broadcast duration and frequency increased in subsequent years, beamed from GOTN’s own studios in Bekasi, near Jakarta.
The organisation spread out across the archipelago on both radio and television. By August 2000, GOTN had some programming broadcast by 50 local radio stations, from its base in Bekasi’s 1044 AM Country Station. Deals with several regional relay stations of the state broadcaster, TVRI, followed in 2002.
While previously GOTN relied on established television broadcasters to run select GO programming, the relaxation of government regulations after the fall of Suharto in 1998 (codified with a new Broadcast Law in 2002) opened the possibility for the evangelists to establish their own television station.
GOTN’s Radio 99.15 FM Country Station in Tondano became the nucleus of the organisation’s first regional evangelical Christian television channel, GO-TV, broadcasting across a small area of North Sulawesi.
GO-TV’s programming is unique. For most of the day it screens static pictures and biblical verses to a country music sound track. In the mornings and evenings, the programs are a mix of mainly Christian evangelical broadcasts (such as Hartman’s English-language sermons interpreted into Indonesian by Nadeak), along with some dated American serials (like Bonanza).
GO-TV, which began in May 2004, is the latest of three private television stations in the Minahasa region of North Sulawesi. The first two have secular programs. TV-Manado, established in July 2003, is currently reeling under financial problems, and now mainly relays programming direct from Jakarta’s Metro-TV. Pacific-TV, founded in January 2004, survives on a mix of local music videos and interactive chat shows. Both also provide local news bulletins and community information.
GO-TV would appear to be the least popular of these local stations. GO-TV provides none of the popular local programming of its rivals, offering instead dial-in prayers and counselling, and lashings of food for the soul.
About 70 per cent of North Sulawesi’s population is Christian. Nonetheless, as the first Indonesian television station established purely for religious purposes, its emergence may pose a new challenge for media regulators. This is particularly true since its reception area lies close to the religiously-riven region of Maluku, where Christian-Muslim tensions have flared periodically since 1999.
Proselytising is a sensitive issue in Indonesia. Sheriff John may not be universally regarded as a peace-maker as he rides across Indonesia’s frontier.
David Hill (firstname.lastname@example.org) is professor of Southeast Asian Studies at Murdoch University.