Cult television's a hard thing to create. Nobody can really predict what will suddenly click with an audience, because it usually happens for unexpected and unplanned reasons. Who could have imagined that when cable and satellite TV really took off in the UK in the nineties, we'd end up with an entire generation of stoned clubbers giggling at the extended sales pitches on QVC, or staring goggle-eyed at the colour schemes in Teletubbies? (On that topic, I'd like to propose that the equivalent on British TV today is A Dreamy Journey, showing nightly on BabyFirst [Sky channel 624] between 7pm and midnight. It's the trippiest damn thing you can imagine.)
The point is, cult television just happens, it can't be manufactured. But a channel dedicated entirely to the life and works of someone calling herself Supreme Master? Yeah, I think we can safely call that a cult.
Somewhere between the Pub Channel and the audio programme guide lies Sky channel 887, the home of Supreme Master Television. (Be warned that their homepage has a live feed of the channel embedded in it.) It broadcasts twenty-four hours a day - well, six hours of original programming repeated three times - showing a combination of relentlessly positive news stories and environmental propaganda, all driven by the philosophy of its founder Supreme Master Ching Hai (who's always referred to as Supreme Master Ching Hai without any abbreviation). It's become my idling channel of choice whenever I'm vegging out for a few minutes in front of The Belated Birthday Girl's Sky TV system, because it's fascinatingly tricky to get a handle on. Having burnt off a DVD of an entire day's programming and watched it over a weekend, I think I'm a little clearer about its aims now.
The main thing that sets Supreme Master apart from the other religious channels on telly is that in small doses, it's terribly difficult to find anything objectionable about it. It's geared towards accentuating positives rather than harping on about negatives: its green campaigning has its heart in the right place: and it isn't as focussed as other God Telly on separating its followers from their money. The one slightly worrying thing about it is the name of its founder. If you're lucky, you may get to catch a brief biography of Supreme Master Ching Hai as part of the regular programming. Originally from Vietnam (although she's one of the few people on the internet who insists on calling it by its ancient name of Au Lac), she spent the early eighties married to a German guy before dumping him and running off to the Himalayas to find herself. She returned a master of Quan Yin meditation, and has been spreading the word ever since.
Supreme Master TV is her way of targeting the entire planet with her message, which is what gives the channel its unique look. That screen shot at the top of the page showing 24 simultaneous sets of subtitles is an unusual occurrence, but most shows are subtitled in at least a dozen, meaning that all their material has to be shot with the assumption that between a half and three quarters of the screen will be covered in text at any given time. The keystone of their programming is Noteworthy News, in which stories of good deeds and planet-saving inventions are reported to the exclusion of everything else. It's quite fun to watch the stories being hammered into a standard format: they all end with a statement of thanks to the story's subject, and a blessing suitably tailored to their country of origin.
The more didactic sections of their programming focus heavily on Supreme Master Ching Hai's environmental agenda: Go Veg, Be Green is the oft-repeated slogan. So we get Animal World: Our Co-Inhabitants, which interviews key vegan activists: a series of anti-global warming promos that resemble nothing so much as the Earth Song video without the undertones of child molestation: and Vegetarian Elite, which profiles some of the most famous vegetarians in history. It's because of this angle that The BBG, as a non-carnivore herself, grudgingly accepts that it's not all about culty brainwashing. Nevertheless, Vegetarian Elite's inclusion of Jesus Christ on their list of top veggies did make her wonder how He coped with having to serve fish to five thousand people. (In another example of Supreme Master TV trying to bend Christianity to fit their worldview, they've also broadcast a half hour reading of quotes from the world's holy books on the prohibition of alcohol, which curiously steered clear of the wedding at Cana.)
Inevitably, every so often we get appearances by Supreme Master Ching Hai herself: and curiously, these are the least interesting bits in the schedule. Despite the attempt to build a personality cult around her (virtually every photo in her personal albums appears to have been mined for inter-programme filler), when we finally get to hear her speak in Between Master And Disciples she seems surprisingly uncharismatic. Her lectures ramble on without any discernable point, and there's no sense of her really connecting with an audience. And for a preacher, she's rubbish at telling stories: which is a pity, given the existence of her regular Joke Of The Day slot.
Still, as a cynic I'd assume that one of the main functions of a religious TV station is to cadge money from its viewers, and Supreme Master TV seems comparatively reluctant to do that. The message of positivity and saving the planet appears to be priority one, and there's no more than one slot an hour when you're directed to their merchandising websites. The Quan Yin meditation method is passed on via the needlessly messianic URL godsdirectcontact.org: while on a more down-to-earth level, Supreme Master Ching Hai's art and design work can be purchased from The Celestial Shop, and her books and DVDs can be bought through SMCH Books. (Amusingly, the ad for her bestseller The Birds In My Life shamelessly quotes a series of five star reviews left by her disciples on Amazon. Still, if it's really that popular, no harm in putting a purchase link at the bottom of this page to see if I can make a few bob myself...)
To be fair, it wasn't until I watched a full day's worth of programming that I realised there was any attempt at raising money from viewers at all. So I'd still say that if you just dip into Supreme Master TV now and again (either by satellite or by the website stream), there's definitely something charming about its full-throttle optimism and desire to do good in the world. And you can't really argue with that. You can be suspicious, but you can't argue with it.