. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Eagle Brings NBA, Gospel to Mongols

ULAN BATOR, Mongolia -- Their ultimate mission is to bring Jesus Christ to the land of Genghis Khan, but for now the U.S. managers of Eagle TV are warming up their audience with a diet of basketball, entertainment and news.

We "want to help spread the Christian religion, or the gospel, as it were, in Mongolia," said Ken Witkoe, 35, station manager of one of Mongolia's only two television channels. He recently moved from Tacoma, Washington.

Russ Warth, 44, Eagle's general director from Clearwater, Florida, said helping to spread democracy was also a goal, which he said went hand in hand with religion. "The best way to have freedom and democracy can't be done without Christianity, or you could say morality, and where does that come from? It comes from religion," he said.

Eagle Television was funded with a start-up capital budget of $850,000 from the Sioux Falls, South Dakota-based humanitarian AMONG Foundation, a non-denominational Christian group involved in overseas aid.

It has just one competitor -- state-run Mongol Television, based in the capital of this remote and sprawling former Soviet satellite of just 2.3 million people sandwiched between China and Russia.

Eagle, on the air since last October, won a strong following in June by broadcasting the NBA playoffs with Mongolian commentary. Even if the basketball finals were aired weeks after they took place in the United States, they were a novelty in a country where about half the population still lives in traditional circular white-felt tents.

The station is also hoping to win over viewers with several hours a day of CNN as well as westerns such as "Bonanza" and "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman."

The broadcasts are punctuated by occasional commercials that cost advertisers just $20 a minute in primetime, Warth said. As their audience grows, the station plans to introduce religion, perhaps by early 1997, the Americans said.

One idea is to show Mongolians explaining why they turned to Christianity. They also may broadcast entertainment shows and cartoons that convey Christian beliefs, Warth said. "It's not going to be some American televangelist speaking," he said.

The unusual prominence of American broadcasters with a religious agenda came about because politicians opposed to the then ruling ex-Communist party were seeking to set up an alternative to state-run television news -- and could find no other funding. "Personally, I'm an atheist and I will die an atheist," said Batbayar, a member of parliament for the Social Democratic Party that swept to a coalition victory in June elections.

Batbayar now serves on the station's board. "I'm very happy for the first time in Mongolia to introduce news without commentary," he said.