When American Atheists announced that it was going to launch the first-ever 24-hour television channel devoted solely to atheist and skeptic content, the news was greeted with a nation-wide smirk. "The guys who make billboards that look like they were done up in Mario Paint – THOSE guys – are undertaking a whole television channel?" From announcement and material solicitation to launch was a matter of months, and the word on the grapevine was that we were all headed for another debacle, word which grew to a mocking howl after Dave Schilling’s report on the technical and conceptual difficulties surrounding the station’s launch.

While American Atheists president David Silverman proclaimed, “Atheist TV is geared toward every atheist in the broadest possible sense. Whether they call themselves atheists or skeptics or humanists or any of the other labels that people use to identify themselves, Atheist TV is for them.” Answers in Genesis CEO Ken Ham roared that, “This new TV channel is not just targeting adults with a hopeless message of godlessness, but they are also trying to indoctrinate children into an atheistic world view. Isn't it bad enough that humanistic thinking has led to over 55 million deaths of aborted children in the US alone, and now the atheistic humanists want to continue their attacks to poison and destroy the minds of children who have survived the abortion holocaust."

And that binarism set the tone for everything that has followed – a good deal of ire and defensiveness, spouted mostly by people working on assumptions of what the station was presumably like, rather than what it was actually broadcasting. So, I decided in the best Spider Jerusalem tradition to sit down and watch Atheist TV, from 10 in the morning until 5 in the evening, a solid seven hours at the heart of the day, to see how much of the promise was fulfilled, and how many of the fears realised. (Incidentally, if you would like to do the same, Atheist TV is available as a Roku channel, but can also be streamed live here.)

The thing one instantly notices is the College TV Studio vibe that hangs about the channel, from the faux Grecian columns of Atheist Viewpoint to the rough cuts between programmes, there is something raw and thrown-together and therefore a little punk-core about it. You can see the gears working, get a sense of the people involved without the intermediary polish that turns people into pundits, and discussions into exchanges of monolithic talking points. It’s a little Art Bell, a little Wayne’s World, and in general the parts that I liked the best were the bits with the least production.

For example, my seven hour stretch included two episodes of The Atheist Experience, a Texas call-in show that features two people chatting about religious issues of interest, and taking calls from around the country. It’s spawned a number of minor atheist celebrities here, but the core of the show is so simple, unostentatious, and curiosity-engendering that you can’t help but be slowly hypnotised by its basic sincerity. On the opposite end of the spectrum, then, are the Atheist TV ads that are very slickly produced, but whose Game of Thrones soundtrack-of-impending-doom and overbearing intensity smack more of Fox News than of the modest material that the ads bookend.

That’s really the fundamental thing about this channel as it stands, both its greatest virtue and its persistent albatross – everything I saw was eminently reasonable. There were three fair-to-middlin’ speeches from past American Atheist conferences, an hour and a half of Richard Carrier’s head saying interesting things at you from one of three angles and behind one of two colour filters, two interviews with Dave Muscato chatting in a desolate, tiny room about education, and a long documentary about the Reason Rally featuring more heads talking about how their world view makes them happy. And that was it – a gallery of faces saying mostly reasonable things about liking science and disliking ill-founded truth statements. Lectures and interviews, chats and more interviews.

It’s not a particularly thrilling line-up of programming, but neither is it as noxious as many of us feared. It is not 24 hours of “religions are stupid, and you’re stupid if you don’t join us.” It’s a collection of relatively ordinary folks standing at the beginning of a movement, and their endearingly clumsy first efforts to find each other through the media of the Internet Age. It’s awkward YouTube videos and grainy old footage of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, and if you’re looking for a place to hear people work their way grittily through some tough intellectual material, eschewing all the easy answers in order to keep each other honest, maybe it’s a place for you.

That said, it is not yet what it might be. I can envision a day when there are fewer replays of old convention talks, and more positive content, teaching science and history in an engaging manner that avoids the tawdriness that other Educational Channels often fall into. A day when original animation and drama start to realise the narrative promise of a humanist world view. And most importantly, a day when a broad spectrum of non-believer viewpoints are represented to balance the American Atheists and Dawkins Institute programming currently making up the bulk of the schedule. As Skepchick author Courtney Caldwell has expressed it, “What could have been a chance to open a dialogue between non-believers and believers seems to be nothing more than Roku access to the RDFRS archives. I understand that American Atheists' core demographic doesn't lean toward building bridges between seemingly-opposing demographics, but surely there must be a better model.”

There are more flavors of non-belief now than were deemed even theoretically possible two decades ago, and part of the ongoing challenge of Atheist TV will be to include those viewpoints to build a multi-faceted and evolving face of American atheism that is creatively compelling and philosophically nuanced. I am glad that the channel exists, if for no other reason than that new media produces new art forms – if, right now, the programming is heavy on people talking about policy, the existence of this new space, if it survives, will produce exciting new opportunities for the upcoming, and highly creative, generation of atheists to do some startling new things. And when they do, we’ll all look back fondly at the beginning of it all, when lonely figures perched on industrial business chairs in front of forlorn drapery represented the core of the Atheist TV experience.

Atheist TV is not yet a fraction of its promise, and in an entertainment age offering a thousand channels of sex and explosions, perhaps it’s optimistic to think that a station devoted to earnest philosophical discussion has a chance of survival. But I’ll probably keep watching it, appreciating the low-scale, familiar honesty of what it is, and waiting for more adventurous minds to seize the reins. It is one of those stumbling moments through which new vistas of possibility can be hazily gleaned, and it’s exciting to have been around for its creaking start.