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On A Mission From God

6/24/2005 8:00 PM Eastern

There has long been a separation of church and state when it comes to cable and religious programming. Cable operators have funded faith-based channels in the past, but they have shied away from devoting very much bandwidth to programmers that address the interests of those seeking divine inspiration.

Yet to paraphrase Bob Dylan, some would say there’s a slow train coming, and it is carrying a horde of concerned followers that represent one of the last significant audiences that have resisted subscribing to pay TV, according to religious networks.

Faith-based programmers say recent events demonstrate that the religious community in the U.S. is both sizeable and influential.

The success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which relied on a grassroots marketing effort featuring a promotional blitz on networks like Trinity Broadcasting Network, shocked pundits and insiders alike when it grossed over $370 million in the U.S. in 2004. Passion finished at No. 9 on the all-time box office list.

THE BORN-AGAIN FACTOR

Born-again Christians were widely credited as a decisive factor in the reelection of George W. Bush, supporting the president by a 62% to 38% margin, according to The Barna Group. The Christian research group says the born-again segment constitutes about 38% of the population, but represented 53% of all votes cast in the election.

As “501(c)3” non-profit organizations, religious broadcasters are strictly prohibited from endorsing a candidate, but get-out-the-vote- and issues-based programming is common on Christian networks.

Also, the death of Pope John Paul II and the subsequent election of Pope Benedict XVI received heavy media attention. Catholic broadcaster Eternal Word Television Network says 150 million TV and radio homes picked up its coverage during the Interregnum and that Cable News Network, CBS, Fox News Channel and CNBC ran commentary from EWTN’s experts.

The network also claims that Comcast Corp.’s Los Angeles system accelerated plans to launch EWTN so that it could bring subscribers around-the-clock coverage of the transition.

Religious programmers say the current social and political climate in America is conducive to launching religious-based networks. The battle over indecency, for instance, is seen as a golden opportunity as programmers tout their services to operators as a way to add balance too their lineups. They say faith-based programming is a good way to attract conservative first-time subscribers.

The pitch appears to be paying off, at least for some. Daystar TV — which owns 45 TV stations and is in about 10 million cable homes — recently became a permanent addition to Charter Communications Inc.’s digital lineup in Nevada. Officials at the system say the network helped attract “many” new subscribers.

“MSOs see there is an audience for this kind of programming, and for them that translates to new subscribers,” says Janice Smith, vice president of programming and sales for Daystar TV.

“There’s a renewed or higher interest in religious programming across the board,” says EWTN president Michael Warsaw. “More and more people are looking to their cable or satellite provider to have access to programming that’s meaningful to their lives.”

“There’s a huge faith-based audience out there, and if the cable industry doesn’t realize it, they’re crazy,” says Paul Crouch Jr., vice president of administration for TBN and son of the network’s founder.

CHALLENGED NEWCOMERS

To be sure, recent years have been a time of growth for more established ministries and networks. But many newcomers are struggling to reach critical mass. There are more than a dozen religious-themed networks vying for carriage on cable and satellite in the U.S.

Larger players like TBN and Daystar operate high-power broadcast stations and have achieved carriage through must-carry regulations. Many others are scrambling for a slot on digital lineups, hoping not to be stuck out “on a tier of a tier,” as vice president of cable relations at TBN Bob Higley puts it. With that kind of positioning, they would be “preaching only to the choir,” he says.

Like other niche programmers, religious networks are watching the digital must-carry issue carefully. A new bill proposed by House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) would require MSOs to carry broadcasters’ analog and digital signals until 2013, eating up bandwidth that could otherwise be used for new channels.

But religious broadcasters’ status as non-profit and, for the most part, non-ad-supported organizations makes some of the challenges they face to achieve carriage unique.

For example, accurate ratings information is hard to come by. Organizations like the National Religious Broadcasters like to quote Barna Research stats. According to Barna, 141 million Americans listen to or watch some form of religious programming each month — a fact mentioned by President Bush when he addressed the NRB in 2003.

Yet there is a special challenge: Nielsen Media Research does not group religious programming with its mainstream ratings.

Pat Robertson’s long-running 700 Club is often named by the media as the most-watched religious show, with about 1 million daily viewers. It is carried by various networks including ABC Family Channel, thanks to a contractual agreement grandfathered in from when the network was sold by Fox to The Walt Disney Co. in 2001.

But 700 Club doesn’t usually top Nielsen’s quarterly Devotional Program Report, that spot is often occupied by Robert Schuller’s The Hour of Power.

INSP: The Inspirational Network, one of the few faith-based outlets that sells local ad avails, caused a controversy last year when it issued a press release stating that Nielsen’s metered-market ratings showed the network was competitive with ad-supported networks like CNBC and BBC America in primetime.

INSP averaged a 0.29 in metered markets for its Saturday primetime lineup of entertainment shows during the first quarter of 2004.

“We had to rewrite that release three times because of complaints from other networks, but the meat of the announcement remained the same,” says John Roos, senior vice president of marketing for INSP Networks.

A MAINSTREAM APPROACH

INSP is taking a more mainstream approach to gaining carriage, urging operators to look at the Christian community as it would any other underserved demographic.

INSP’s spinoff, digital lifestyle channel I-Life TV, which launched in 1998, is the first religious network to charge a subscription fee to fund more original programming. I-Life officials say that 73% of the network’s programming schedule is made up of originals. Yet after seven years, it is only in 7 million homes.

Part of that is due to larger industry trends, says Roos. “It’s hard for everyone — old models, where you add networks to improve subscriber figures, are not working,” he says. “Operators are focusing on broadband, telephony and VOD instead, the kind of things they see as generating revenue.”

THE AGE FACTOR

Another pivotal issue facing religious broadcasters is an aging audience, and aging leaders. The founding generation of televangelists is succumbing to father time, along with their core group of viewers and contributors.

“On television, we’re at a crossroads; many of our stalwart programmers are reaching their mid 70s, and their target audience is aging along with the business model of donor-supported programming,” says Dr. Frank Wright, president of the NRB. “The generation following them doesn’t have the same giving patterns and are much less likely to lend their support. There’s a huge shift coming.”

Industry veterans say the answer to attracting younger viewers is the same as the answer to achieving broader carriage: better original programming.

Wright admits there is a lack of differentiation or “sameness” when flipping through religious channels. Although each network has a signature show or two to establish its brand, most network schedules are packed with the same preachers who pay for airtime and fund their ministries by soliciting viewers for donations and hawking books and tapes.

Much has been written about the lavish lifestyle some televangelists lead, and several organizations have pushed for better transparency and more independent oversight.

Newcomers to the U.S. Christian market are trying to change that image.

The U.K.-based God TV, which was added to OlympuSAT’s “Faith and Families Pack” of program networks in March, is aiming at a younger demo with shows like its nightly Christian music video show Dream on TV and Hells Bells, about the dangers of rock and roll.

TBN’s JCTV, launched in December of 2002, targets teens and young adults with reality shows, comedy and extreme sports programming.

TBN’s flagship network, in about 72 million homes, is also reaching into its donation-fund coffers to produce higher-budgeted fare. Currently, TBN originals occupy 50% of its schedule, say network officials.

TBN spinoff The Church Channel, launched as a 24-hour digital offering in 2002, was created to make room for originals like Travel the Road, its first reality show; Believers Among Us, its first one-hour drama premiering next month; and TBN-produced Christian theatricals. TBN’s latest, One Night With the King, was budgeted at $12 million and is slated for a release in theaters this September. It chronicles the life of Queen Esther and stars Omar Sharif and Peter O’Toole.

“We’ve spent more money on programming in the past three years than the first 30 years combined on TBN,” says Crouch, who was an independent producer in Hollywood for 20 years before returning to his father’s network five years ago.

TBN’s originals strategy is getting a boost from the spread of affordable digital filmmaking tools.

Crouch says he receives five or six amateur Christian productions a week. That has yielded gems like Flywheel, made by amateur filmmaker Alex Kendrick for $20,000. Kendrick’s newest, Christian football movie Facing the Giants, was shot on HD video and will debut on TBN in November.

While many might consider TBN’s emphasis on originals to be a noble effort, the network continues to be taken to task by organizations such as Ministry Watch for holding biannual donation drives. That organization claims the network holds a cash surplus of hundreds of millions of dollars. What’s more, the NRB has also been critical of TBN for lacking an independent board of directors.

But other programmers only wish they had TBN’s money problems. “We operate on a tight budget cycle and hold a major budget meeting each fall,” says INSP’s Roos.

“Everyone has a wish list of what they want to produce, but only what is considered prudent is approved,” Roos says. “If we ever have any money left over, we put it back into original programming. That’s what we do. We only wish it was more.”

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