Internet Video

The Internet Shall Set Them Free

2/28/2011 12:01 AM Eastern

Paul Crouch Jr. is a
man on a mission. The longtime
religious programmer
and vice president/chief of
staff at Trinity Broadcasting
Network is busy overseeing
a digital archive project that
will make decades of TBN
content available to viewers
for free, on the Internet.

The ITBN service, as it is
being called, will digitally
store and catalog close to
10,000 hours of online content
— every existing piece
of the network’s 37-year
backlog.

Crouch calls it “as big a
project as I have ever been
involved in. Certainly with
this industry, it’s literally
reinventing the way we do
television.”

TBN isn’t the only religious
programmers proliferating large amounts of
faith-based content on the Internet and other interactive
platforms. The days of religious networks culling
all of their devoted audience
from broadcast-TV
must-carry agreements
have long been over, but
a number of long-time religious
programmers are
strategically putting content
and interactive video
online like never before.

THREE-SCREEN WORLD

“Broadcasting has now
declined to 10 or 15% of
the audience,” Crouch
said. “So if you have not
branched out into the Internet,
into cable and
satellite, into the threescreen
world, you really
have no chance for survival.”

One veteran programming
executive getting in
on the religious fervor is
Michael Solomon, former
president of Lorimar Telepictures
and Warner Bros. International Television. This
spring, Solomon will launch WIN, an IPTV service that
will allow Christian viewers to see sermons from pastors
and other religious speakers on-demand.

The service, which uses live streaming technology
via a wireless set-top box, has also inked affiliate agreements
with TBN and faith and families network aggregator
Olympusat.

Solomon believes reaching religious viewers through
emerging platforms is the best way to attract a younger
audience.

“There’s a tremendous movement in the Christian world
today, and a lot of these youth pastors and their followers
don’t watch [only] Trinity Broadcast Network.”

The WIN service will carry all 10 TBN networks and
Olympusat’s 20 channels, which include Daystar Television,
educational children’s network Smile of a Child and
INSP.

Solomon said he’s closing direct negotiations with three
more programmers within the next month.

“I always say the famous saying ‘content is king,’ but I added to that, ‘distribution is emperor.’ The content is
there, but it’s never been properly distributed,” Solomon
said. “The ministries are very very happy with the fact that
they can get their message out to a much wider audience.”

In addition to carrying the bigger religious networks,
WIN will also feature programming from individual pastors
and ministries.

Because the Internet bandwidth for content is virtually
limitless, ministries can put programming on the service
for free. Solomon is exploring ways to create revenuesharing
streams with ministries that sign up subscribers
for the WIN service, giving them
a 10% commission for each sign-up.
The service will also feature an ecommerce
platform where a ministry
can sell books, DVDs, CDs and
other merchandise.

“My goal is to be the HBO of Christian
film and also the MTV of Christian
television,” Solomon said. A
monthly subscription to WIN will
cost $19.99 with an add-on price tag
for certain VOD services.
There are a number
of reasons for
the blossoming of
religious content on
mobile, Internet and
interactive TV services.
Programmers
believe the faithbased
community
is uniquely served
by on-demand content,
since they turn
to religion often in
moments of hardship,
which doesn’t always coincide with
appointment TV.

CONSOLATION ON DEMAND

“Having multiple ways for people to access
your content at those times when
they’re facing spiritual difficulties is a
great thing and a
great way to support
and help people
get through
those chal lenging
moments in
life,” Michael Warsaw,
president and
CEO of EWTN,
the global Catholic
network that
serves more than
150 million households worldwide, said.
“It’s something we provide that no other
genre of programming provides.”

There are more practical reasons, too.
For the largest religious networks, carriage
with traditional distributors has by and
large maxed out. TBN reaches 102 million
U.S. homes through their broadcast, cable and satellite networks,
a penetration level of 90%. EWTN, Daystar and INSP
are also among the market’s distribution leaders.

“For the largest of us religious programmers, we’re still
seeing some growth in the traditional platforms, but generally
speaking, yes, it’s probably flattened out and that’s
because penetration levels are so high,” Warsaw said.

Networks also use
interactive platforms
to draw more attention
to their developing
channels, some of
which have only a fraction
of the penetration
of their more established,
related “mothership”
channels.

Halogen Network,
a multiplatform series
of channels that’s part of Inspiration Networks, or INSP,
has developed a robust web presence aimed at the 18-34
demographic. The network’s Web site boasts live streams
and full episodes of Halogen shows.

“We’re starting to see an entirely new generation and
frankly, they don’t consume faith-based television the way their grandparents did,
so we made some adjustments,”
INSP chief strategy
officer Bill Airy said.

Halogen signed a new
mult iyear agreement
with Comcast prior to the
company’s merger with
NBC Universal. Halogen
sells advertising and gets
a license fee from distributors,
unlike those
faith-based networks
that share in donations
to ministries providing
programming.

“Comcast stepped up,”
Airy said, adding of the
merger, “Overall, this is
going to be a good thing.
Hopefully we’ll have some
broader relationships with
things like [online video platform] Fancast Xfinity.”

Other programmers in the religious space didn’t think
the merger would have much effect on the faith-based TV
landscape. “I don’t think you’re going to see Comcast/NBC
put a lot of Christian or Catholic programming on their
network,” Solomon said.

AFFILIATES’ BLESSING?

Traditional distributors are by and large unconcerned
with religious programmers moving content online and
to IPTV platforms.

“We crossed this bridge years ago, when we started
streaming our digital networks,” TBN vice president of
affiliate sales and marketing Bob Higley said. “I remember
talking to one MSO in the early 2000s when they said,
‘You can’t do that,’ and I remember saying, ‘We have a
broadcast network in your city, we have hundreds of lowpowered
[stations]. You don’t complain about that.’ ”

Contractual clauses from years ago between MSOs and
religious programmers often stipulated restrictions on
what content could go online or to other distribution services.
Those clauses have by and large been deleted from
renewal contracts over the last five years, Higley said.

“It’s not hurting operators, it’s just being strategic,” said
one executive at a religious programming aggregator. “I
don’t see what’s going on online as a negative in terms of
an operator relationship, because I think
operators are moving more towards TV
Everywhere.”

In the international marketplace, programmers
say viewing on traditional
platforms is doing just fine. “Even though
the streaming solutions might be amazing,
the quality of home connections in
most of the world don’t enable a comfortable
viewing experience,” Yael Shamos,
vice president of marketing and sales for
Israel-based satellite operator SatLink,
said in an e-mail.

“Viewers, religious or secular, still turn
to the TV and traditional means of distribution,”
she said.

And content providers, for the most
part, still see the promulgation of religious
content on new media platforms to
be a way to increase viewership on traditional
platforms.

“I’m still looking at it as a way to garner
additional eyeballs, not just a way to
fracture what eyeballs are already out there,” Crouch said.
“Television has been fractured enough as it is.”

June