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Putting Faith in Gospel TV

11/14/2008 7:00 PM Eastern

The popularity of gospel music among African-American audiences has translated into mixed results for faith-based music programming.

For Gospel Music Channel, it was an opportunity to tap a “passionate fan base [that was] totally unserved by television,” according to GMC vice chairman Brad Siegel.

The network launched in 17,000 homes in Jackson, Tenn., in 2004 and is now available in 42 million homes, according to Nielsen Media Research.

“When you look across the television landscape, you can count dozens and dozens of networks for every potential kind of genre,” Siegel said. “But there was not a single network and only a handful of programs that were serving the gospel and Christian music fans.”

Fifty-six percent of GMC's audience is African-American or Latino, and its Sunday night programming typically draws an audience that is 85% African-American. The network is preparing three new programs designed to specifically appeal to black gospel fans. “We will have one of the most powerful lineups targeting African-Americans on television,” Siegel said.

GMC's distribution has soared at the same time that religious music sales have fallen back. The Recording Industry Association of America estimates religious titles accounted for 3.9% of $10.3 billion in sales in 2007. This is down sharply from 6% of $12.3 billion in 2004.

“Before we started five years ago, we believed instinctively that gospel music was going to be one of our programming pillars,” said TV One CEO Johnathan Rodgers. But it hasn't worked out that way.

Gospel Challenge, a gospel music-inspired take on American Idol, was produced for the network's first season but it fizzled.

Another program, The Gospel of Music with Jeff Majors, has fared better. Launched as part of TV One's original primetime lineup, the show now airs on Sunday mornings. “I tried to run it in primetime. I tried to get a mass audience with it,” said Rodgers. “For a certain core segment of our audience, gospel music is important but it is not the predominant genre for TV One viewers.”

BET has seen its share of success with its own gospel version of an American Idol-like competition show. Last season's finale of Sunday Best generated 1.5 million votes from its audience and attracted 1.7 million viewers.

BET's Bobby Jones Gospel, the network's longest-running show, has been on the air for 28 years. That show's latest season premiered last month, with the first six episodes averaging 727,000 viewers.

Early next year, BET plans to launch a weekly spinoff of its highest-rated show, the weekend music-video countdown series 106 & Park, to be called 106 & Park: Generation Gospel.

BET also operates the standalone digital service BET Gospel, which launched in 2002. A network spokesperson would not provide specific details about the service other than saying that it is currently available in the Atlanta DMA and New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. The BET.com Web site does not include BET Gospel programming information.

While gospel programming continues to generate viewer interest, it faces the same advertising challenges as other genres in the current economy.

“This is the worst market that I have ever seen in my career for advertisers,” said Gospel's Siegel. “The good news is that our message has been resonating with advertisers.”

GMC counts Lincoln-Mercury, Procter & Gamble and Wal-Mart among its largest advertisers.

According to Siegel, programming like GMC's represents a “completely new proposition for advertisers who have never been able to reach this audience on commercial television.”

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