EWTN just finished celebrating a quarter-century of programming with a road show aimed at getting closer to its audience of Catholic believers. The network’s president, Michael Warsaw, recently talked with Multichannel News contributor Tim Kridel about lessons from the road and where EWTN is headed. An edited transcript follows:
MCN: EWTN recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. What’s the secret?
Michael Warsaw: Twenty-five years ago, nobody gave EWTN much of chance to survive six months. Not only we are still here, we’re a dominant network in the U.S. multichannel market. The digital marketplace has certainly helped expand our reach.
Another important factor has been the continued success of EWTN Español.
Until recently, we used the same programming stream to feed our international and domestic Spanish markets. As of Sept. 1, we’ve created a separate stream for the United States. That will allow us to target our programming to the interests and needs of the U.S. Hispanic market.
The international market continues to be a growth area, particularly with direct-to-home services recently launched in Australia and New Zealand. There are lots of opportunities beyond the U.S. borders.
MCN: Besides digital, what are some other new technologies affecting EWTN?
MW: We’re very happy about the emergence of the IPTV platform. That’s been very good for us in various markets around the country. We’ve concluded agreements with most of the major IPTV providers, so I think we’ll see much more of a roll out of EWTN on IPTV in English and Spanish, both domestically and internationally.
MCN: Do telco-TV providers see a wide, deep selection of religious programming as a way to differentiate their services from cable and satellite?
MW: I think we’ve seen a real commitment from the IPTV providers to seek out EWTN. In the early days of cable, EWTN had to pursue the cable operators and make a case that they should include it. While they were open to it, it was a long and difficult process to get launches.
On the [Internet-protocol television] side, what’s surprised me is the fact that those players have sought us out and wanted to include EWTN and EWTN Español. That says a lot about the maturity of EWTN, and it speaks to their understanding of the importance of having religious content.
They have a very good understanding of what religious content brings to their platform and that their potential customers want religious content.
MCN: EWTN has been aggressive in new media, such as podcasts and online video. How do those impact your traditional-TV model?
MW: I’m skeptical that new-media technologies will replace traditional television. I think that they’ll be in addition to the traditional model of TV, and perhaps interactive technologies will enhance viewing. I don’t believe that podcasting or on-demand, portable video will replace traditional television viewing. I think they’ll add to it.
MCN: When EWTN did its 25th-anniversary tour, what did you learn about how your audience is evolving? For example, how are new viewers discovering EWTN?
MW: The vast majority of the people at those events were fairly recent viewers. For many of them, it was [through] channel-surfing: Someone who, in a life crisis or a moment where they were searching for answers, stumbles on EWTN and finds something that really touches their heart. That’s a common story, and it’s probably common for all religious programmers.
Another path is through grass-roots promotions. Just over a year ago, EWTN began “Media Missionaries,” which is a grass-roots program designed to have someone in each U.S. Catholic church — there are over 20,000 — who really tries to make their friends and neighbors aware of EWTN. As that becomes more successful, people are following that path to come to the network. Grass roots is extremely important to us.
MCN: Are new and younger viewers just as supportive as veteran audiences?
MW: At our events earlier in the year, we saw many families with young children for whom EWTN is a regular part of their television viewing. They are as generous as their predecessors. It’s exciting to see how this new generation of viewers is really stepping up and supporting the network in the way that their parents and grandparents do.
MCN: Would you ever consider supplementing that support with advertising revenue?
MW: Advertising really doesn’t fit with our mission. EWTN has always been free to cable [operators].
We really count on the network being funded by our viewers. I think that’s important, because the audience also feels a much greater connection to the network and feels much more a part of the work we’re engaged in by being able to support it financially.
Advertising can be a very difficult thing to deal with. You always have to be concerned that your message isn’t compromised.
With an advertising-based model, you certainly run the risk that the concerns of your sponsors could cause you to make certain decisions about programming that you wouldn’t make if you weren’t looking over your shoulder.
For a religious network, particularly for EWTN, having no advertising allows us to freely preach the gospel without being concerned about those entanglements.
MCN: Mother Angelica has been a big reason for EWTN’s success. Is there any risk in having your brand attached to single, high-profile personality?
MW: As Mother used to say on the air, “I’m the donkey pulling the cart.” Obviously, she was very important to the success of the network. Having good, strong presenters and personalities is important [because] TV is a visual medium. But one thing we’ve seen over the years is that the message is always much more important than the messenger. I think that they’re tuning in for the message that the person is delivering.