God TV Takes a Mainstream Tack


Because many religious programmers
rely on funding from charitable giving
—which has dropped sharply during the
recession — several have been forced to
look at new programming strategies that
focus on a more-mainstream approach to
attract viewers and advertising.

“We are still seeing a financial struggle
among both our non-commercial and
our commercial members. Success is
now measured in microeconomics,”
National Religious Broadcasters senior
vice president and general counsel
Craig Parshall said. “The upside is that
it is making our members rethink their
operations and create leaner, tighter
organizations that in the end may well be
more efficient and more effective.”

Michelle Johnson, director of
communications for EWTN, the Catholicthemed
cable network, said a multiplatform
strategy — particularly one that uses social
media — is a well-timed solution for faithbased
networks that have seen a decline in
giving, as it allows viewers to stay connected
while weathering their own economic

“Are donations down? Yes. But not so much
that we’ve had to cut programming,” Johnson
said. “Another plus with social-networking
sites is that they don’t really cost money.
You’re not spending money on advertising
or having to use a big budget. It’s a great,
inexpensive way to augment your message.”

FamilyNet, whose religious content
platforms had been losing $11 million on
$7 million in revenue, chose to shift from its
nonprofit donor model and create mainstream,
advertiser-supported programming that caters
to the market and consumer preferences,
according to CEO Chris Wyatt.

“What is not working well [for us] is our
traditional buy-on programming from
religious organizations,” Wyatt said. “While
we have [now] seen solid growth in religious
buys on programming, the revenue increase
is de minimis compared to the ROI from our
reality, scripted and MegaCast series.”

FamilyNet has signed programming
deals with what Wyatt describes as “affinity
groups” — exclusive advertising contracts
with national not-for-profit religious groups
with membership in the millions.

“This is another paradigm shift in
broadcasting,” Wyatt explains. “Rather
than creating a television series in hopes
of building an audience, we have a built-in
audience with our affinity groups, which
continually advertise their programming
to their membership base.”

Christian Broadcasting Network CEO
Gordon Robertson said CBN has also needed
to adopt more of what he calls a “corporate
culture” — that is, thinking and operating
more like a business targeting consumers,
rather than a religious group drawing
audiences to its message.

“When we first started, we thought,
‘How can we drive viewers to our site?’
And we came to the conclusion that
that’s not really the way to approach
it,” Robertson said, adding that CBN
has instead had to focus on bringing
its content to where its viewers are: on
multiple platforms separate from the
CBN brand. “We started thinking instead,
‘How can we drive viewers to our
content?’ How can we build presence
into Facebook, into YouTube?’”
Inspiration Networks’ youth-targeted
Halogen channel shifted from religious
programming to more “faith-inspired”
content, largely because Inspiration found
that the former iLife TV’s overtly Christian
programming was not as culturally
relevant to its viewers — and thus not as
economically viable.

And it’s not just younger audiences
who prefer lifestyles and values-themed
programming to rhetoric. On Oct. 18,
Inspiration’s flagship INSP channel will
receive a major rebranding, focusing on
fare appealing to socially conservative
Baby Boomers (“INSP Seeks a Broader
Audience,” Sept. 27, 2010, page 44).
Targeted changes to the programming mix
that INSP began integrating in May 2009
have driven ratings up more than 100%,
Inspiration Networks media-relations
manager Kristina Hill said.