For religious television programmers, adapting to new technologies is nothing new. But as the pace of change has quickened, there’s a growing need for sophisticated responses on alternate platforms, executives agreed.
“The landscape has been changing for a while, but the change has certainly been accelerating in the last year,” said Gordon Robertson, CEO of the Christian Broadcasting Network, the Virginia Beach, Va.-based programmer responsible for The 700 Club. “There is still a lot of experimentation and a lot of shaking out to come.”
Jewish-themed Shalom TV — which uses the Internet primarily to drive viewers to its digital cable and video-on-demand channels — has started to respond to requests by making more of its programming available on alternate platforms, said chief operating officer Brad Hammer.
Still, new technologies can be tricky for religious networks, said Trinity Broadcasting Network vice president of administration Paul Crouch Jr. “We’ve been streaming onto the Internet for close to 10 years since back when the picture was the size of a postage stamp,” Crouch said, but “there’s absolutely a learning curve on new technology.”
And returns on investment don’t come right away — if ever at all. “It’s a fishing license to go for new trends but the leading edge a lot of times is the bleeding edge, and we can’t afford to throw millions at each new technology,” Crouch said. He conceded that the Internet and mobile platforms do offer a way to reach younger audiences.
Donor-driven networks such as TBN must sort out the best way to use new platforms, said Crouch. While TBN’s Web site has a “Donate Now” button, the network took a more indirect approach when streaming its linear programming online. To access live streams, visitors enter an e-mail address that TBN can use to solicit donations.
Viewers initially watched streaming in five-minute bursts, but an improved viewing experience now keeps them viewing for half-hour chunks, allowing the network to embed appeals within or between programs, Crouch said.
According to CBN’s Robertson, the network’s Web site gets 1.2 million monthly viewers, 45% of whom come for CBN News. The Web site is also being used for chat and other social networking, which has increased as CBN has gotten better at moderating and the technical side of managing the experience.
Robertson said CBN has learned to use different editing and storytelling techniques online, with a faster pace and less emphasis on narration. The shift has even reached back to traditional television — the spinoff show 700 Club Interactive, which incorporates Skype, phone, chat and e-mail options, has attracted a much younger demographic.
At The Inspiration Network, the quest to attract younger audiences led to a dedicated Web site for its youth-targeted Steelroots music programming. That site makes no mention of INSP.
“We had an internal discussion about this: Let’s put our brand on everything, versus let’s not scare them [younger viewers] off,” INSP vice president of affiliate sales and relations Wendy Vinson said. She said that Steelroots “opens a whole new way of promotion” through contests and such content as segments that track popular Christian bands during tours.
TBN’s Crouch points to younger viewers’ desire “to watch what they want when they want to and on the platform they want.” To that end, TBN has spent the past year developing its own Hulu-like service that would make all its programs available anytime.
Looking beyond its own Web sites to reach new viewers, Crouch said, “our next phase is creating more viral video content.” TBN already has material on YouTube and free iTunes downloads for Praise The Lord and Behind the Scenes.
Shalom TV also puts programming on YouTube and other sites such as Yideoz and JInsider; while partners such as New York City’s 92nd Street Y provide video programming links back to the network’s site.
CBN’s Robertson said the exposure generated on YouTube or Tangle (originally Godtube) is crucial for the programmer.
“We got huge numbers and are creating CBN.com as a destination Web site,” he said.
Religious programmers are also increasingly looking at ways to reach audiences via mobile technologies.
INSP’s Vinson said whenever she has met with MSOs in recent months, “They’ve all said, 'What about the mobile platform?’ ”
Robertson acknowledges that CBN has been “late to the phone game,” but “when it happens I think it will be explosive.”
TBN’s Crouch believes that the proliferation of platforms has only made the most basic truth even more important: “Whether you are watching on a high-def 60-inch plasma TV or down to a cellphone, what matters most is the quality and relevance of the content,” he said.