Religious programmers are thinking outside the TV box and increasingly turning to the Internet and mobile offerings to deliver their content.
“From the studies that we’ve commissioned and bought, we’re finding that Christians are pretty actively involved in new media,” said John Roos, senior vice president of corporate communications and research at The Inspiration Networks. “We see a marketplace of people who are pretty much like the general marketplace.”
According to a spring 2005 Soma Research study, Christian consumers are slightly more likely to have Internet access, use e-mail and visit a network’s or show’s Web site compared to the general population.
And it is not just Christian audiences. “The Jewish population is technologically savvy and is among the earliest adaptors of new products,” said Rabbi Mark Golub, CEO of Shalom TV, a video-on-demand service scheduled to launch in August on Comcast Corp. and Blue Ridge Communications systems.
That helps explain why some religious networks have expanded their online offerings, particularly in terms of streamed content. For example, The Word Network’s Web site allows visitors to watch clips from shows — effectively giving viewers an opportunity to check out programs when they want rather than forcing them to wait for them to air. That has helped build viewership among teens and young adults, who are used to having control over content and might not bother to try the programming if they can’t get a preview right when they want it.
Other nets, such as Trinity Broadcasting Network, offer big chunks of their programming online. “We’ve been streaming all of our networks for a few years,” TBN vice president of affiliate sales and marketing Bob Higley said. “As soon as they come out, we start streaming them.”
Making programming available online is one way to reach younger demographics, who grow up in a world of on-demand content. It’s also a way to complement TV programming that’s already aimed at youth audiences, such as TBN’s JCTV network, which is aimed at the 13-to-30 set.
“[Streaming] has been popular with the JCTV crowd,” Higley said. “We’re finding that they’d just as well watch it on their computers as on TV.”
WIN-WIN FOR EVERYONE?
For multichannel operators, Internet usage among religious audiences bears watching as a potential source of additional revenue. Broadband is a cash cow for operators and telco TV providers, and religious programming is another way to get existing video subscribers to upgrade, or woo customers away from broadband rivals.
For religious networks, a broadband presence also creates the potential for new revenue streams, such as selling music and video downloads from Christian artists. So far, that’s an idea rather than a commercial offering, but research suggests that the religious market might be just as receptive to the model as the mainstream. For example, nearly 8% of Christian consumers have downloaded music, compared to about 9% of all adults, according to the Soma Research study.
For networks, the trick is figuring out how to get a cut of the music-download business. “We’re very interested in alternative revenue streams,” said Inspiration’s Roos. “I can’t tell you how many models we’ve developed, how many conversations we’ve had. We’ve developed prototypes, done tests. We haven’t given up on any of those.”
Considering how dependent most religious programmers are on sales of preaching-and-teaching DVDs and videotapes, broadband also could provide an opportunity to distribute some of that content via the Internet. A broadband portal also creates an opportunity to offer on-demand programming if traditional VOD is cost-prohibitive or in areas where multichannel operators don’t yet offer on demand.
Inspiration is one recent example. On May 3, it launched www.inspiration.net, a portal that it bills as an “on-demand Internet TV Channel,” with a slogan of “Inspired Television Online, All The Time.”
The portal features streaming content with a focus on lifestyle topics, including sports, music, gardening, hunting and fishing, but with a common religious theme that aims to set it apart from what is already widely available from secular networks and Web sites. Most of inspiration.net’s content is exclusive and original to Inspiration, and it’s aimed at a wide variety of ages and demographics, including adults and kids.
For some religious networks, broadband may be the only practical way to deliver on-demand programming. One reason is cost: Unless the cable operator or telco is willing and able to package content for on-demand distribution, the programmer must shoulder that cost. But that expense could be justifiable if it helps convince the multichannel provider to pay a license fee — a rare but important source of revenue for religious nets.
“There’s a feeling that before they want to commit to a channel and pay a license fee, they want to make sure that its programming is appealing to subscribers,” said TBN’s Higley. “If they see that people are viewing the free VOD programming, then they’d be more willing to sign a contract. That was the message we were getting.”
But broadband content like JCTV’s and inspiration.net also sends a message: The networks can use it to help operators compete with other broadband providers and upsell their TV customers on cable-modem service.
“We will leverage all of our programming and promotional assets to drive awareness and viewership for our new Internet TV channel, and to promote high-speed Internet service through cable,” Inspiration chief operating officer Bill Airy said in a release announcing inspiration.net. “For cable operators seeking to extend their broadband franchise, it has virtually unlimited potential.”
“We can help the cable industry bridge some gaps and take advantage of that potential,” Roos said. “We think that broadband provides a fantastic opportunity to help the cable industry.”
RELIGION TO GO
Another broadband opportunity is cellular networks such as those from Sprint Nextel Corp. and Verizon Wireless, which support average speeds of 600 kilobits per second — fast enough to deliver a decent streaming multimedia experience. Those networks now are available in most major cities and carriers are expanding coverage to smaller towns. Meanwhile, the cost of the phones and service continue to fall. As a result, the technology is within reach of most demographics.
What all that means is that cellular video service is becoming a viable platform for religious and inspirational networks to offer their programming. And by putting content on cell phones, programmers also improve the chances that their audiences will spend more time with them throughout the day rather than just when they’re by their TV or PC.
One example is TBN: This month, the network will begin offering downloadable clips of exclusive TBN programming, beginning with excerpts from the movies The Revolutionary and The Emissary. Eventually TBN’s mobile lineup will include content from all five of its networks.
And TBN isn’t alone. “We’re looking very hard at mobile,” said Inspiration’s Roos. “We have deals in the works. We’re just not ready to make formal announcements.”