Putting Faith in Religious Networks

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Religious programming remains surprisingly absent from many Hispanic cable and satellite tiers.

And that's despite research which shows that Latinos attach a great deal of importance to their faith. The Yankelovich Monitor Multicultural Marketing Study issued in August found that 83% of Hispanics surveyed said “religion is a key source of comfort in my life,” while 80% said they “have a great deal of faith in God.”

Despite these and similar results from multiple public-opinion surveys, the two national religious Spanish-language cable networks — the Protestant TBN Enlace USA and Roman Catholic EWTN en Español — said they are struggling for carriage.

“I've been in this for 19 years and I've found religion always seems to come in as a … lower-priority network,” said Bob Higley, vice president of affiliate sales and marketing for TBN Networks.

TBN Enlace USA and EWTN en Español do not charge for carriage. However, in a world of limited bandwidth, even free distribution carries a cost.

“Competition is a reality,” said Walter Cordova, national marketing manager for EWTN en Español. “We are always competing against all the channels for space.”

And the two networks politely compete against one another, as well.

“Historically, there is this prevailing thought that Hispanics are Catholic,” said Higley. “There is a movement towards more Protestants and a decreasing amount of Catholics among Hispanics. … We like to point out that this is a complement. You can't just say that EWTN en Español will satisfy all of the Hispanic faith community.”

Said Cordova: “The numbers favor the Catholic network. I know there are systems that have put the Protestant network on first, but the numbers favor the Catholic channel. According to the latest studies, seven out of 10 Hispanics are Catholic.”

According to Latino Religions and Civic Activism, published last year by Oxford University Press, there were over 28 million Latino Roman Catholics and more than 9.5 million Latino Protestants in the United States in 2004.

Despite their theological and numerical differences, both networks share common characteristics.

Both are also seen throughout Latin America and rely on programming from the region.

EWTN en Español does not sell advertising as a matter of policy, while TBN Enlace USA sells airtime only to other religious programmers. Viewers of the two channels keep them afloat through individual contributions.

Both networks also claim they receive positive feedback from cable operators, but repeatedly run up against bandwidth constraints.

“How can you argue with that?” asked Higley.

EWTN en Español does not provide subscriber estimates, while TBN Enlace claims it reaches 3 million households through a mix of cable and broadcast carriage. In some markets, such as Denver and Springdale, Ark., the network's presence on a low-power television station led the local cable system to pick up the signal. TBN Enlace USA also pursues an aggressive digital-multicast strategy (see separate story, page 10A).

Incentive payments may also play a role in securing carriage.

“We found it does help if you offer some type of launch support,” said Higley. “It helps [affiliates] purchase equipment to put the network on or to help in promoting and marketing it, so we do offer a very small launch incentive for them to add any of our networks.”

Higley said TBN is reviewing the strategy, partly because he hopes that telephone companies' arrival on the video scene will create greater competition and more demand from cable operators.

But Cordova has no illusions about the difficulties religious networks face in competing for subscribers against secular entertainment channels, likening it to the struggle of David against Goliath. And as for ratings, EWTN en Español director of production Enrique Duprat said simply: “We don't have ratings … Our job is to save one soul a day.”

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