Religious networks increasingly are exploring ways to bridge different denominations and shifting viewer habits. As a result, programmers are looking to interfaith fare, as well as new formats.
Subscription video-on-demand service Shalom TV bills itself as a “mainstream Jewish television network.” But its lineup includes inter faith programs like Faith Journal, which features Buddhist, Christian and Islamic scholars and religious leaders debating universal questions such as faith versus reason and the point at which life begins.
“There is a keen interest in inter faith dialogue toward understanding the outlook of other religions and creating a greater sense of interfaith harmony,” Shalom TV president and CEO Rabbi Mark Golub said. “Much of this is driven by the rising awareness of Islam fueled [in part] by current affairs. More and more programs are now addressing this area.”
That’s noteworthy because it shows how faith-based networks can attract secular viewers who aren’t looking for religious programming but are drawn in when seeking information about, for example, the roots of the crises in the Middle East.
Trinity Broadcasting Network is another religious network expanding its interfaith offerings.
“On some of our programs, we openly encourage people of the Islamic faith to read the Bible,” vice president of affiliate sales and marketing Bob Higley said. “Our CEO, Paul Crouch Sr. would show the Koran and say that he’s reading it and read portions that line up with the Bible. We’re trying to do our part to have some unity and peace.”
Others welcome the premise of interfaith programming but caution that building bridges is often easier said than done.
“I think you’re flogging a dead horse to try to get Islam and Judaism to hold hands,” said Ray Comfort, co-host of The Way of the Master. “But it’s good when different denominations throw away their tags and realize that God doesn’t see the denominational tag on the door of the church.”
SIMILAR, BUT DIFFERENT
Another example of programming that casts a wide net is Trinity Broadcasting Network’s As It Was. The series takes an edutainment approach to Bible history that addresses mainstream concerns about sex and violence on TV.
“We’re going after the interfaith play,” said Dana Simons, the series’ producer. “There’s not a lot of argument among the denominations about the Old Testament. Family friendly is something any faith could get behind.”
As It Was profiles famous Biblical figures from the perspective of their contemporaries. For example, an episode about Goliath would use anecdotes from his shield carrier rather than Goliath himself. That story telling technique is similar to an approach that’s common in secular TV.
“People are gripped by Survivor, and all that really is is interviews with different people,” Simons said. “We’re trying to use the same model: depict the story by listening to all of these different viewpoints.”
As It Was also exemplifies how the religious market is courting younger demographics. The show’s producers provide youth ministers with director’s kits that allow kids and teens to make their own videos about Biblical characters.
Those videos then can be uploaded to God Tube, a YouTube-like site for the faith community. The show’s producers will pick the best one and award its creator with a free trip to Israel, where the episodes are filmed. Like their secular counterparts do with YouTube, As It Was puts show excerpts on God Tube.
The God Tube tie-in accomplishes two things. First, it leverages younger demographics’ use of the Internet and their preference for interactivity and hands-on experience. Second, putting the homemade videos online helps build awareness of As It Was and could steer more people to the cable series.
“Hopefully they’ll start looking at our clips and each others’, and I’m hoping we come out of this with more content for us where we could create a 30-minute episode of these kids’ stories,” Simons said. “Now grandma will get on the computer to watch her grandson playing David and Goliath. It’s cross-generational.”
The online component also shows how the religious market is helping cable operators and telco TV providers convince their video subscribers to sign up for broadband. The Inspiration Network’s INSP.net portal, for instance, provides a wide variety of streaming content. The network promotes the portal on its linear networks.
“We encourage viewers to call their cable operators to get cable modems,” said Rodney Tapp, INSP executive vice president for marketing and sales. “We’ve already demonstrated that we can drive digital distribution with our digital network, iLife. And we think we can drive cable-modem sales.”
Like their secular counterparts, some religious networks and programmers see broadband as a way to provide more on-demand content than what operators’ VOD systems can currently handle. Others see the Internet as a way to reach people who otherwise wouldn’t consider linear or VOD religious fare.
“The Web reaches a different audience,” said Paula White, host of Paula White Today, which is carried on a variety of religious and secular networks. “We find an audience that goes directly to the Web and bypasses television completely. It’s amazing. The Web is very effective.”
That view is shared by Eternal World Television Network, which launched its Web site in 1996 and currently offers a wide variety of audio and video online.
“EWTN has been very aggressive about putting multimedia content online,” network president Michael Warsaw said. “We began with downloadable audio files and low-bandwidth streaming and immediately had a great reaction from those who accessed that limited content.”
Like Paula White Ministries and others, EWTN sees the Web as an effective way to reach a wider range of demographics and get around multichannel providers’ VOD limitations.
“The Web has certainly been an important way for us to reach certain demographics, such as teens and young adults, who may not be inclined to sit down and watch our linear channels,” Warsaw said. “It also allows EWTN to make more content available than we can accommodate on our linear channels or through our VOD offerings. Our strategy is still evolving, but clearly online multimedia content is an important extension of our mission.”
But that begs a question: As the online selection grows and broadband penetration grows, will religious networks and their audiences start spending more time on the Internet than on TV? The debate is particularly intriguing for smaller and newer networks looking for wider distribution.
“The prognosticators of television are telling us that broadband will be the great leveler of all stations,” Faith Television Network president Jim West said. “I would envision that what we have on the air today — which is a general entertainment, faith-based network — could be spun off into five or six different genres on the Internet. We have music, history, biographies, movies, heath, all of which could be their own streams someday or cluster of VOD content.”
Over the past year, some secular and religious networks — such as Shalom TV — have launched as VOD-only services because, they say, cable operators and telco TV providers see on-demand as a low risk way to test the market for a new network. Networks could use a similar strategy online: test focused broadband portals to see if there’s enough of an audience to make a business case for expanding it. One reason is cost.
“Streaming has gotten to be very affordable,” West said.
Even so, putting content online has a few hurdles. One major complication is securing rights, which often aren’t included with those that allow linear TV presentations.
“It’s a rights issue,” West said “There’s a longstanding fear of digital piracy.”
Getting those rights also can be a logistical challenge. For example, Faith Television broadcasts content from more than 200 different programmers, so offering them online, too, usually means another round of contracts. “It’s a major undertaking to clear all those digital rights,” West said.
Some producers see resolving VOD and online rights and security as a just a matter of time, like the way that digital music issues are finally being addressed. Religious film producer David A.R. White is optimistic. “Hopefully we’ll get a handle on it,” White said.
And although some producers welcome linear TV as a way to drive DVD sales of films and shows, they also see VOD and streaming as potential revenue sources they want to control.
“We’re definitely going to pursue on-demand,” said Dave Balsiger, a producer at Grizzly Adams Productions, which develops family friendly fare. “We’re hit probably every two weeks by someone who wants to license for on-demand and download, but we’re saving that for when we can do it for ourselves.”