In a crowded field of more than two dozen faith-based networks covering virtually every denomination and demographic, one of the greatest challenges for programmers is finding ways to stretch beyond old formulas that effectively preach only to the converted.
Faced with the need to win eyeballs, as well as carriage, these networks are exploring different ways to serve core viewers while attracting new ones.
BREAKING THE FORMULA
“When you go on these Christian networks, there’s a proven formula,” said Bill Keller, president of Bill Keller Ministries and host of Live Prayer, a nightly talk show aired on several ABC and i (formerly Pax TV) affiliates in Florida that gets additional exposure through cable retransmission. “You preach and teach for 10 minutes, then you beg for money for five minutes, preach and teach for five minutes, then sell your books and tapes for five minutes.”
The Inspiration Networks’ John Roos agreed. “It’s not acceptable to cram things down people’s throats and give them the same old stuff,” said Roos, the company’s senior vice president of corporate communications and research. “This new generation of consumers is growing up with a position of power and control.”
INSP, which is available on more than 2,000 cable systems nationwide, offers programming aimed at women, kids and teenagers. On May 3, it launched a broadband portal, www.inspiration.net, which streams on-demand content with a focus on lifestyle topics, including sports, music, gardening, hunting and fishing. The underlying religious theme is supposed to set it apart from what’s already widely available from secular networks and Web sites. Meanwhile, most of inspiration.net’s content is exclusive and original, which helps it avoid the stereotype that religious networks feature many of the same personalities and programs as every other network in the genre.
“We think that Christians as a rule over time have had a tendency to accept less than the best,” Roos said. “We felt that that wasn’t acceptable. The religious community is not interested in one kind of programming.”
That view is shared by Trinity Broadcasting Network, which claims to have more original and exclusive programs than other faith channels.
“We’re trying to produce as much original programming as possible,” TBN vice president of affiliate sales and marketing Bob Higley said. “We see that as key. Half the programs on TBN are original or we own exclusive rights to them.”
Eternal World Television Network also emphasizes original programming as a market differentiator. “Though EWTN acquires Catholic programming from around the world, the vast majority of our programs are produced by us and hence are exclusive to our networks,” senior vice president for programming, production and radio Doug Keck said. “On any given day, [roughly] 75% of our program grid is exclusive to us.”
Reaching younger audiences is one focus for religious programmers such as EWTN. That network’s lineup includes a Saturday morning block of children’s shows such as Angel Force, Image of God and The Story Keepers.
At start-up Shalom TV, youth-oriented programming will include Israeli Salad, a magazine-style show aimed at twenty-something’s, and a block of kids’ shows such as Animated Haggadah.
TBN’s five networks include Smile of a Child targeting preschool to 12-year-old viewers and the JCTV network aimed at 13- to 30-year-olds.
For one of its JCTV originals, FM, TBN teamed with 89.7 Power FM, a Christian rock radio station in Dallas. The reality show features several of Power FM’s DJs.
As a result, FM gets cross-promoted on the radio station, with the obvious benefit of introducing JCTV to the station’s core Christian audience. TBN hopes that Power FM, with a rotation that includes mainstream artists, will help the network reach teens and young adults who don’t regularly listen to Christian artists, attend church or watch religious programming.
TBN also markets JCTV at events that are likely to attract the under-30 set, such as music festivals featuring Christian and cross-over artists. “We’re going to the concerts and setting up booths, we’re showing the video screen between acts or we’ve got banners up,” Higley said.
Similarly, The Word Network, which bills itself as “the Urban Religious Channel,” will try to appeal to young fans of reality shows with its own forthcoming original series Can You Sing?
“We’re going to several cities across the United States and holding auditions,” Word vice president of operations Lewis Gibbs said. “It’s basically our version of Star Search.”
Word’s other youth-oriented shows include Gospel Grooves, which features music and videos from Christian artists, documentaries on celebrities such as Kobe Bryant and children’s series Flying House.
EWTN, meanwhile, is catering to teens and tweens by offering content in a wide variety of formats, including Podcasts and online streaming multimedia. The network is also expanding programming aimed at young adults.
“We have recently premiered a new weekly series called Parables, which features college students reflecting on the scriptures in a retreat setting,” Keck said. “A series targeting high schoolers faced with making moral choices in their lives and relationships is also set for production this summer. We are also busy producing new episodes of a program targeting young teens, Knights of St. Michael, that airs after our afternoon children’s program block.”
Daystar Television Network, which operates over 40 stations nationwide, sees cutting-edge technology as one way to attract younger viewers. “Daystar is in the process of creating original children’s programming utilizing the latest MOCAP [or Motion Capture animation] technology, which was used in Polar Express,” said Janice Smith, vice president of programming.
Women are another key demographic that many religious and inspirational networks are courting with original programming. One example is TCT, with a lineup that includes talk show Time Out for Women and A Different View, which is hosted by five women. At TBN, one example is A Woman’s Destiny With: Terry Meeuwsen, which features celebrity interviews and testimonials.
Aside from being a draw for viewers, original programming — regardless of the target demographic — can also be key to winning and hanging onto carriage. “Usually the cable operators will ask, 'Tell us about your original programming,’ ” Higley said. “If you don’t have a lot, it might be hard to get deals signed.”
Of course, a key component for many religious networks’ programming are the ministers featured on these channels.
“We have found that inclusion of local pastors, churches and community organizations to be absolutely foundational to our success,” TCT president Garth Coonce said. “When you meet people where they live, with programming that speaks to their inner most questions and needs, you are going to build an interested and loyal audience. All the PR work and promotional buzz in the world can’t buy a truly loyal viewer.”
EWTN is another network that works the local angle to build awareness of its programming. “We have found that working with local churches has been very helpful,” network vice president of marketing Chris Wegemer said. “We [also] work with various Catholic organizations and media outlets on the national and regional levels to raise awareness about EWTN throughout the year, especially during special seasons [such as] Lent/Easter and Advent/Christmas. Moreover, we have identified many of our most enthusiastic viewers who are willing to volunteer their time to actively encourage viewership in their local communities.”
Daystar also has used local promotions and outreach to build awareness. “We’ve done radio spots [and] newspaper ads,” Smith said. “We have had pastors of the leading churches come and be guests on our national program. The live remote broadcasts bring a great awareness of Daystar.”
One downside to working with local houses of worship is that it runs the risk of missing the roughly 57% of Americans who don’t regularly attend a church, mosque or synagogue.
That is becoming even more of a concern because some research indicates that church attendance is declining. According to Barna Research, 49% of U.S. adults attended church during a typical week in 1991. That dropped to 43% by 2004.
Still, some programmers counter that declining church attendance does not necessarily translate into a smaller addressable market.
“I am not convinced that church attendance is declining so much as it is shifting — shifting away from traditional organizations and structures toward movements and activities that are effectively addressing the needs of people,” said Coonce. “I think that’s where inspirational TV truly shines. Where else can you go on the dial and find channels that consistently deliver answers to life’s most difficult issues, and find programming that instills hope and a passion for living instead of fear, despair and destruction?”
Daystar is using a variety of channels to build awareness among people who don’t attend church. “We have done cable advertising and done it around secular channels to reach the non-churched,” Smith said. “We’ve also had famous or mainstream guests on our network program that non-churched people would know: celebrities, actors and athletes who would attract someone flipping through the dial.”
Attracting a wide audience increasingly means producing content that speaks to different demographics within a single denomination, such as Hispanic Catholics or Jewish women.
“The religious community is not interested in one kind of programming,” said Roos. Inspiration currently offers programs for 20 denominations and created La Familia Cosmovision to serve Hispanics.
Another example is EWTN, which launched three blocks of Hispanic-oriented programming in 1989 and debuted a 24-hour Spanish-language network in North America in 1999.
Programmers are also trying to broaden their appeal by positioning content as more lifestyle-oriented. In 1998, Inspiration paved the way when it launched its i-Lifetv network, which charges a fee to cable operators. Its inspiration.net portal builds on the lifestyle strategy by offering content ranging from gardening to sports.
“The first five or six years were uphill because the industry was not in favor of, nor understood, why we needed to have a lifestyle network and why it was important to charge a subscriber fee,” Roos said. “Over time, we’ve been able to demonstrate the validity of the concept that people go to church, but they do a lot of other things. People don’t go to church 24 hours a day. They’ve got families, jobs, finances, lives.”
'A CULTURAL SERVICE’
That belief is shared by Rabbi Mark Golub, CEO of the Shalom TV network, which launches in August. “We are a cultural service,’’ Golub said, “not a religious network.”
Like Shalom TV, TCT believes in the importance not only of a wider variety of programming, but of distribution, too. “We see new HD productions, demographically targeted programming [for] children, teens, tweens, Hispanics and Asians, and repackaging of flagship programming for [video on demand] and mobile service as our major drivers for the near term,” Coonce said.
Religious networks are also trying to demonstrate to operators that they can draw in new subscribers or get existing customers to upgrade to digital if that’s the only way subscribers can access their programming.
“For each of our launches in the major urban markets, we have worked with the cable operator to hold 'After Worship Launch Receptions’ at these mega-churches,” Word director of marketing and affiliate relations John Mattiello said. “We bring [the operator] into the church to offer special promotions to the members. These churches range from 3,000 to 15,000 members. The cable operator leaves with orders after the promotion. Plus, weeks prior to the event and after we provide flyers and other promotional information so that church members know that we are now available on the cable operator in their town.”
Inspiration also has had success in showing operators how religious programming can bring in customers.
“We did a major test with a Cox [Communication Inc.] system in Las Vegas in September 2004,” Roos said. “We had around 4,500 new subscribers, including 3,800 who had never subscribed to cable [but who] signed up for the digital package as a result of this campaign.”
That kind of showing can count for a lot when it comes to getting and retaining carriage.
“For new and independent niche services, there needs to be a clear value proposition for cable operators,” Shalom TV’s Golub said.
As most religious programming also qualifies as family fare, networks have been able to leverage that at a time when regulators and consumer watchdogs are increasingly concerned about violence and sexual content in secular programming.
“We see increasing interest from cable due to the nature of our content — family-friendly, worry-free TV, with no license fees — and coming VOD offerings,” Coonce said. “We are also seeing dramatically improved outlet opportunities, thanks to telcos’ and [Internet Protocol-TV services’] willingness to open wide their gates to inspirational programming.”
The wild card is the push for per-channel pricing, which groups such as the Faith and Family Broadcasting Coalition say would prevent viewers from being exposed to programming that might interest them.
One concern is that the new pricing plans would eliminate the chance that cable subscribers might stumble across a religious or inspirational network while channel-surfing and wind up becoming a regular viewer.
“A la carte creates the unintended consequence of truncating new viewer access to the very programming that it seeks to encourage,” Coonce said. “There has to be a better way of getting to the root of the problem, whether that’s improved V-chip capabilities, better family program packaging, broader application of the indecency standards or all of the above.”