Startup Auditions Itself for Carriage

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The year-old Gospel Music Channel is trying to prove its worth to operators by gathering data on potential subscribers as it firms up its ties with the Christian music community.

Currently in less than 4 million cable homes, the network recently concluded a high-stakes gamble: Investing in an original series modeled after American Idol that executives hoped would gain it publicity and support from would-be viewers.

The show, Gospel Dreams, wrapped up on Dec. 1. Brad Siegel, vice chairman of the network, branded it a success because the program drew the attention of such media outlets as the NBC Nightly News, USA Today and Cable News Network.

At this point in the network’s growth, “ratings are not a priority,” Siegel said. Rather, Gospel Dreams was used as a marketing tool to ferret out the channel’s supporters.

The channel held auditions in seven markets: Detroit; St. Louis; Memphis; Atlanta; Irving (in the Dallas-Fort Worth area), Texas; New Orleans (before Hurricane Katrina); and Chicago. In each locale, the channel forged partnerships with the top two gospel or contemporary Christian radio stations, including airtime buys. That prompted the on-air personalities to talk up the area event, Siegel said.

Gospel Music did not use the advertising to promote the network itself on those spots for fear of muddying the event’s message.

Two of the Gospel Dreams judges in each market were also area celebrities or disc jockeys from local radio stations, ensuring local interest, he added.

At the events, the network put its marketing force to work, collecting signatures and addresses from fans. Those lists would later be presented to operators in those markets to bolster Gospel’s carriage message.

About 1,500 people showed up for each audition. For the finale, the network organized viewing parties at major congregations in each city so fans could see their hometown contestants.

“We prefer to take a friendlier approach to our [cable affiliate] customers, then have [fans] call and flood the local phone center,” Siegel said.

In addition to its own shows, Gospel Music Channel is sponsoring tours by major Christian acts such as the band Casting Crowns. The band’s equipment semi-trailer is wrapped with a Gospel Music Channel banner, and the members are so supportive of the channel that they mention it during their performances, Siegel said.

The band held concerts in 39 markets this year, averaging 4,000 ticket-buyers. Siegel estimated that 1,000 of those people went to the Gospel Music Channel booth at the venue and signed petitions supporting carriage of the network.

“They’re passionate,” he said.

Those who don’t sign on site later call 877-4GOSPEL, providing their names and numbers. The channel will sponsor will another 50 tour dates in 2006.

By year-end, Siegel estimates the channel will have between 70,000 to 95,000 calls and petitions to present to operators in key markets in an effort to convince them to sign carriage deals.