Ask executives at religious networks and producers of faith-based programming about trends in their corner of the multichannel market and one name keeps coming up: Mel Gibson. Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ grossed roughly $371 million domestically and $612 million worldwide. Those numbers make it tough for movie studios and other content providers to dismiss the religious market as a niche play.
“The whole Mel Gibson thing woke everybody up [to] the fact that this is a market,” said Dana Simons, producer of Trinity Broadcasting Network series As It Was.
Passion’s unexpected big screen success is benefiting the small screen, where religious programmers feel a mix of vindication and renewed excitement. That’s because faith-based films and programming is slowly shedding the stigma of having heavy-handed scripts, low production quality and acting that ranges from wooden to over-the-top.
One example of the new breed of fare is One Night With the King, starring household names such as Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif and John Rhys-Davies. The 2006 film was produced by Gener8Xion Entertainment; the company’s CEO is Matthew Crouch, former vice president of TBN.
“It was amazing that we were able to get that caliber of actor, and I think it was possible only because of the success of The Passion of the Christ,” said Bob Higley, vice president of affiliate sales and marketing at TBN, where One Night With the King made its broadcast premiere. “I think actors are realizing that it’s OK to act in religious films now.”
The new content is helping the faith-based market expand outside its core demographics, according to programmers.
“Instead of screaming televangelists being all that’s on, you’re getting some good, quality product,” Simons said. “That’s starting to draw new demographics, such as the younger markets.”
MORE CONTENT, MORE EYES?
Passion’s success also is attracting mainstream players to the religious genre. Some faith-based networks welcome their arrival, partly because more players translates into more programming to fill lineups and attract wider audiences.
“I welcome Fox Faith being formed,” Faith Television Network president Jim West said. “I welcome Sony looking for a dozen Christian titles a year. I think it’s a wonderful trend. Hollywood is waking up to the fact that 85% of America believes in God.”
That view is shared by Ray Comfort, who co-hosts The Way of the Master with former teen TV star Kirk Cameron (Growing Pains).
“The Passion of the Christ showed the secular bigwigs how much America wants God in programming,” Comfort said.
Although programmers such as Eternal World Television Network, The Inspiration Network and TBN enjoy high brand recognition among religious audiences, Hollywood helps bring in audiences that otherwise wouldn’t consider faith-based films or TV programs.
“One Night With the King was the first Fox Faith released on a national scale,” said Higley, whose network underwrote part of the film’s budget. “So the impact helped us a lot. Normally we would release a film to 300-400 theaters. [With Fox,] it was double or triple that.”
Despite the wide distribution, TBN did its part to cultivate an audience by, for example, providing viewers with behind-the-scenes footage of its making. “For over a year, we were getting our viewers interested in it so they’d all go out and pack the theaters,” Higley said. “It came out in the top 10 that weekend.”
RAISING THE BAR
Some in Hollywood say that religious movies and programming are becoming like the indie film market: a place where actors can find sink-your-teeth-into roles and writers and directors can explore big, tough questions about morality and the meaning of life. One example is the 2006 film The Theory of Everything, whose themes include the struggle between science and religion.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever a chance to have a script like that [again],” said Victor Lundin, the film’s star and a veteran of secular TV series such as Batman and Babylon 5. “I was very privileged.”
Others say that the bar has been raised for all religious content. One actor and producer who helped nurture that new sophistication is David A.R. White, who appeared on CBS’s Evening Shade for three seasons before focusing on religious films in 1992.
“The Christian stigma back then was low production value, and the scripts weren’t the best,” White said. “That’s what led me into producing them: I thought I could help the genre by getting better scripts, better production and better acting.”
Religious networks also can leverage increased parental concerns about violent and sexual content by providing family-friendly alternatives, including movies and shows that do more than just entertain. That helps explain why faith-based programming is getting more time on secular outlets.
“We have produced a few, very successful movies with Hallmark, [including] Love Comes Softly and Love’s Enduring Promise, both based on the best-selling Christian-oriented novels of Janette Oke,” Faith & Values Media president and CEO Ed Murray said. “Daily and weekly series such as New Morning and Naomi’s New Morning [featuring Naomi Judd] may also be pointing the way toward style and content that can work for an audience that’s looking for product that’s entertaining but offers something more.”
The major downside to improved production quality in the religious space: it’s more expensive than ever for ministers and churches to break into the multichannel market. A lone minister sitting behind a desk in front of a single camera is relatively cheap to produce. But that simply doesn’t cut it anymore, programmers say, especially when targeting younger demographics and the unchurched.
“We’re a visual generation,” said Paula White, host of Paula White Today, which is carried by a number of religious and secular networks. “If you’re flipping through channels, it’s the core of the message that causes people to connect, but they’re going to see before they hear you. The packaging is very important.”
But good packaging doesn’t come cheap, especially for a ministry that wants national exposure on a major religious network. “The reality is that most people don’t make it because of the finances,” White said.
That situation poses a challenge for religious networks: On the one hand, they want programming that looks as professional as anything on secular TV. But on the other, setting the bar too high makes it difficult to find enough programming to fill lineups. So networks do what they can, which increasingly means doling out free advice about how to shoot on a shoestring.
“When we see a minister who we think is worthy of being on a national program, we’ll certainly do what we can to help them get to broadcast standards,” TBN’s Higley said.
Ministers and churches also can get a boost from the Technologies for Worship conference (www.nabshow.com/worship_conference.php), which will be held concurrently with the National Association of Broadcasters show April 14-19.
The conference provides tips about production basics such as lighting and audio mixing, as well as opportunities for ministers and churches to present their local and regional fare to national religious networks. TBN will pick the best program in the church format and another in the contemporary youth category; winners will be showcased on its Church Channel and JCTV networks, respectively.
“In the top 30 to 50 markets, there’s at least a half-dozen to a couple dozen [churches] that do television,” INSP executive vice president for marketing and sales Rodney Tapp said.
The conference and Star Search-style contest are noteworthy because they’re examples of how religious networks are trying to identify and cultivate the talent necessary to program their networks in the years to come. “We hope to generate excitement and let these church producers realize that there’s a chance they can get their show on national television,” Higley said. “We’ll look at all of them — especially the top 10 or 20 — to find some airtime slots.”
Those slots are scarce, which is another reason why newcomers need to use production quality to help stand out from the pack. An emerging option is high-definition: TBN plans to launch an HD network by year’s end. Even though the network recently finished building an HD studio in Costa Mesa, Calif., it won’t be able to fill the new channel by itself. It also has 33 broadcast stations that will need a steady supply of HD programming.
“We’re getting the word out that anybody producing in HD, we want to get their show on,” Higley said. “There’s a one-year waiting list to get on TBN, but if they produce in HD, they could get on pretty quick. That’s going to be our message at NAB.”
Video on demand is another way for ministries and churches to get wider exposure. One reason is because VOD is a less risky way for operators or religious networks to test the market. INSP is taking a slightly different approach, partly to avoid infringing on cable operators’ business of selling airtime to local churches.
“We’re not trying to step on those toes at all,” Tapp said. “What we want to do is create a video directory of churches.”
Another reason for that strategy is INSP’s research, which found that the average VOD viewing time is about 13 minutes.
“It doesn’t make sense to put a 60-minute [service] on VOD because people won’t watch that long,” Tapp said. “So we’re approaching churches with the idea of putting 7-10 minutes on Inspiration On Demand.”
In that span, churches could provide information such as their missions and worship times, and introduce leaders including their ministers and choir directors. That approach also reduces the cost of entry for churches.
“You can do that very easily and effectively in 7-10 minutes and not break the bank,” Tapp said.
Not every denomination believes that multichannel is the best way to reach its members or the unchurched. One example is The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, which is the 11th largest church body in North America. Although LCMS has never been hesitant to use new media — it has owned a St. Louis radio station for nearly 60 years and produces TV programming through its Lutheran Hour Ministries division — the organization is still debating whether to emulate EWTN and Shalom TV and create a cable network focused on a single denomination. One reason for its hesitation is the size of the addressable market.
“We have been exploring some of those issues and would be interested,” said Rev. Joel Brondos, a member of the LCMS’s board for communication services. “Our member base is considerably smaller than the Roman Catholic church.”
LCMS also is among the church bodies and programmers that see streaming Internet video and Podcasts as a potentially better fit, especially for reaching younger demographics.
“Things are changing so much today, and we don’t want to commit to some technology that A) is going to be very expensive and B) might be as good as something more economical that has a broader reach,” Brondos said. “The questions we’ve been taking our time examining is whether cable TV is the route to go or Podcasting, for example, or broadcasting over the Internet.”
The market for such alternatives is already being seeded by sites such as God Tube, a YouTube-type start-up.
“We have seen a dramatic increase in the viewership of products like 'viral videos’ and other relatively inexpensive productions,” INSP senior vice president of corporate communications and research John Roos said. “This is the environment in which all television networks and programs must operate.”
That environment mirrors the secular world in at least one respect: Although religious networks and programmers see the Internet potentially siphoning off some viewership, they also see it increasing awareness of their programs.
“[God Tube] has huge reach into the Christian market,” said As It Was’s Simons, whose company is partnered with God Tube.
Some religious networks also see Podcasts and streaming as a way to cement relationships with cable operators and telco TV providers by giving video subscribers one more reason to sign up for broadband, too.
“EWTN has heard positive feedback from cable operators about the increase of our online content,” EWTN president Michael Warsaw said. “Another strategy that we believe helps the local operator is to partner with Catholic schools in developing and making available content that supports teachers’ efforts in the classroom. By doing this, we are able to bring the cable operator together with a school in their community.”