Mainstream networks are embracing the values of their faith-based brethren while religious programmers are seeking the showmanship of their secular kin.
“Automobile mechanics who are Christians, they still want to be the best automobile mechanics,” Christian Broadcasting Network president Michael Little said. “We see ourselves as broadcasters having a responsibility toward programming excellence.”
CBN, best known as the home of The 700 Club, will raise its game this year by launching Dateline: Jerusalem, a hard-news show based out of the Holy City and hosted by CBN News veteran Chris Mitchell, according to Little.
While religious programmers are finding success in nontraditional formats, secular TV networks are tapping into a thirst for religious and spiritual content that, far from being taboo, can garner some serious ratings.
GSN learned that lesson in 2012 with the Jeff Foxworthyhosted American Bible Challenge, which became the game show-based network’s highest-rated show ever. The August 2012 premiere set a network record with 1.7 million total viewers, and it was up 34% among women ages 18 to 49 and 17% among women 25 to 54 in its second season. Overall, it has averaged more than 800,000 viewers per episode, GSN said.
Now, GSN is developing It Takes a Church, a dating show in which church members play matchmaker for eligible congregants.
“It is the anti-Bachelor,” GSN executive vice president of programming Amy Introcaso- Davis said. “It’s much closer to something like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. It’s a bit of an emotional journey for the dater.”
GSN said it put out an open casting call for the eight-episode show and heard from about 100 churches before whittling the field down to eight different congregations around the country. Hosted by singer Natalie Grant, It Takes a Church is on course to launch this year.
At OWN, executives are planning another ambitious season of Super Soul Sunday, the late Sunday morning block that includes new Oprah Winfrey interviews with thinkers, authors, filmmakers and spiritual leaders. Network president Sheri Salata said the programming is absolutely central to the brand.
“There are a portion of people who would describe themselves as highly religious who come home and watch Super Soul when they come home from church,” she said. Others are viewers who have found that their childhood religion is no longer fulfilling, so they come in search of inspiration to find a different path, Salata added. Still others tune in simply because Winfrey is on TV, she said.
Currently in repeats, Super Soul Sunday has aired in four cycles since its July 2011 launch and has averaged more than 250,000 viewers, per OWN. The new season starts on March 23.
“They all seem to get along, and allow room for one another to be experiencing it in whatever way they wish,” Salata said of these overlapping audience groups.
Winfrey works closely with producers, overseeing all content and curating the thought leaders who come and chat with her Salata said. Upcoming guests will include Shirley MacLaine, Elizabeth Lesser and Gary Zukav.
Late next month, OWN will also premiere a 10-week series featuring Winfrey and bestselling author/spiritual leader Eckhart Tolle, based on his book A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose.
TBN continues to move forward after the death of founder Paul Crouch late last year. In April, the company will rebrand its youth network JCTV as JUCE TV and launch it HDTV. JUCE TV will target 18-to-34-year-olds with a mix of faith and family programming, plus some extreme sports and profi les of Christian athletes.
TBN also continues to expand in international markets, launching Alpha TV in Finland, which now reaches 75% of total households in that country.
BYUtv, owned and operated by Brigham Young University and affiliated with the Mormon church, is building off the crossover success of original shows such as drama Granite Flats, returning on April 6, and sketch-comedy series Studio C.
Network president Scott Swofford said popularity with viewers and a robust online following made the decision to renew Granite Flats easy.
“They’ve been a very active force” online, Swofford said of fans. He said YouTube clips from the show have increased tenfold over time. “I’m afraid if we didn’t do the second season of Granite Flats, I’d have a contract out on my head,” he joked.
Studio C also returns this spring, with Swofford predicting it will set viewership records.
Swofford estimated he’s taken about 150 pitches this past year, with five or six nonscripted shows due this fall and another scripted series set for 2015.
Catholic network EWTN plans a heavy spring slate of new shows. Eight debuting series include Grab Your Catechism, a chapter-by-chapter exposition of the Catechism, hosted by Father Charles Conner, and Cross Training, a motivational workout show focusing on mind, body and spirit.
Religious and mainstream networks are each taking a page from the other, as the former look to make their shows more entertaining while the latter embrace more spiritual themes.
Sounding the Alarm About Retrans Reform
While nontraditional religious outlets are finding success with shows pertaining to religion and spirituality, some traditional religious broadcasters are having something of an existential crisis, in part due to efforts to change the law that requires cable, satellite-TV and telco-TV providers to carry local broadcast channels.
Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) has proposed legislation that would drop must-carry rules in a broader deregulation bill, dubbed the Next Generation Television Marketplace Act, an update of the 1992 Cable Act.
Many smaller religious broadcasters worry the bill could cause cable and satellite operators to drop religious stations in favor of more lucrative deals with other networks.
More broadly, the National Religious Broadcasters trade association has joined the new TVFreedom.org coalition that’s pushing back on efforts by multichannel video providers to make changes to regulations governing retransmission consent, or compensation paid for carrying broadcast channels. The NRB’s annual convention is Feb. 22-25 in Nashville, Tenn.
“It’s going to hurt the small, low-funded stations because they often serve a Christian market and they don’t have the money to make the most competitive programming,” CBN’s Michael Litt le said of what might happen if small broadcast stations lost the ability to compel multichannel video providers to carry them. “We would fight [alongside] them ideologically, not so much because we would be losing ourselves. We would want our friends to be protected from decisions that would be based only on economics.”
TBN spokesman Colby May said multichannel video providers have spent millions of dollars with Washington lobbyists to try to get the laws changed.
“We could be terribly impacted,” he said. “Rather than having access to your markets, cable becomes the gatekeeper, satellite becomes the gatekeeper. All broadcasters have a big dog in this fight.” — David Tanklefsky