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Digital Cable Is Truly a … Godsend

Shop talk with Christian-television executives is mainly about television, but not entirely. For all the similarities, their networks differ profoundly from the secular as they navigate the 21st century TV landscape.

One example is the arrival of digital television, which has affected Christian networks in ways both similar to and distinct from secular companies. For starters, without digital cable many networks would largely be stuck on low-power broadcast stations. FamilyNet, for one, distributes its programming over 111 stations (86 of them low-power) but also over 109 cable systems. That gives it a potential reach of 31 million homes.

The Word Network might not even exist without digital cable. Vice President Lewis Gibbs says that, by offering a unique, narrow niche—urban ministries and gospel—the network has gotten into 33 million homes, almost all digital.

Catholic-oriented Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) has grown in recent years from 30 million analog homes to 55 million homes, says President Michael Warsaw. "The digital rollout has made a tremendous change in our distribution." Christian networks, he adds, are now able to add secondary channels.

Spanish-language Christian channels—often imports of their own Central and Latin American efforts—are the most popular, Warsaw says, because they hope to reach the largest, fastest-growing minority (EWTN in particular since most Latinos are Catholic). But they also know that cable operators and satellite systems are anxious to click with that audience. "We looked at the state of the cable industry, and certainly their desire to serve this market helps our cause," he says.

But digital conversion comes at a cost, winnowing out some of the smaller religious operators. "We're non-profits so we don't have extra revenue streams the way secular cable networks do to make the changes in equipment and technology," says Frank Wright, president of National Religious Broadcasters. "It takes an enormous investment for digital conversion, and the cycle in technological change has gotten so tight that you know you'll need more going forward. Instead, I see a lot of Christian networks selling off stations to secular companies."

(Not all Christian broadcasters are members of NRB. Many, including one of the largest, Trinity Broadcast Network, won't submit to the group's financial-disclosure rules, implemented after the 1980s televangelist scandals. Others feature programming that is too far afield from Christian orthodoxy and Biblical teaching, whether it's healers and charismatics or those who preach an emphasis on using faith to gain material wealth. "The NRB offers mainstream evangelical programming," Wright says.)

Given the concurrent rise of media consolidation, some say the digital world has not proved to be the promised land. "Media consolidation has us very concerned," Wright says. He thinks Christian broadcasters may need to drop concerns over digital must-carry and work outside that framework to gain support from cable operators.

FamilyNet Director of Affiliate Relations Tom Snethen finds that consolidation means fewer decision-makers, which can make life easier. "However, if you can't get them interested, you get shut out of a pretty big chunk of the pie." Much of the anticipated shelf space, he adds, has been gobbled up by high-definition channels.

Bob Higley, vice president of cable affiliate sales and relations for Trinity Broadcast Network (TBN), complains that "the big elephants" throw their weight around. (TBN, which is in 95 million homes through broadcast and cable and has three extra digital channels, is tiny compared with GE or Time Warner.)

He notes that 33% of American households go to church every week, giving religious television a large niche. For years, he says, the gatekeepers said must-carry for the biggest companies was filling all the analog channels but patience would be rewarded when digital arrived. "Now that digital is here, these conglomerates are saying, 'We have our own networks, and other big content owners have leverage so they come first again.'"

Religious networks have one built-in advantage when it comes to marketing themselves to cable operators and satellite systems, Higley says: They can mobilize an impressive grassroots marketing force headed by local church leaders in every DMA.

However, the networks still face a marketing challenge. FamilyNet offers an extensive menu of wholesome entertainment, such as cooking and health shows. Says Snethen, "We don't consider ourselves a religious network. We're a safe haven for anyone who embraces traditional values, even if you're an atheist." But "we're not denying we're a religious network."

He explains the contradiction by saying that being termed "religious" can be poison in the minds of cable and satellite executives, who automatically think of the typical "preach-and-teach" shows and are turned off.

Perhaps the biggest marketing challenge is internal.

Christian Family Network Television President Rod Payne, who worked eight years for an ABC affiliate, says, when it comes to marketing or negotiating deals, "you have to drag some Christian executives kicking and screaming. People worry about being too calculating."

Payne uses basic but savvy tactics like advertising for marriage conferences on female-skewing networks like Lifetime or Nickelodeon (to catch the stay-at-home mom). "No man in the world ever invited his wife to a marriage conference," he says.

When he suggests advertising Christian television on, say, country radio or The Jerry Springer Show, many Christians find the suggestion impure. "A lot of channels say 'How dare you.' Those are the people who need to hear about the networks. My job," he points out, "is not to convert the converted."

John Roos, senior vice president of marketing for INSP, agrees. He just returned from a CTAM research convention and says his company—dotted with former executives of Discovery, USA and the like—is "committed to higher professionalism. We base our strategies on what's going on in the industry and consumer world."

He adds that, at virtually every research event he attends, "I'm the only person from a religious network."

Compounding concerns about media consolidation is the fear that it will revive the repealed Fairness Doctrine, which once guaranteed time for opposing viewpoints but was axed because cable provided so many opportunities. Wright agrees that the new landscape lends intellectual credence to the notion of reinstating the doctrine but says, "It would be the death penalty for Christian broadcasters." Not only would any comment on homosexuality or abortion prompt the need for rebuttal time, but so would more strictly religious statements about the virgin birth or the resurrection. "It would literally end our ability to put anything on."