The Eternal Mission

MTV: Music Television and Eternal Word Television Network were separated at birth by only a few weeks. As they close in on age 25, they couldn’t be much more different. While MTV may get more press, EWTN has become quite influential in its own right, reaching more than 118 million TV households in 127 countries and territories (across more than 4,300 cable systems). EWTN also has a global short-wave radio station, a direct broadcast satellite service, a satellite-delivered AM and FM radio network, a satellite radio service through Sirius, a Web site and a publishing arm. In addition to its main cable network, it runs the Spanish-language EWTN Español, as well as another Spanish-language network, El Canal Católico, specifically geared for viewers in Latin America. Founded by Catholic nun Mother Angelica, the network continues to expand its global reach and audience with the kind of gusto for which she’s famous. Mother Angelica retired after suffering a stroke three years ago, but EWTN president Michael Warsaw sat down with Multichannel News contributor Michael Grebb to discuss the network’s evolution, the state of secular cable programming and the place of religious faith in the cable universe. An edited transcript follows:

MCN: How has religious programming on cable evolved over the years?

Michael Warsaw: We were part of the early cable community. The resources were limited. The kinds of programs you could do in those days were pretty limited. But over the years, EWTN has used technology more and more — whether it be the ability to do live interviews via satellite or to do live events around the world via satellite.

MCN: And you’ve certainly used the Internet.

Warsaw: In 1996, EWTN launched its online division, so we were ahead of the curve on that to some degree. With streaming video, we find that there are an enormous number of people — particularly outside of the U.S. — who don’t have access to EWTN but who are able to go onto our Web site and view its programming over the Internet using their broadband connection in Korea or Saudi Arabia or other places in the world.

From the early days, Mother Angelica realized that it is important for a religious media outlet to use technology to its fullest extent and to use whatever new technologies come along in order to reach new audiences and further the gospel. Obviously, that’s our mission and the mission of all religious programmers, so we should be at the cutting edge.

MCN: What was it like working with Mother Angelica all those years?

Warsaw: She’s a remarkable woman. Throughout her life, she has always been attuned to what God’s will has been. Here was a cloistered nun who had had almost no exposure to television in her lifetime, who at 58 years of age decided to apply to the [Federal Communications Commission] to get an uplink license so she could put a 10-meter antenna in the backyard of her monastery and start a cable network. That’s pretty courageous.

With 12 nuns and $200 in the bank, she decided to step forward and establish this network — just a remarkable woman of faith. She was a very hands-on leader. She knew every employee by their first name and knew the details from one end of the operation to the other.

She has a very gifted business mind, but, at the same time, she’s very loving, generous and kind — just a very grandmotherly kind of person. So it made for an interesting dynamic in meetings.

MCN: As secular television continues to push the envelope, do you view yourself as a counterweight to some of that programming?

Warsaw: Absolutely. Our mission is to present the truth and to advance the truth as advanced by the magistracy of the Roman Catholic church. So when EWTN and other religious programmers exist in a sea of programming that continues to push the envelope and at times is promoting values that are at odds with Christian beliefs, I think it’s more important than ever for us to be in the mix — to be able to be an oasis or a refuge for people to turn to — and not only for people of faith.

Many times we hear from people who tell us they had no religious values or very lukewarm in their religious practice and while surfing the channels stumbled across EWTN. They were drawn in. It has been an opportunity for conversion and real change in their lives. So I think it’s important the EWTN and other religious programmers are out there in the midst of that secular content. We are there trying to influence the culture. I think it’s important for networks like EWTN and others in the religious realm to try to bring unity and try to be a voice for reconciliation in our society.

MCN: Considering EWTN’s Catholic mission, how does the network approach church scandals?

Warsaw: In the Catholic church over the last number of years, there have been obviously very public, very high-profile scandals, and EWTN has never shied away from that.

We believe that part of our mission is to make our audience aware of these things and of the causes and the issues related to those. EWTN is an independent network.

We are not funded by the church. We are not established by the church. It does give us the freedom to address issues and speak about issues confronting the church without having to be an official spokesperson of the church. That is the job of the bishops of the church. Our task is to cover the whole of the church.

MCN: What does the future hold for EWTN?

Warsaw: God willing, we continue on the same path that we have been on. I think there are certainly more growth opportunities here in the United States in terms of traditional cable and satellite distribution. There are certainly opportunities within the Hispanic community, and we are hopeful that our U.S. Spanish channel — EWTN Español — will continue to grow and reach more and more people in this country.

We look beyond the borders of the U.S. as well. There is a tremendous opportunity abroad. We’ve made great strides in the international arena over the last 10 years, but there’s much, much more to do there.

We also look at the ever-expanding, ever-changing world of technology. Whatever the latest means, whatever the most cutting-edge means of reaching out to individuals — that’s something that we need to be aware of, involved in, and need to be a part of.