Go With the Flow: Hispanic Religious Channels Grow

There is little doubt that Spanish-language programming and networks are a couple of the television industry's hottest sectors, and that trend is carrying over to religious telecasters, too.

The U.S. Hispanic population is expected to have a purchasing power of $1 trillion by 2007, and while religious TV operations like donations, they are also as eager to minister to their audience's spiritual side.

Like many other Hispanic networks available in the U.S., faith-based television programming for the Hispanic community has deep roots in the Latin American television industry, tracing its origins back to the 1980s and 1990s. That's when the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), Eternal World Television Network (EWTN) and other faith-based broadcasters began launching television operations in Latin America. Those operators started U.S. versions as the migration accelerated.

There are now at least four 24-hour Spanish-language cable and satellite networks—EWTN Español, Family Christian Television, Maria Vision and TBN Enlace USA—and a much larger group of broadcasters and programmers, such as the Christian Broadcasting Network, targeting Hispanic viewers.

Catholics the target

Some of these networks—notably EWTN and Mexico's Maria Vision—offer programming that targets Catholic Hispanics, who number more than 27 million in the U.S.

“Thanks to hefty immigration from Latin America, the overall number of U.S. Catholics has grown by about 71% since 1960, and Hispanics are already a majority in 21% of all parishes,” notes Walter Cordova, national marketing manager at EWTN Español.

That network began offering Spanish-language programming in Latin America in 1996 and launched EWTN Español as a U.S. feed in 1999. The channel, which is given away to operators and supported entirely by viewer donations, receives no funding from the Catholic Church and takes no ads. About 90% is produced in Spanish.

The network doesn't provide U.S. subscription figures, but Cordova says it is currently available in six of the top 10 Hispanic markets; it has already signed deals that will put the network in all of the top 10 markets by year's end.

The conversion factor

While seven in 10 Hispanics still call themselves Catholics, Protestant evangelical programmers are also pumping additional resources into the Hispanic community.

Protestant churches have seen rapid growth in Latin America during the past 20 years and have been successful in recruiting U.S. Hispanics as well.

A 2002 study by the Hispanic Churches in American Public Life research project, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, found that the proportion of U.S. Hispanics who are Catholic drops from 74% among the first generation to 72% in the second generation and 62% in the third. A large number of Hispanic Catholics—more than 26%, or 6.6 million—also have reported having a “born-again experience” that tends to make them particularly sympathetic to evangelical Protestant churches.

One of the largest evangelical programmers, CBN, has been producing and broadcasting television programs in Latin America for 25 years, beginning with a translated version of its flagship 700 Club program. Since then, it has expanded the range of its programs, which range from music videos to docudramas.

The shows generally try to take a “non-denominational” approach to Christianity that would appeal to Catholics as well as Protestants, notes Sandra Santiago Smith, director of international programming at CBN International. Many of the Hispanic shows now air in the U.S., too.

One major effort is Club 700 Hoy, launched late last year in 14 Latin American markets and targeted to a younger, 25-45 demo. The talk show will begin airing on an as-yet-undisclosed national Hispanic network sometime in March.

TBN builds Mexican studio

“This is just the beginning, a baby step,” says Santiago Smith. “The leadership of CBN is fully behind the effort. The U.S. Hispanic community represents an important opportunity for us.”

Rival TBN, with longstanding ties to Latin America, is making a major push to target U.S. Hispanics. In 1987, the network began partnering with a Latin American firm, Enlace, to provide programming in the region. In 2002, TBN used that programming to launch a 24-hour cable and satellite network called TBN Enlace.

Like EWTN, TBN Enlace offers the network free to cable operators and depends on donations for funding, notes Bob Higley, VP of cable and satellite relations at TBN Networks.

About 70% of TBN's programming is produced in Spanish, with the rest dubbed.

TBN has been working to create a wide range of programming. A new studio in Mexico will allow TBN to ramp up programming to target Mexican immigrants.

Currently, TBN Enlace has deals with Comcast, Cox, Adelphia and a cooperative of smaller system operators. Higley is now working on getting carriage on local systems.

The network also airs the multicast digital broadcasters of six TBN full-power stations; by the end of the year, Higley expects the multicasts of TBN Enlace to be available in 24 markets.

He stresses, however, that the attempt to expand the distribution of Spanish-language religious programming is part of a larger battle to get cable operators to carry more faith-based programming.

“It is the group that made The Passion of Christ a huge hit and has been credited with getting George Bush elected,” Higley says. “Yet cable operators seem to forget that when they put together their lineup. They've learned that they can't serve Hispanics with just one channel [and are now putting together bigger packages.] They need to understand that you can't serve the religious community with just one channel.”