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God Comes to the Internet

Broadcasters and programmers congregating in Orlando, Fla., this week for the National Religious Broadcasters Association (NRB) convention are working overtime to bring the Word and the world to the Web.

“You are going to see an explosion of broadband activity this year,” notes Michael Stonecypher, executive director of digital media for Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN). Over the next year, CBN, probably the best-known religious-TV brand, is planning to extensively revamp its Web offerings, dramatically expanding both its online video-on-demand (VOD) and linear video channels.

There's a lot there already. Currently, CBN's Digital Media Group, which has about 25 employees, runs 30 Websites in a variety of languages and offers a wide variety of searchable video content. A search for the word “heaven,” for example, brings up a humorous (but reverent) video and about 40 other clips, including a discussion by Robertson on the nature of hell.

CBN sites had about 12 million visitors in 2006, up 35% from 2005, and 38 million page views, up about 70%. The network expects to add more video content this year.

“We plan to treat it much more like a television channel,” with more video and less text, Stonecypher says. “You will see a lot happening in the next six to 12 months.”

Broadband success is especially important for faith-based broadcasters struggling to expand their distribution. Many of the independent stations that used to carry their programming have disappeared, and carriage on cable and satellite remains limited. Also, their audiences are aging.

“The Internet offers a very low-cost way of expanding your reach,” notes Mike Hurt, director of community campus development at McLean Bible Church, a mega-church in Virginia, outside Washington. In May, the ministry plans to launch a revamped Website that will feature extensive video, podcasts, chat rooms and other social-networking features, just like the Websites that lure millions of Internet users daily.

The McLean group intends to spend $20,000, far less than the half a million dollars the ministry puts out in syndicating its content to radio stations.

“The cost of [buying] local TV time made the Internet the obvious way for us to begin delivering video content to a wider audience,” Hurt says.

“All of this is still in its infancy,” says Ron Weber, COO of Trinet Internet Solutions, which has done online work for major evangelical organizations, including The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, James Dobson's Focus on the Family and Harvest Crusades. “Their Internet operations are not as developed as commercial broadcasters' and media companies'.”

Still, Weber sees the power—and the economics—of the Internet: “You can get a global footprint without the huge expense of buying time on satellite, TV and radio.”

Even so, broadcasters face a number of challenges. “We all know the potential of broadband Internet and wireless,” notes NRB President/CEO Dr. Frank Wright. “Everyone is moving into that space, and everyone is struggling to find a way to finance it. They know they have to be there. But right now, it is an investment without a potential return, and that is difficult for non-profits.”

Most faith-based broadcasters are not-for-profit organizations that don't take advertising, and most depend on donations to survive, an approach that will make it difficult to tap into the advertising and subscription revenues that traditional media use.

Several religious trends, however, are working in their favor. The rapid growth of mega-churches over the past two decades has produced large organizations that are delivering video to remote locations, where it is typically watched in huge auditoriums on large-screen TVs.

“That creates a lot of content that can be used for other media,” says Brad Hill, executive producer at Edge Media Design, which is working with the NRB on a new site that will help promote creation of original online content by faith-based programmers. “They have high-quality video, in some cases high-definition, and it is only an incremental cost to create a very extensive Web presence.”

Churches have also been embracing technology. As with all aspects of faith-based media, data is limited, but a 2005 survey by the Barna Group, a polling and research outfit, found that 57% of all Protestant churches have a Website, 62% use large-screen projectors and 61% show live video segments during worship services.

At the same time, “home churches” are also seeing rapid growth. A 2006 survey by the Barna Group found that nearly 9% of all Americans—about 20 million people—attended a church service in a home, a huge increase from 1996, when only 1% participated in such gatherings.

These small groups of believers create a growing audience for the higher-quality video and teaching materials that the Protestant mega-churches and religious programmers are increasingly providing online, Hill and others say.

Catholic organizations have also been active. Michael P. Warsaw, president of EWTN Global Catholic Network, says his organization launched its Website in 1996 and began offering streaming video and audio downloads in 1997. Currently, the site attracts about 12.9 million page views a month, with users watching 321,644 video streams in English and 120,998 in Spanish in December 2006. Another 752,096 podcasts were downloaded. It also has a kids Website that is more accesible to young people than religious programming.

Likewise, a viewer can watch Christian network Daystar, which operates 60 TV stations and reaches 60 million viewers via cable. Or a viewer can go to the network's Website and watch the same programming online. Podcasts, VOD and delivery via iTunes are all in the offing.

But what truly excites Janice Smith, Daystar's executive VP of programming, marketing and affiliate relations, is its brand-new TV show and Website aimed at teens: Soundcheck, a concert performance series featuring top Christian rock acts, started just four weeks ago. Smith can't wait to watch it grow.

“When it's finalized, it will become one of the most interactive faith-based programs on the Web,” Smith says. “Viewers are offered a chance to see performances by the hottest Christian bands, and they can purchase Soundcheck products. We're making that a way to reach out to youth. If we can draw teens to Soundcheck, we can hopefully get them to watch other youth programs on our schedule.”

Additional reporting by P.J. Bednarski