Like many station owners, Paul Crouch Jr. is in the final stages of migrating to digital. His Trinity Broadcasting Network has converted about 90% of its 34 stations, as well as its Tustin, Calif., master control and Costa Mesa, Calif., studios. The five-year process hasn't been cheap or easy. “It's like the old adage: How do you eat an elephant?” said Crouch, TBN's VP of administration. “One bite at a time. We're almost done.”
Now comes the big question: Is there an audience for HD religious programming? Part of the answer is obvious: It depends on the content, which Crouch thinks is sufficient for when TBN starts broadcasting in HD—by the end of this year or first quarter 2008.
“All of the movies we've produced in the past five or so years can be HD,” Crouch said. “A lot of churches are telling us they can send us [worship services in] HD.”
TBN also is trying to fill its HD lineup by encouraging churches to produce in high-def. For example, at this year's NAB show, the network told churches that HD content is a fast track to getting on the network, which has a one-year waiting list.
Total Christian Television is another network that's gearing up for HD, with its network control center now converted to digital. “The center is presently broadcasting in standard definition digital and [is] ready for high definition,” said Garth Coonce, TCT's president. “Like most other networks, we are still working to build a quality lineup of HD programming before we launch.”
TBN's aggressive move into HD makes sense: It's the country's seventh-largest group owner of TV stations. So, faced with the DTV mandate, going the extra step into HD is one way to differentiate itself in the crowed religious market.
By comparison, another major player, Eternal Word Television Network, is carried almost entirely via cable and satellite. That distribution gives EWTN more flexibility because it doesn't have stations to upgrade, so it can afford to take a wait-and-see approach to HD.
“It is something we're looking at,” said Michael Warsaw, EWTN's president. “From a technical standpoint, we're capable of delivering an HD signal today. But at this point, it's not something that's a high priority yet.”
That's because U.S. households with one or more HD TVs are still a minority: about 30%, according to a June 2007 Consumer Electronics Association study. By the end of this year, that should hit 36%, CEA predicts.
Although that sounds like a significant market for religious broadcasters to start catering to, only 44% of HD TV owners actually get HD programming, the study found. The main reasons why they don't have HD content are that it's too expensive or they're not interested in it.
“We don't believe that the scale has tipped far enough on the HD side yet to make that something that we need to step out and do,” Warsaw said.
But other research suggests that religious audiences might be among the biggest initial markets for HD programming. For example, Simmons' research found that viewers of The Inspiration Networks are 43% more likely than the average consumer to have an HD TV. The 2006 report also found that Christians are 11% more likely than other consumer groups to own LCD TVs and 4% more likely to own plasmas—both of which typically support digital, if not HD, too.
“They are also 8% more likely to own TVs that are HD-ready,” said John Roos, INSP's senior vice president for corporate communications and research.
That ownership isn't lost on some content providers. For example, earlier this year, the Vatican produced its first mass in HD. High-def also dovetails nicely with the religious market's trend toward more movies, including those from new studios such as Fox Faith and productions financed by networks such as TBN. “A movie in HD is cooler,” Crouch said. “And you get Dolby 5.1.”
Although HD also is a good fit for programming such as documentaries—another growing category in the religious market—it's less valuable for the mainstay of faith-based broadcasting: preaching and teaching. “Let's be honest: A talk show—even Oprah—isn't all that different in HD than standard definition,” Crouch said.
Ultimately, the value of HD as a market differentiator comes down to each network's programming mix. At most networks, that mix is changing in ways that lend themselves to HD—and eventually create additional revenue opportunities.
“There are now a number of faith-based outdoor and extreme sports programs, reality missions, adventure programs, stadium events [and] feature-length films,” said TCT's Coonce. “It's not just your grandmother's church service anymore. The creativity is there, the demand appears to be there. It's really just a matter of getting enough assembled in a sustainable stream for HD to make its way to the bread-and-butter side of the equation.”
Some religious programmers believe that multicasting creates new opportunities for serving existing audiences and reaching new ones. For example, TBN's digital stations are currently broadcasting five of its networks: the flagship TBN channel, its youth-oriented JCTV service, Smile of a Child, Church Channel and its Enlace Spanish programming. That approach lets a single TBN station broadcast round-the-clock programming to multiple demographics in a single market, something it couldn't do with a single analog channel.
Some religious broadcasters see digital creating opportunities on secular stations. That's because aside from local weather, most commercial stations are still looking for content to fill their digital channels.
“I think the second channel might be wide open for religious broadcasters,” said Larry Rice, founder and director of New Life Evangelistic Center, a ministry that owns KNLC in St. Louis. Warsaw agreed: “That creates opportunities for us and other religious programmers.”
Station owners in small markets might be the most receptive to carrying religious programming on their multicast channels. That's because it's revenue, and it's less expensive than creating, say, a local news channel, which some markets aren't large enough to support in terms of advertisers and newsworthy events.
“Multicasting is the only business model that truly makes sense for broadcasters, especially those in smaller markets like ours,” said Randy Wright, general manager of four stations in the Columbia-Jefferson City, Mo., market. “HDTV looks awesome, but we can't charge a penny more for advertising that appears on the digital transmitter.”
Wright would know. His KMIZ was one of the first stations in the country to multicast four channels: ABC, Fox, MyNetworkTV and ABC17 Stormtrack 24/7. As a result, it's also one of the few that doesn't necessarily need to look to religious programming as another revenue stream.
Roughly 23% of all U.S. TV sets aren't connected to cable, satellite or telco TV, according to a May 2007 Leichtman Research study. A small minority of those 70 million-plus sets are digital, which limits the audience for multicast religious programming.
Multichannel operators also aren't required to carry every multicast channel. If one of those channels is a religious network that they already offer, there's no reason to duplicate that by carrying the multicast channel, further limiting its audience. The upshot: The selection of multicast faith-based programming on religious and secular stations likely will remain limited until February 2009. That, in turn, means limited revenue opportunities for at least the next year, such as no big audience to tap into for more donations or to buy books and DVDs.
“We're like most broadcasters: Anybody who says they're making money off digital is being less than honest,” Rice said. “We did digital because we wouldn't have a future.”
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