Bill Airy has barely a year under his belt at The Inspiration Networks, but he’s no newcomer to cable or religious programming. He joined Liberty Media in 1989 as president of Vision Group, where he led the development and management of Odyssey Network (now Hallmark Channel). Now the chief operating officer for INSP, Airy talked to Multichannel News contributer Tim Kridel about how the religious market has changed and where his networks fit into the revised landscape. An edited transcript follows:
MCN: Since joining Inspiration Networks in November 2005, you’ve been focused on new-media technologies such as video on demand, wireless and broadband.
In May, INSP launched a broadband portal, www.inspiration.net, which streams on-demand content with a focus on lifestyle topics, including sports, music, gardening, hunting and fishing. What’s the strategy?
Bill Airy: Cable operators are becoming more heavily penetrated with digital set-tops and VOD [video-on-demand] access. Many also now sell VoIP [voice-over-Internet Protocol]. I hear rumors that Comcast is launching a cellular product with Sprint [Nextel].
We can help cable operators communicate their products and services to the faith community, which — depending on whom you talk to — can be 30% to 35% of the subscriber universe in any given city.
We understand this community: the values, the culture, the language. With our new VOD and broadband products, we can help communicate some of what the cable operators are doing with respect to digital set-tops, cable modems and VoIP. It gives us the ability to help them achieve their goals, and in so doing, it advances the cause of INSP.
MCN: How about an example of this synergy?
BA: We tell our viewers, “If you don’t have digital cable, you need to call Time Warner and get it so you can begin to enjoy Inspiration On Demand.”
In another message, we say, “If you’re thinking about getting high-speed data to enjoy INSP.net, call your local cable operator to get a cable modem.”
We’re able to promote the cable operators’ products, but in so doing, it advances our goals. We’ve aligned our business model with the cable operator’s. We can become their sales channel to the faith community.
MCN: Is broadband a way to deliver more content than video on demand can handle?
BA: It’s less about that and more about ubiquity. It’s having your programming available whenever someone wants it and [on] whatever device they’re using.
If that’s a computer with a cable modem, we want to be there. If it’s a cellphone that’s video enabled, we want to be there. If it’s a digital video service through a cable operator, we want to be there. If it’s VOD, we want to be there.
The point is that our goal is to make our content available anytime someone is looking for faith-based or inspirational content on whatever device they’re using.
MCN: How do today’s cellular networks and handsets stack up in terms of being able to deliver the types of content you want?
BA: It’s as bad as it’s ever going to be right now. It just gets better from this point forward. The platform is very basic right now. It’s limited in terms of what you can do with it, but it’s getting better and better.
Will it ever replace the 60-inch plasma screen in the den? No. People are still going to want to have their digital video on a big screen in their homes.
But we can develop a product called a “Daily Devotional” that people can subscribe to so that every morning, there’s a message on their cellphone that gives them a word of encouragement. We can do things with Christian music ring tones.
It’s a way for us to be more engaged with people in their daily lives. It’s not a replacement for digital video in the home.
MCN: How is your audience responding to ringtones?
BA: It’s just started, so we’re literally at the beginning of this. We haven’t actively started promoting it on our networks.
Sometime in the fourth quarter, we’re going to start communicating pretty aggressively that it’s available. We think that Inspiration Mobile [which launches in early November] is going to be very powerful, but it’s a value-add for our viewers. It’s not at the heart of what we’re doing.
MCN: Is wireless an effective way to reach younger demographics?
BA: One of our ministries, Steel Roots, has strong appeal to the 13-to-24 demographic. So we’re developing a mobile product specifically around that. We think that’s going to be a very powerful addition.
MCN: How has the industry changed since your Odyssey days?
BA: At the time, the effort was to try to have a channel that would be multi-denominational.
What we ultimately found out was that faith-based programming is the kind of thing where people have a particular faith perspective.
If you blend too many things together, it just doesn’t work.
If you have Catholic programming and Greek Orthodox programming and Jewish programming, it kind of goes [in] the wrong direction. The world is moving toward much-more-focused, much-more-targeted content.
We believe that it’s about figuring out what the passions are that people have in their lives and providing content that speaks to those passions.
For example, Steel Roots centers its programming on action sports, and the idea is that in this country, there’s a huge population of people who are all about action sports. There’s another large group of people who are Christians. Those two circles overlap, and that piece in the middle where it overlaps, we create programming for that overlap. We’re starting to do that in a variety of areas, from gardening to travel to health and fitness.
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