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Jesus Is My Homeboy

Faith-based programs for kids and teens have been around for decades. But where these shows have traditionally been relegated to home video or Saturday-morning blocks, religious networks today are beefing up lineups and launching dedicated channels for young believers.

Digital cable and direct-broadcast satellite (DBS) services have dramatically expanded channel capacity, while broadband has enabled streaming video on the Web, all providing greater venues for religious content.

“We have always had a huge commitment to kids programming, and our youth block was always on Friday or late Saturday nights with extreme sports and music-video shows,” says Paul Crouch Jr., VP of administration at Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), which in December launched kids network Smile of a Child. “But now, with the proliferation of technology and the fact that we can multicast over our digital transmitters and the cable systems are expanding and can take more channels, we decided to take what we already had and expand it into a 24/7 channel.”

That includes teen network JCTV, which TBN launched in 2002.

“The demographic we are trying to reach is into music,” says JCTV Programming Director Mark McCallie. “We do have action sports and reality shows. But, similar to MTV, it will always be music-driven.”

The Logan Show, now in its second season on JCTV, is aimed at reaching beyond music-driven programming. Hosted by former Nickelodeon host Logan Sekulow, 20, the show is something of a Christian version of Late Night With Conan O’Brien, with comedy skits and musical performers.

The proliferation of DBS and digital cable has also given rise to new faith-based networks, including Spirit Communications’ TVU. A music-video–oriented network like JCTV, TVU debuted in February 2001 and is carried by Sky Angel, a family-friendly service that shares a satellite with Dish Network, along with several cable systems.

Nikki Cantu, program and music director at TVU, says the network is expanding its programming with blocks of videos by genre, including One Mil, a hip-hop show that premiered July 20.

Unlike more-traditional programming on TBN and on Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), TVU’s programming won’t offer much in the way of bread-and-butter preaching.

“Our VJs, in between music videos, are basically like our viewers’ friends,” Cantu says. “A lot of times, people feel that they don’t have anyone and sometimes feel that God is this person up there who doesn’t care and has a lot of rules and regulations. We push the fact that it’s a relationship and He wants to be your friend and for you to have a good life.”

For its part, CBN has a teen-oriented series called One Cubed that debuted in September 2003 and features music videos and extreme sports like skateboarding.

Capitalizing on the popularity of animated content—such as Veggie Tales, a home-video series in which animated vegetables tout a positive, less overtly Christian message—CBN is reviving a Christian-themed Japanese anime series from the 1980s called Superbook.

Although there are only a handful of youth-oriented religious networks currently operating, there weren’t any just a few years ago. That began to change in 1999, with the launch of KTV, a kids network programmed and distributed by Sky Angel.

“I don’t know that there is necessarily more of this programming out there,” says Kathleen Johnson, VP of programming at Sky Angel. “It’s always been there, but people didn’t know it because it didn’t have a broadcast-distribution model.”

Many faith-based networks have been formed from a sense of outrage at secular entertainment, which many religious viewers regard as trafficking in content that is too violent and sexually oriented.

“We wanted a kids channel that uplifted the Lord 24/7, that didn’t market kids to death with dolls, squirt guns and breakfast cereals,” says Crouch, whose TBN launched Smile of a Child network this past Christmas Eve with programs like BibleMan, a sci-fi action series.

And more faith-based shows for young people are on the way. The National Religious Broadcasters’ new NRB Network, which debuted in December with a four-hour teen block on Saturdays, will add a six-hour kids block on Saturday mornings and a three-hour weekday block this fall.

Dede Hayes, director of broadcast services at Cornerstone TeleVision, a 27-year-old ad-supported network with some 100 affiliates and carriage on Sky Angel, is optimistic about the future of these new programming options.

“What is happening in Christian programming is that there is a new wave of younger producers who want to make a difference,” Hayes says. “They are in production with new programs that will be in high-definition and using all the new technology. What we have now is great, but I see a whole bunch of productions coming down the pike, and it’s really exciting.”