A Long Way From Preach and Teach

Long-haired, 300-pound Harley rider Stan
Ellsworth may not be the first person you’d expect to
see on BYUtv, the cable/satellite channel operated by
Brigham Young University
since 2000. But, as
Multichannel News has
documented in these pages
over the last few years,
religious programming has
come a long way since the
staid preach-and-teach sermons
enjoyed for so long by
the Silent Generation.

Ellsworth is the host of
American Ride, a show that
chronicles the man and his
bike as he travels to historic
sites across the country
and gives history lessons,
of sorts, on the founding of
America. It is one of 10 new
series being introduced by
the network this fall.

Also on the schedule is
Fires of Faith: The Coming
Forth of the King James Bible
a three-part documentary
fi lm that explores the
history of that version of
the Bible and its longstanding
influence. Then there’s
Turning Point, a collection
of inspirational stories
about people who made one pivotal decision that
changed their life in a positive way.

While the network still offers some programming
that focuses strongly on the Mormon faith, like a devotional
service and performances from the Mormon
Tabernacle Choir on weekends, much of the new programming
is focused on common bonds of faith and
family that resonate with people of all religions.

“During the week, the focus is not on conversion at all.
It’s about conversation and the things we share as a culture,”
BYUtv director of content Scott Swofford said.

The church and the university are careful to remain
politically neutral, but Swofford admits that having Mitt
Romney, a Mormon, as a formidable candidate in the
race for the Republican nomination for president may
bring some interest to the religion and by proxy, his network.
Jon Huntsman, another adherent, also is vying for
the GOP nod. If those candidacies drive new viewers to
check out BYUtv, he said, that’s a bonus.

“I’d say it’s having an increase in viewership,” he said.
“Some people are labeling this the ‘Mormon moment’
in public awareness and people that are coming to our
channel would have to make that connection. Anecdotally,
every flight I’m on,
someone finds out you’re
from Utah, you get questions
pretty quickly.”

In keeping with the
travelogue-type programming
of American Ride,
BYUtv has also launched
The Story Trek, hosted by
Todd Hansen, a former reporter
at Salt Lake City Fox
affiliate KSTU. In the show,
the newsman goes to offthe-
beaten-track locales,
has someone pick a direction
and a distance for him
to travel, and then knocks
on doors of ordinary Americans
until he fi nds someone
who is willing to tell their
(often remarkable) story.

Also new to the network
is Dining With the Dean, a
gourmet cooking competition
that pits college organizations against one another
in a cook-off , with prize money going to charity.

Other religious networks are continuing to get creative
when it comes to programming as well. Bostonbased
Catholic TV said it is the fi rst Catholic network
to launch a Catholic-themed
sitcom, Mass Confusion. The
scripted series, which debuts
this Thanksgiving, is
about two distinct families
who join together for a celebration.

The show is the brainchild
of Greg and Jennifer Willits,
who host The Catholics Next
on SiriusXM Radio.
They worked with the Rev.
Robert Reed, Catholic TV’s
president, to develop the TV
series. As shooting was beginning
this summer, Greg
Willits sent an email to the
network to say, “God wants
us to at least give it a try.”

“We hear from a lot of people
who are certainly interested
in religious programs,
but they also want to be entertained,”
Catholic TV director
of market ing and
programming Bonnie Rodgers
said. “There’s clearly
some division between what
goes on in the secular media
and what you can sit down
and watch with your family and not be embarrassed by.”

While it isn’t new scripted programming, family
friendly entertainment is also for INSP: The Inspiration
Network, which reaches 70 million households on
2,800 cable systems nationwide. This fall, the network introduced
shows like Bonanza, The Brady Bunch and Dr.
Quinn, Medicine Woman
to its slate.

“Instead of being keepers of the aquarium, we want to
be fi shers of men; we want to grow the audience,” Mark
Kang, the newly hired senior VP of worldwide distribution
at INSP and longtime cable distribution executive, said.

The network’s overall ratings have doubled since it
launched its “New Day” initiative aimed at baby boomers,
according to chief strategy officer Bill Airy.

Like the trend on BYUtv,
Airy said INSP is working to incorporate
more shows that reflect a core set of values, rather
than overt ly religious programming.
“Christians tend
to watch the same TV shows
that the general population
watches,” he said. “For us, it’s
more about weaving our message
into the programming.
We still do ministry programming
but we’ve made a very
clear distinction.”

The ratings indicate that
INSP’s new initiative is paying
off . The network rates very well
in terms of loyalty (above FX,
HBO and Lifetime for hours
watched per week, according
to Rentrak National TV
Essentials analysis of set-top
box data), and Airy said it has
come close to tripling yearover-
year ad sales in 2011.

Religious programmers continue to make strides in
emerging media as well. Trinity Broadcasting Network
just recently launched iTBN.org, a kind of Christian
version of Hulu. Th\e network recently made more than
10,000 hours of archived footage available for free via video
on demand. Higley said the programmer has charted
traffic from 145 countries, vice president of affiliate sales
and marketing Bob Higley said.

“All of us at the faith channels, we take our lead from
the major players,” Higley said. “Let them spend all the
R&D and create the Hulus of the world, and we’ll see
that’s a tried-and-true method to distribute shows.” Religious
programmers are following that lead, he said.

Catholic network EWTN is also making a play in
emerging media by making channels available through
Roku streaming players for free to Roku customers.

“The Roku partnership really came out of this renewed
focus on our web and digital services,” EWTN president
and CEO Michael Warsaw said. “We were convinced that
it is an excellent platform for delivering our content and
one which is very attractive to people who are interested
in religious content.”

A number of religious broadcasters are also building
out their youth programs with a vision of creating the
faith-based MTV. Executives at TBN are exploring making
young-adult music-video network JCTV into a viewer-
supported channel. “We want JCTV to stay forever
young,” Higley said. “Right now, it’s depending on its
parent [company] to give it money, so it’s [about] allowing
it to come out on its own, stand on its own two feet.”

Signifi cant growth has also been seen at Jewish Life
TV, which saw a 50% increase in distribution this year,
to 33 million U.S. cable and satellite households (including
new pacts with Comcast and Time Warner Cable). The
network also has plans to launch a high-defi nition feed in
2012 and later this year will offer up a major new annual
programming franchise around Chanukah sponsored by
Macy’s. In early November, JLTV will carry live coverage
of the Jewish General Assembly in Denver.

With all the new religious programming initiatives just
launched and on the horizon, it’s clear that the days of
just sermon and song are long gone. With a devoted and
growing audience, broadcasters of faith are continuing
to troll that river of viewers, rather than be keepers of the