Mainstreaming God

Because many religious programmers rely on charitable giving, which has dropped sharply during the recession, for funding, several are looking at new programming strategies that focus on a more mainstream approach to attract viewers and advertising.

“We are still seeing a financial struggle among both our non-commercial and our commercial members. Success is now measured in micro-economics,” says Craig Parshall, senior VP and general counsel for National Religious Broadcasters. “The upside is that it is making our members rethink their operations and create leaner, tighter organizations that in the end may well be more effi cient and more effective.”

Michelle Johnson, director of communications for the global Catholic network EWTN, says that a multi-platform strategy—particularly the use of social media—is a well-timed solution for faithbased networks that have seen a decline in giving, as they allow viewers to stay connected while weathering their own economic hardships.

“Are donations down? Yes. But not so much that we’ve had to cut programming,” Johnson says. “Another plus with social networking sites is that they don’t really cost money. You’re not spending money on advertising or having to use a big budget. It’s a great, inexpensive way to augment your message.”

FamilyNet, whose religious platforms were losing $11 million on $7 million in revenue, chose to shift from a non-profit donor model by creating mainstream, advertiser-supported programming that caters to today’s market and consumer preferences, according to CEO Chris Wyatt.

“What is not working well [for us] is our traditional buy on programming from religious organizations,” he says. “While we have [now] seen solid growth in religious buys on programming, the revenue increase is de minimis compared to the ROI from our reality, scripted and MegaCast series.”

To better cater to what audiences want, the network has also signed up for what Wyatt calls “affi nity groups” for programming, meaning the network has exclusive advertising contracts with national non-profit religious groups that have membership in the millions.

“This is another paradigm shift in broadcasting,” Wyatt explains. “Rather than creating a television series in hopes of building an audience, we have a built-in audience with our affinity groups, which continually advertise their programming to their membership base.”

Gordon Robertson, CEO of Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), also admits that the network has had to adopt more of what he calls a “corporate culture”—that is, CBN has had to think and operate much more like a business targeting consumers rather than a religious group drawing audiences to its message.

“When we first started, we thought, ‘How can we drive viewers to our site?’ And we came to the conclusion that that’s not really the way to approach it,” Robertson explains, adding that CBN has instead had to focus on bringing its content to where its viewers are: on multiple platforms separate from the CBN brand. “We started thinking instead, ‘How can we drive viewers to our content?’ How can we build presence into Facebook, into YouTube?’”

Inspiration Networks’ Halogen channel marks a shift from religious programming to more “faith-inspired” programming, largely because Inspiration found that its overtly Christian programming was not as culturally relevant to its viewers—and thus not as economically viable to the network.

Younger audiences are not the only demographic who today prefer programming about lifestyles and values over rhetoric. Inspiration is also debuting a major rebranding of flagship network INSP on Oct. 18 that focuses on reaching socially conservative Baby Boomers through programming that is more value- than religion-centric. As Inspiration media relations manager Kristina Hill puts it, targeted programming changes to INSP that the network began integrating in May 2009 have resulted in a ratings increase of more than 100%.