Mega-Church, Mega-TV

President George W. Bush is sending a videotaped message this year. His special assistant and deputy director of the White House Office of Public Liaison will deliver a speech, as will such popular evangelists as Henry Blackaby, Jack Graham and Kay Arthur.

But when thousands of evangelicals flock to Dallas for the annual National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) convention beginning Feb. 17, one face will be conspicuously absent from the dais.

Pat Robertson, the founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) and host of The 700 Club, cancelled a planned speech at the confab after he was widely criticized for speculating that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s stroke may have been divine retribution for his country’s withdrawal from Gaza.

The absence of one of religious broadcasting’s founding fathers says much about the crossroads where evangelical TV and radio broadcasters now find themselves. Although their political clout was reaffirmed by the past year’s debate over judicial nominees, religious broadcasters face the future with their leadership in transition and their business strategies challenged by dramatic changes in the TV landscape.

Lee Cokorinos, a political researcher who has written a number of articles and reports on religious conservatives in the past 15 years, sees a generational shift in the evangelical movement. He says that several leaders, including Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, openly criticized Robertson for other controversial remarks during the past year.

“A new generation of leaders like Haggard are working very successfully to expand [the movement’s base] into the mega-churches of the suburbs,” Cokorinos explains. “They are conservative in theological and political terms, but they have a different way of marketing themselves and presenting their message.”

And that effort to dust off their profile is pushing religious broadcasters to rethink their TV strategy. Though born-again Christians make up nearly 40% of the U.S. population, according to Christian research firm The Barna Group, faith-based broadcasters are struggling to produce high-quality programming and attract younger audiences.

“It is like D-Day at Normandy,” says NRB President Dr. Frank Wright, who admits that the traditional donor base for televangelists is an aging population. “If we don’t get off the beach, we’ll die here. We have to bring to market programming that is more creative and more interesting to younger demos.”

To do that, many networks and programmers are developing comedies and other mainstream formats to entertain audiences while conveying Christian values.

They are also exploring new platforms on which to distribute them. On the broadcast side, this fall’s launch of The CW could open up airtime on decommissioned WB and UPN stations. And as Wright notes, satellite DBS platforms have been an important venue for new networks. Both Dish and DirecTV carry faith-based programming, including a new NRB network launched on DirecTV in December.

The Sky Angel satellite platform specifically caters to Christian viewers, with 36 digital TV and radio channels at $14.99 a month. In the past few years, it has developed channels like KTV Kids and Teen Television in a bid to improve the range and quality of faith-based family programming. In 2005, it added some mainstream channels, including HGTV, Hallmark and Fox News.

“Our viewers have told us that they wanted one-stop shopping for family-friendly programming,” says VP of Programming Kathleen Johnson.

The company doesn’t release subscriber figures, but Johnson says the addition of those channels in the middle of 2005 produced “very good growth” and reduced churn. She is looking to bolster the lineup with more channels and expects to add pay-per-view programming in the next few months.

With the debates over à la carte pricing and the coming digital conversion, however, smaller broadcasters fear for their future on these platforms.

Many are urging cable operators to bundle their programming in family tiers instead of being subjected to the market forces of à la carte. And a splinter group of religious broadcasters has called on Congress to include digital multicast must-carry in any digital TV legislation.

Some broadcasters are already going digital. Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) offers five multiplexed channels in high-definition (HD) in some 15 markets, with plans to expand, says Bob Higley, TBN’s VP of satellite and cable relations. And the network has built HD studios in Costa Mesa, Calif.

The Internet, which will be the subject of a major session at NRB, may also provide opportunities for broadcasters to expand their reach. TBN’s five networks—including JC-TV, TBN Enlace USA and Smile of a Child—will be distributed on new IPTV platforms to be launched by Verizon and AT&T.

The Web also offers fundraising opportunities beyond donations and sales of books and tapes, says Duncan Rein, CEO of Silas Partners, a firm that helps churches uses the Internet more effectively.

“After Katrina, the Red Cross raised 45% of their money on the Internet,” he notes. “Some of our churches are already raising over 10% percent of their donations there.”