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New Technologies Help Shape Faith-Based Network Strategies

As much as multi-platform initiatives have been key to reinvigorating faith-based networks, so have new technologies that allow these networks to quantify viewer habits and interests to better shape their programming strategy.

In March 2009, Inspiration Networks' INSP became Rentrak's first network subscriber for its TV Essentials set-top box, deeming Rentrak the exclusive ratings and data source for the network's media measurement and advertising sales. As a result, INSP gained access to second-by-second census-level set-top box data across 37 markets, giving the network an unprecedented opportunity to view programming analytics as well as manage and track promotional content and advertising.

John Roos, senior VP of corporate communications and research at Inspiration Networks, says the service provided INSP with unique insight into viewers' tastes and habits-not just their beliefs. "Our programming strategy is no longer a matter of polling viewers' opinions," he says. "Now we're watching what they actually do. We've been [using new technology] not just to stay in tune with them, but to do the things that are working and to stop doing the things that aren't working."

It's precisely this understanding that sparked Inspiration's major rebranding of INSP, set for Oct. 18, which will focus on reaching socially conservative Baby Boomers through less religious-focused programming.

"From the [Rentrak] data, we can look at what's happening with all the religious networks, not just us." Roos explains. "We see what people of faith are watching. They spend a percentage of their time watching a lot of things [besides religious programming]. They're interested in [religious] teachings and church services, but they're also interested in practical things like entertainment. They just don't like to see their values violated while they're watching it. The reality is that religious programming is only part of what this audience is looking for, and we now know that because of the extensive research we've done."

Christian Broadcasting Network's (CBN) CEO Gordon Robertson has also been able to learn about his network's audiences through new media. He says that expanding CBN's online presence with features such as interactive Web series gives CBN more immediate and detailed ratings feedback than Nielsens alone, and that together they provide valuable insight that has shaped the company's strategies with programs like 700 Club.

"The Webcast portion of [telecast] viewing and Webcast-only [audience] is a far more immediate measurement [than Nielsen ratings]," Robertson says. "And you also get the number of uniques and how long that unique is with you. And then you're able to tell from your cookies how frequently [that person] is a viewer. That's data you can't get from Nielsen overnights." He adds that such data also helps CBN better understand how to handle-and avoid-ratings dips.

Roos says that research has also helped Inspiration better understand the challenges that new types of programs like reality drama The Uprising, which failed to draw a strong audience, face with the youth market. "What we've seen through this set-top-box technology is that first of all, [the youth] weren't watching INSP. Second of all, they weren't watching any religious network," he says, adding that younger viewers were more focused on interactive, Web-based content. "And though [this fact] has caused us a great deal of corporate heartburn, we've learned that Millennials are just not watching Christian television [despite] content that was exciting, different and cutting-edge."

As a result, Inspiration beefed up its multi-platform approach and dropped solely religious programming to launch Halogen, a more entertainment-based channel targeted at 18-34-year-old viewers. As Roos explains: "It's not that [religious programming] isn't important to us, but given our resources, that traditional focus isn't practical right now."