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Religious Nets Setting Up In the Public Square

When Pope Benedict XVI resigned in February, sending shockwaves through the Catholic world, Catholic television networks were sent into a frenzy of coverage for an event that was without precedent in our lifetime — or that of anyone else who’s lived in the last six centuries.

“It immediately sent us scrambling trying to formulate coverage plans,” EWTN CEO Michael Warsaw said.

While EWTN had plans in place in the event of the pope’s death, his decision to resign caught everyone at the channel — along with the rest of the world — by surprise.

“The circumstances of this transition turned everything on its head,” Warsaw said. “We had to scramble and improvise at the last minute.”

EWTN immediately began airing a live special from its Irondale, Ala., studios, while also coordinating interviews and coverage from its two offices in Rome.


CatholicTV aired a special edition of Catholic Newsbreak and a live talk show discussing the implications of the resignation. In the days following the announcement, it also heavily featured Benedict-related shows, including a two-hour documentary and a special edition of reality show House and Home that featured the pope. The network planned to send a crew from its Boston headquarters to Rome to cover the papal transition.

Even before Benedict’s announcement, U.S. TV networks serving Catholics already had a lot on their plates. EWTN and CatholicTV had been airing programming around the Pope’s proclamation of a “year of faith,” and shows related to the 50th anniversary of the Vatican II conference.

EWTN is currently working with the Vatican on a documentary, The Second Vatican Council [working title], slated to premiere in late spring.

“Pope Benedict has made it very clear that we’re to be in that public forum,” in terms of the pontiff ’s desire to tackle such large issues as climate change, Bonnie Rodgers, marketing/ programming manager at CatholicTV, said.

Warsaw agreed. “Pope Benedict emphasized that Catholics need to be Catholic … but that our call, our mission, as Catholics is to go out into the public square and to engage the public, to engage society and not to run away.” EWTN will tackle public affairs with the launch of a nightly news show this year, live from space it will lease in the CNN complex in Washington, D.C. Former BBC reporter David Kerr was hired as executive producer.

CatholicTV is preparing for a robust spring rollout of shows as well. It’s scheduled to start shooting the third season of One Billion Stories this month. The show follows a young man from Colorado as he documents the faith experiences of Catholics around the world. The network also is getting ready for a third season of women’s talk show The Gist with Danielle Bean, Rachel Balducci and Carolee McGrath.

Christian Witness, a new show set to air this spring, features conversations with doctors and people of faith from around the world.

CatholicTV also acquired a new musical representation of the passion of Jesus Christ, which will air during Holy Week. And it will premiere La Mama, a Susan Sarandon-narrated documentary about a California woman who lived in a Tijuana prison cell for more than 25 years, administering bible lessons to inmates.

Other spiritual-TV programmers will venture into unchartered waters this spring.

BYUtv, a channel aimed at adherents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is launching eight episodes of the network’s first scripted mystery/drama, Granite Flats. The show, set in the midst of the Cold War in the early 1960s, tells the story of a young boy who loses his father in an Air Force test pilot accident and moves to an army base in a small town. BYUtv director of content Scott Swofford described it as “The Wonder Years meets Super 8.”

Rabbi Mark S. Golub, CEO of Shalom TV, is also building out programming that may not be overtly religious, but contains values that connect with his channel’s Jewish target audience.

“Programming is becoming more and more personal,” Golub said. “It’s more a quest of finding meaning in the universe in which we live.”

Like its Christian counterparts, Shalom TV is also covering public figures and national news, but with a perspective unique to Judaism. In February, when former New York Mayor Ed Koch died, the network aired a three-hour special on Koch, in which such figures as New York DailyNews publisher Mort Zuckerman, former Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau and Koch’s own rabbi appeared on air to talk about the larger- than-life figure.

Late last year, Cablevision Systems launched Shalom TV, a move that greatly expanded the network’s reach. Golub called the Bethpage, N.Y.-based MSO “the jewel in our array of distributors.”


For long-established Christian broadcaster Trinity Broadcasting Network, the focus is on expanding the company’s already sizable international footprint. TBN has set its sights on Asia as its next venue for expansion, said vice president Matthew Crouch — so much so that Crouch and his family considered moving to develop programming there. They were dissuaded by TBN founder Paul Crouch, Matthew’s father.

“Ultimately, when he started crying, I realized he needed help here at our headquarters,” Crouch said. “But Asia is a huge influence right now.”

The network is also developing a news program from its new facilities in Jerusalem, scheduled to launch later this spring, and will build out programming around its 40th anniversary this May.

Online growth also continues, with a number of digital media thought leaders to offer addresses at this year’s National Religious Broadcasters Convention & Exposition, set for March 2-5 in Nashville, Tenn.

As nascent religious networks grow and veteran networks expand, the concept of what a religious television channel is meant to be continues to evolve. Devout viewers of prayer services and sermons remain, but there are growing audiences just as likely to want to watch a compelling drama or a dating show.