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Like the Rest of the World, Religious TV Looks for Hits

Christian networks, like their secular brethren, are responding to the demands of an increasingly fragmented marketplace. They, too, are being challenged to do something different.

"We're not just in competition with religious television," says Bob Higley, vice president of cable affiliate sales for Trinity Broadcast Network (TBN). "We're competing with everyone for eyeballs."

Christian television has traditionally relied on televangelist preachers and talk shows, both of which have the dual advantage of remaining simple and focused and incredibly cheap to produce. (Cheap is cheap. Most religious broadcasters think spending $40,000 an hour on their new reality shows is exorbitant.)

Those shows will always remain the soul of Christian television, especially for smaller networks, but more-established networks and producers are pushing to provide more viewer-friendly programs, ones that might attract a younger and broader audience. (These programs still have much lower budgets and production values than the average Hollywood effort.)

There are approximately 36 Christian television networks and syndicators of local, regional and national reach in the U.S., from the relatively large Christian Broadcasting Network, Trinity Broadcasting Network, Eternal Word Television Network, The Inspiration Networks, and FamilyNet TV to smaller entities like Good News Television, Christian Broadcasting of Yakima, and North Star Television Network. All, in their own way, are looking for shows that give them a special appeal.

"Viewers are not looking for 24/7 preaching, although some of that mentality still exists in the industry," says David Keith, vice president of operations for the National Religious Broadcasters, an association of Christian communicators, which is holding its convention this week in Charlotte. "TV can't only be a medium for spreading the gospel. It also has to provide a quality program that is entertaining."

NRB President Frank Wright considers this the ideal time to embrace change. Many of the leading Christian television personalities "are of a certain age" and may retire over the next decade. "We're kind of at that place of great transition," he says. "It's a perfect time to create new approaches. I have challenged the association, saying we need a new burst of creativity. If we don't make the shift now, we'll regret it down the road."

While Wright says networks should still hew closely to their belief that, apologies to Marshall McLuhan, "the medium is not the message. For us, our message must remain central." His personal theological belief, he says, is that, if you do something, you should do it well. "The medium is just a tool, but we still want the best tool we can get."

The newer, cheaper technology makes such a shift possible. In Albany, Ga., Alex Kendrick of Sherwood Baptist Church spent $20,000 on equipment to produce a 90-minute religious-themed movie called Flywheel. Persuading a local multiplex to rent him a theater, he grossed nearly $25,000 in six weeks. Religious networks INSP, FamilyNet and Christian Family Network then bought and aired the film (spurring 3,000 DVD and video sales).

TBN has also been creating original movies. Omega Code
had a surprisingly successful theatrical release, grossing $2.4 million in its opening weekend and generating hundreds of articles worth of free publicity. More recently, its Time Changer
attracted Hollywood names like Gavin McLeod and Hal Linden.

The network has also produced a reality series, documentary-style Damascus Roads, which examines how faith changed ordinary people's lives. Way of the Master, co-hosted by former secular TV star Kirk Cameron, goes on location and often uses hidden cameras to teach audiences how to "witness" (for instance, how to react if the surfers at Venice Beach curse at you). Not long ago, those would have just been topics aired on Christian talk shows.

"It's way more expensive but way more visual and compelling," says Vice President of Administration Paul Crouch Jr., who oversees programming. Christian networks, he adds, used to judge popularity on the number of letters and phone calls, but, since TBN has gotten metered-market ratings, it has learned that many of those shows—especially medical and nutritional advice studio shows—are actually poorly rated. "These new shows are also more likely to attract unsaved audiences."

The "Mount Everest of programming" is the dramatic series, according to FamilyNet Director of Television Production Ron Ingram. "I want so badly to scale that mountain—there are so many stories and so many issues—but you have to do it well or you could do more damage than good." He hopes to try a drama "one of these days."

The notion of damaging your brand is not an idle one, says Word Network Vice President Lewis Gibbs. The network has produced biographies of secular blacks like Serena and Venus Williams and Tiger Woods but needs more distribution before it can attempt ambitious original programming.

Even then, Gibbs would be cautious: "What we do now is like a soul-food feast with greens and yams, so we're not going to just put out calamari or escargot. Networks really have to stay true to what they've been doing."

Wright says a balance must be struck. While a few networks, like INSP and FamilyNet, are ad-supported, the donors who fund most networks often prefer programs that strengthen their own faith to expensive new programs that reach out to the unsaved. "That puts some constraints on how far we go," he admits. "But we've got to be evangelistic and reach a broader audience without alienating the core. It's a fine line."

That's where digital expansion comes in handy, says Tom Hohman, INSP senior vice-president of affiliation relations.

John Roos, senior vice president of marketing for INSP, points out that a lot of religious viewers don't even want moral programming, preferring the focus be kept purely on theological programming.

INSP, which is now in 21 million homes, holds closer to that tradition, establishing its niche as the network that offers more diversity (its preachers hail from 20 denominations). Meanwhile, digital sibling I-Life (in 6 million homes) offers "less overt" lifestyle, health, finance, parenting, kids, teen, and even hunting-and-fishing shows.

"These shows are not so into the theological," Hohman says, explaining that, by adding original programs like children's series Discovery Jones
(a wholesome version of Indiana Jones, with puppets), I-Life can move beyond "preaching to the choir." (I-Life claims to be the only religious channel getting a license fee from cable operators.)

Crouch agrees with that tactic, saying that, if TBN's new youth-oriented digital channel JCTV had sufficient coverage, he would have placed his reality series Travel the Road
there. (He would still reject most of the 20-plus ideas he is pitched weekly, usually along the lines of "Christian Cops
or Christian Friends.")

"The smartest thing would be to keep TBN geared toward quote unquote traditional programs," he says. Meanwhile, finding a proper balance is his biggest challenge. "We have to honor the people who built the network with their donations." And they prefer spending money to increase distribution, not to improve programming. If he spends $50,000 on sets or remote segments, he may not get it back in donations. Still, he insists on moving forward.

"We're trying to bring a new era of quality in content and production value, to make Christian television more watched," Crouch says. "We had better start raising the bar a little bit. We're on the right path, but we have a long way to go."

Stuart Miller has been writing about television for 30 years since he first joined Variety as a staff writer. He has written about television for The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, The Boston Globe, Newsweek, Vulture and numerous other publications.