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Spiritual Syndicator's Gamble

For years, religious television has had its time and a place: Sunday, early in the morning. Most religious shows are paid programming, and most of them are heavy on sermons.

But Faith & Values Media is forging a new path with family-friendly content based on spiritual tenets that it's producing for networks and stations, as well as for Websites where local congregations can access it.

The multidenominational F&V, owned by the National Interfaith Cable Coalition, started in 1988 as cable network Vision Interfaith Satellite Network, then became the Odyssey Network on John Malone's TCI; Odyssey eventually became the Hallmark Channel. F&V has been producing family-friendly movies for that notoriously wholesome channel, including last Christmas' The Note and the 2003 TV flick Love Comes Softly.

Now, F&V has become a syndicator and distributor of content like The Unusual Miss Nightingale: Her Untold Story, about the English aristocrat from the 1800s who felt led by God to become a nurse. It's set to air on BBC1 in Britain next month. And an F&V documentary that explains the Quran to non-Muslims will run later this year on the National Geographic Channel.

But perhaps its biggest venture, says F&V president and CEO Ed Murray, is its ad-supported FaithStreams Network, a group of Websites now under construction. By the end of this year, it'll include social networking, premium video-on-demand content, and streaming videos of shows like Hallmark's New Morning and possibly a handful of F&V movies.

Also, by the end of the month Daystar, the nation's second largest religious network, will have revamped its Website, adding a new element that will allow visitors to upload their own content.

A different proposition

But the F&V proposition is a little different. “The central idea with the FaithStreams Network is to provide that type of high-quality content to local congregational Websites,” says Murray. “A lot already have Websites but they can't populate it with very good content. They simply don't have the means to do it.” So a small congregation could use FaithStreams to acquire better programming for its own site.

F&V had a long-term production deal with Hallmark, which ended amicably on Jan. 3. F&V gave up its contractual option to force Hallmark's parent company Crown Media Holdings to buy its stock. F&V retains about 5% ownership in the network and has a two-hour Sunday block of programming. It will likely continue making movies for Hallmark.

But Murray wanted to branch out from Hallmark with content geared to people and congregations of many faiths, not only with straightforward religious programming but also family-friendly movies and shows.

F&V produces content through a for-profit subsidiary called Lightworks Enterprises, which produced The Note on Hallmark on Dec. 8. That movie, with Genie Francis of General Hospital, ranked as the second-best-watched cable movie that week, according to Hallmark. But Murray wanted a multiplatform staging area like FaithStreams Network.

It's a risky venture, with FaithStreams acting as a syndicator and distributor. F&V will generate some revenue by charging congregations fees to access content from its Websites, but these will be nominal, only as much as congregations can afford. F&V will also see some money from its premium VOD service and by selling DVDs and other products on its site. But a good chunk of its online revenue is projected to come from advertising on FaithStreams.

“In our situation, you cannot let this particular tail wag that dog,” notes Murray. “We will confine the type of advertising we take, which we want to do for advertisers. There's no point in accepting advertising that viewers will reject.”