TV's Religious Revival

The wall-to-wall coverage of the death of Pope John Paul II and the naming of his successor, following weeks of intense focus on the legal battle over the life of Terry Schiavo was just the latest evidence of a remarkable development in an age of stagnant church attendance. Religion is now a major feature of the national conversation. From the eye-popping box-office proceeds for Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (more than $370 million in the U.S. and Canada alone) to the vital role that Christian conservatives played in the reelection of President Bush last fall, the religious faithful have let themselves be known.

Religious broadcasters are eager to capitalize on the surge. Plenty of them are still giving audiences that old-time TV religion—low-production-value preachers paying for time on stations or Christian networks—but a slew of new companies are clamoring for cable carriage. At the National Cable & Telecommunications Association convention in San Francisco earlier this month, the exhibition hall was studded with booths for aspiring religious channels. Unlike the teach-and-preach religious-TV tradition, they say, many of the new programmers will offer modern content and packaging to reach an underserved and media-savvy Christian youth market. Whether trying to break into the business or expand an existing base, religious-TV entrepreneurs sense a rare opportunity.

“You don't have to wake up Einstein to get there,” says Dr. Frank Wright, president of the National Religious Broadcasters. “There's a tremendous demand in the viewing marketplace for religious content.”

One of the current beneficiaries: Eternal Word Television Network, a 25-year-old, viewer-supported Catholic network that recently saw a surge of new viewers for its more than 100 hours of live English and Spanish coverage from the Vatican. “We have a world where people are looking for truth, something to count on,” says Senior VP of Programming Doug Keck. “There's a cultural struggle going on where people are trying to find their bearings.”

Already in 68 million homes in the U.S. through radio and cable, satellite and low-power TV (and in 112 million homes worldwide), EWTN was delighted when many stations and cable systems that didn't carry the network full time decided to run its pope coverage.

New Breed of Christian TV

But as a home base for Catholic viewers, EWTN should have expected an uptick in viewership, given the enormous interest in the historic events in Rome. A truer measure of the prospects for a sustained increase of audience interest in religious programming might be found in the numbers that greet the soon-to-launch God TV.

“There's a new breed of Christian television, and it's time to hit screens in America,” says Rory Alec, chief executive of God TV, the U.S. arm of an international Christian broadcaster that will launch on the Cox system in Washington, D.C., next month. “They don't always want cut-and-paste preaching.”

Alec and his wife, Wendy, the network controller, started out as small-time religious broadcasters in the UK in 1995 but have rapidly expanded their enterprise. The network is now headquartered in Jerusalem and reaches 73 million homes in 234 countries via satellite and cable. God TV, the company says, is 50% to 60% funded by from gifts and donations (the rest coming from product sales and sponsorship and advertising on two UK feeds).

God TV opened an American studio in Washington in 2003 and says its U.S. spinoff will target “young Christian adults,” aiming to be in 40 million homes in five years, including areas the network has determined is underserved, such as the Northeast.

Not All Preachy

In twice-annual “missions,” the network solicits money by showing viewers its worldwide endeavors and specifying needs for upcoming investments. Rory says he is “scared” of more-traditional telethons. “When you get into excessive preaching and music, people give out of emotion instead of logic and sensibility,” he says. “It can be a lot of manipulation and hype.”

God TV's U.S. programming will be 60% original content—including the Christian-music show Dream on TV and a still-untitled hour-long weekly flagship talk show hosted by the Alecs. The premiere episode features an interview with former heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield. But lest God TV stray too far from tradition, preachers delivering sermons are also in the mix.

“Christian television's presentation in America has been quite old-fashioned, but the youth are really hungry for something of their own, something they can relate to,” says Wendy Alec, who calls God TV the “CNN of the Christian market.”

Although it has been a fixture on television almost since the beginning, religious programming is not known for attracting huge audiences. The most-watched religious show on television is The 700 Club, on Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network. The network is available in more than 90% of the country through ABC Family Channel, Trinity Broadcasting Network and some stations, but The 700 Club is seen by only 1 million viewers daily.

The widespread interest in religious subjects—but not necessarily religious networks—has attracted the attention of mainstream programmers. National Geographic Channel earned its best-ever household rating, a 1.6, with two-hour special Unlocking Da Vinci's Code in December. History Channel is countering later this year with Da Vinci and the Code He Lived By, the network's own two-hour special piggybacking on a certain bestselling book.

Even as religious programmers dream of such widespread popularity, they continue to be dogged by the sort of skepticism that greeted the first preacher who ever asked TV viewers to open their wallets. Ole E. Anthony is in the singular position of being a pioneer in religious broadcasting—he helped start what was only the country's third religious network, KBFI Dallas in 1971—but has long since turned against the industry.

“They're ghettoizing the mystery of God and trying to put it on the spiritual supermarket,” says Anthony, now president of the Trinity Foundation, a Dallas-based religious-media watchdog group. “Only successful money-raisers have a presence, and that means the wrong gospel is being aired. All of these religious networks are appealing to the basest instinct: greed.”

Anthony's Trinity Foundation is not to be confused with the Trinity Broadcasting Network, an enterprise lavishly supported by contributions from viewers around the world, where the 24-hour channel is carried by 5,000 stations, 33 satellites, and cable systems that the network estimates to be in the thousands. Two years ago, TBN launched JC-TV, courting viewers 13-24 with programming that includes Christian music videos, movies and original programming, such as Running on Adrenaline, a reality series about a Christian hardcore band. But while TBN has benefited from must-carry rules that put it in 95% of American households, JC-TV reaches only 10% to 15% because the network “can't use must-carry as a billy club over the head of the cable industry,” says Paul Crouch Jr., son of TBN's septuagenarian founder and VP of administration for Trinity Broadcasting.

Indeed, although religious telecasters face perennial suspicion about their motives (the Crouch family came under fire last fall for extravagant spending and sexual indiscretion following a Los Angeles Times investigative series that stirred memories of the downfall of Jimmy Swaggart and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's PTL Club empire in the 1980s), the biggest hurdle faced by programmers—straight arrows and charlatans alike—is the challenge of simply getting in front of audiences.

Today's new Christian networks have a tough time convincing cable operators that they should pay subscriber fees. Strapped for bandwidth to accommodate new networks and accustomed to religious broadcasters' paying them to air content on existing networks, cable operators scoff at the idea of paying subscriber fees.

“When you walk in the door, people say, 'I'm not going to provide a fee no matter how good it is,'” says John Roos, senior VP of marketing at Inspiration Networks. Featuring programming from 20 denominations, flagship channel INSP says it reaches 22 million homes on 2,500 cable systems. But iLifetv, a digital spinoff of lifestyle programming launched in 1998, has struggled to amass 7.5 million homes, largely because it relies on subscriber fees.

Another problem, says National Religious Broadcasters' Wright, is that, long ago, the religious networks ill-advisedly “hitched their stars to must-carry and didn't work on relationships with cable, and that's unfortunate.” He is trying to shore up cable and satellite relations. One issue sure to come up in the discussions is the influx of new channels and how to sort them out in operators' digital tiers.

“Operators look at their lineup with four Christian networks and scratch their heads and say, 'Do we have four networks or one network four times?'” says Tom Snethen, VP, affiliate relations, at God TV.

Shalom TV, an English-language Jewish network, hopes to avoid the bandwidth crunch by launching as an on-demand service. In talks with Cox, Adelphia and others, the network plans a fall launch to 600,000 viewers (20% of the country's Jewish population) for $6.96 per month.

Religious networks nervous about cable carriage are praying for help.

“The last thing cable operators are interested in adding is another religious network,” Roos says. “If there was some breakthrough strategy, we would've leapt on it. You've got to be able to pay a subscriber fee; that's how every other network makes its living.”

Until then, those telephone lines are open, and the operators are waiting.