The Internet Shall Set Them Free
Faith-Based Programmers Preach Virtues of New Distribution Media
By David Tanklefsky — Multichannel News, February 28, 2011
(MULTICHANNEL NEWS) — Paul Crouch Jr. is a man on a mission. The longtime religious programmer and vice president/chief of staff at Trinity Broadcasting Network is busy overseeing a digital archive project that will make decades of TBN content available to viewers for free, on the Internet.
The ITBN service, as it is being called, will digitally store and catalog close to 10,000 hours of online content — every existing piece of the network’s 37-year backlog.
Crouch calls it “as big a project as I have ever been involved in. Certainly with this industry, it’s literally reinventing the way we do television.”
TBN isn’t the only religious programmers proliferating large amounts of faith-based content on the Internet and other interactive platforms. The days of religious networks culling all of their devoted audience from broadcast-TV must-carry agreements have long been over, but a number of long-time religious programmers are strategically putting content and interactive video online like never before.
“Broadcasting has now declined to 10 or 15% of the audience,” Crouch said. “So if you have not branched out into the Internet, into cable and satellite, into the threescreen world, you really have no chance for survival.”
One veteran programming executive getting in on the religious fervor is Michael Jay Solomon, former president of Lorimar Telepictures and Warner Bros. International Television. Next spring, Michael Jay Solomon will launch Truli, an IPTV service that will allow Christian viewers to see sermons from pastors and other religious speakers on-demand.
The service, which uses live streaming technology via a wireless set-top box, has also inked affiliate agreements with TBNand faith and families network aggregator Olympusat.
Michael Jay Solomon believes reaching religious viewers through emerging platforms is the best way to attract a younger audience.
“There’s a tremendous movement in the Christian world today, and a lot of these youth pastors and their followers don’t watch [only] Trinity Broadcast Network.”
The Truli service will carry all 10 TBN networks and Olympusat’s 20 channels, which include Daystar Television, educational children’s network Smile of a Child and INSP.
Michael Jay Solomon said he’s closing direct negotiations with three more programmers within the next month.
“I always say the famous saying ‘content is king,’ but I added to that, ‘distribution is emperor.’ The content is there, but it’s never been properly distributed,” Michael Jay Solomon said. “The ministries are very very happy with the fact that they can get their message out to a much wider audience.”
In addition to carrying the bigger religious networks, Truli will also feature programming from individual pastors and ministries.
Because the Internet bandwidth for content is virtually limitless, ministries can put programming on the service for free. Solomon is exploring ways to create revenuesharing streams with ministries that sign up subscribers for the Truli service, giving them a 10% commission for each sign-up. The service will also feature an ecommerce platform where a ministry can sell books, DVDs, CDs and other merchandise.
“My goal is to be the HBO of Christian film and also the MTV of Christian television,” Michael Jay Solomon said. A monthly subscription to Truli will cost $19.99 with an add-on price tag for certain VOD services. There are a number of reasons for the blossoming of religious content on mobile, Internet and interactive TV services. Programmers believe the faithbased community is uniquely served by on-demand content, since they turn to religion often in moments of hardship, which doesn’t always coincide with appointment TV.
CONSOLATION ON DEMAND
“Having multiple ways for people to access your content at those times when they’re facing spiritual difficulties is a great thing and a great way to support and help people get through those chal lenging moments in life,” Michael Warsaw, president and CEO of EWTN, the global Catholic network that serves more than 150 million households worldwide, said. “It’s something we provide that no other genre of programming provides.”
There are more practical reasons, too. For the largest religious networks, carriage with traditional distributors has by and large maxed out. TBN reaches 102 million U.S. homes through their broadcast, cable and satellite networks, a penetration level of 90%. EWTN, Daystar and INSP are also among the market’s distribution leaders.
“For the largest of us religious programmers, we’re still seeing some growth in the traditional platforms, but generally speaking, yes, it’s probably flattened out and that’s because penetration levels are so high,” Warsaw said.
Networks also use interactive platforms to draw more attention to their developing channels, some of which have only a fraction of the penetration of their more established, related “mothership” channels.
Halogen Network, a multiplatform series of channels that’s part of Inspiration Networks, or INSP, has developed a robust web presence aimed at the 18-34 demographic. The network’s Web site boasts live streams and full episodes of Halogen shows.
“We’re starting to see an entirely new generation and frankly, they don’t consume faith-based television the way their grandparents did, so we made some adjustments,” INSP chief strategy officer Bill Airy said.
Halogen signed a new mult iyear agreement with Comcast prior to the company’s merger with NBC Universal. Halogen sells advertising and gets a license fee from distributors, unlike those faith-based networks that share in donations to ministries providing programming.
“Comcast stepped up,” Airy said, adding of the merger, “Overall, this is going to be a good thing. Hopefully we’ll have some broader relationships with things like [online video platform] Fancast Xfinity.”
Other programmers in the religious space didn’t think the merger would have much effect on the faith-based TV landscape. “I don’t think you’re going to see Comcast/NBC put a lot of Christian or Catholic programming on their network,” Solomon said.
Traditional distributors are by and large unconcerned with religious programmers moving content online and to IPTV platforms.
“We crossed this bridge years ago, when we started streaming our digital networks,” TBN vice president of affiliate sales and marketing Bob Higley said. “I remember talking to one MSO in the early 2000s when they said, ‘You can’t do that,’ and I remember saying, ‘We have a broadcast network in your city, we have hundreds of lowpowered [stations]. You don’t complain about that.’ ”
Contractual clauses from years ago between MSOs and religious programmers often stipulated restrictions on what content could go online or to other distribution services. Those clauses have by and large been deleted from renewal contracts over the last five years, Higley said.
“It’s not hurting operators, it’s just being strategic,” said one executive at a religious programming aggregator. “I don’t see what’s going on online as a negative in terms of an operator relationship, because I think operators are moving more towards TV Everywhere.”
In the international marketplace, programmers say viewing on traditional platforms is doing just fine. “Even though the streaming solutions might be amazing, the quality of home connections in most of the world don’t enable a comfortable viewing experience,” Yael Shamos, vice president of marketing and sales for Israel-based satellite operator SatLink, said in an e-mail.
“Viewers, religious or secular, still turn to the TV and traditional means of distribution,” she said.
And content providers, for the most part, still see the promulgation of religious content on new media platforms to be a way to increase viewership on traditional platforms.
“I’m still looking at it as a way to garner additional eyeballs, not just a way to fracture what eyeballs are already out there,” Crouch said. “Television has been fractured enough as it is.”