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Getting to God Online

As Web videos grow up, televangelists feel the powerful presence of a new market 10/10/2008 08:00:00 PM Eastern

In the late 1990s, Christian televangelist Bill Keller sat down with a bunch of Internet porn publishers. He wasn't there to convert them; he just wanted to learn how to post videos on the Internet.

“Pornographers were pretty much the people who spearheaded broadcasting on the Internet,” says Keller, a frequent talking head on Fox News and a syndicated televangelist in the '90s. “They were the only guys doing it, so we basically duplicated what they were doing, in terms of the applications.”

Keller jumped into online video early, but he wasn't alone for long. And he certainly isn't today. Virtually every major TV ministry is streaming its programs online and, increasingly, creating original programming for the Internet. In Keller's case, that's daily talk show The LivePrayer Television Show.

Trinity Broadcasting Network began streaming its TV programming about eight years ago, when online video was choppy and slow, starting with its flagship program Praise the Lord. Today, most online video is a mix of TV show episodes such as Daystar Television Network's Celebration, TV show clips and free video-on-demand.

“Daystar has been offering Web consumers a generous amount of VOD from our Website for about two years,” says James Barnes, director of marketing at Daystar. “We look forward to increasing that even more with a new cutting-edge Website we are about to launch.”

TV ministries are also starting to create programming specifically for the Internet. Joel Osteen Ministries, which airs on networks such as CNBC and TBN, for now mostly offers streaming videos of past broadcasts. But its site is undergoing a major overhaul to start programming original content starting the end of this year.

“We're shifting gears so that we offer everything we have now—podcasts, on-demand streaming and live streaming—but we'll have a new Webcast with special content specifically for people online,” says Jeana Lawrence, director of marketing at Joel Osteen Ministries. “And Joel and Victoria [Osteen's wife] and some of the rest of the Osteen family are writing articles and recording videos for people to dive deep into their faith online.”

Moreover, some networks are being created specifically for the Internet, like LifeStream.tv, which airs live sermons from churches around the country and has VOD content. LifeStream.tv, which launched about two years ago, is adding an online music video channel in January.

“I realized about five years ago that this is a trend that would continue to grow, in terms of individuals determining where and when they watch TV programming,” says Devin Stewart, LifeStream's CEO. “Online VOD has changed the way people watch TV ministries.”

There are some hurdles to posting online videos, however. Key among these is getting permission to post programs that TV ministries don't own, which makes producing original content all the more appealing.

“One of the issues is not one of capability or storage, but of licensing and making sure we're not stepping on any toes, in terms of music rights or any of the guilds,” says Paul Crouch Jr., chief of staff at TBN. “For example, 50% of our airtime we sell to national ministries. That's obviously their content, so we can't legally touch any of that. But the other 50% we do own.”

There's also the challenge of paying to post videos online and maintain these sites. Most religious broadcasters rely on donations to fund their operations, although some, like LifeStream, charge churches nominal fees to post their sermons on its site.

“All our content is free,” Crouch says. “The purpose of TBN is to preach the gospel around the world. Our business model is more of a PBS model, with viewer support. But as expenses have grown, we've toyed, quite frankly, with [charging]. But at this point, we're still absorbing it.”

For now, the audience for religious online programming is relatively small, although the reach is expansive. TBN says viewers are watching its programming online in 180 countries.

Streaming videos of Joel Osteen Ministries, for instance, were viewed 106,000 times by 48,000 people in August, according to Nielsen Online. Osteen ranked No. 2 in total viewers for a religious site behind Beliefnet, a spiritual and religious site that talks about everything from Bill Maher's new anti-religion documentary, Religulous, to more traditional Christian material.

But the relatively small audience for religious online video is more likely a reflection of the small but growing audience for online TV programming, period. About 23 million people visited religious Websites last December, according to research firm eMarketer, up 20% from December 2006. The audience is expected to grow as more people get broadband Internet and other electronics to make it easier to watch online TV content.

“There isn't a whole lot of original content out there,” Keller says. “But it's coming. That's where broadcasting is going.”

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