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A Heavenly Chorus

Gospel Channel is growing, but there's still room in the pews 8/11/2006 08:00:00 PM Eastern

When Allstate Insurance Co. searched for a platform to reach African-Americans, it put its faith in a channel that offered both inspirational programming and a family-friendly environment. So beginning next month, the insurance company will serve as the presenting sponsor of a special on the two-year-old Gospel Music Channel (GMC) .

“We identify areas that our target audience feels strongly and passionate about, and spirituality is one of them,” says L. Renee Richardson, director of African-American markets for Allstate's ad agency, Tapestry. “The Gospel Music Channel offers us an environment that's wholesome and a safe place for clients to be in.”

As advertisers search for platforms that offer uncontroversial content and also “engage audiences”—that's the buzz phrase—Gospel looks good. So far, it has landed 14 top advertisers, including Coca-Cola, General Mills and Unilever. They came after Ford became the channel's initial Fortune 500 advertiser as the sponsor of Gospel Dream, an American Idol-style talent search. All four marketers are members of the Family Friendly Programming Forum.

“The list of advertisers in different categories is continuing to expand,” says GMC President Charley Humbard, who talks about the channel with the fervor of his televangelist father, Rex Humbard.

One hurdle the Atlanta-based network faces is tempting leery advertisers. “It scares some advertisers because they feel they are affiliating with a religion,” says John Styll, president of the Gospel Music Association.

But Gospel speaks in a lot of tongues. Its styles range from soul and praise/worship, to country and Southern, to rock, pop and hip hop. It also offers Espíritu Latino, a program featuring Spanish-language music videos.

There is some evidence that the network's target—”mainstream people of faith,” not just Pentecostals—is broad and sizable. It's available in urban Detroit and Atlanta, in the Bible Belt, and parts of New England. Humbard won't comment on specifics about revenue or distribution for the channel, which he co-founded with former Turner executive Brad Siegel. Humbard, himself a Discovery veteran, says the channel is available in 5 million to 10 million homes. It just announced a deal with DirecTV. Some Comcast, Charter and Cox operators also carry it.

Humbard says Gospel can become profitable with 20 million-25 million homes. He expects to get there in two years.

In first half 2006, sales of Christian/gospel albums increased 11.6% over the comparable 2005 quarter, to 17.9 million—a total nearly as high as the growing Latin category, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

GMC isn't the first or only attempt at a gospel channel. Z Music Television tried in 1993 and reached 35 million homes before folding. BET has one, although it's still in just 200,000 homes. Great American Country (GAC) also runs some gospel.

GAC Senior VP of Programming Sarah Trahern is watching the viewership trend: “It's still a question how large the marketplace is for a gospel channel.”

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