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Sky Angel beams faith-based, family-friendly shows by satellite 7/28/2006 08:00:00 PM Eastern

The Sky Angel satellite service is gearing up to spread the good news about the growing bounty of religious networks and faith-based programming. This fall, the little-known service, which comprises only religious and family-friendly networks, will undertake its most aggressive push for subscribers since it began operating a decade ago.

Although religious networks haven’t always had many outlets to air programs targeted to Christians, Jews, Muslims or members of other religions, Sky Angel’s new campaign indicates that things are changing. Thanks to increased capacity on direct-broadcast satellite (DBS) services and a greater number of slots for religious channels on digital cable, dozens of religious networks, both well-known and super-niche, are proliferating.

Sky Angel, owned by Dominion Video Satellite, has been in business since 1981 and received its DBS license in 1984. In the mid ’90s, the company inked a deal with EchoStar’s Dish Network to share its satellite capacity. It has been operating since 1996 and, along with Dish and DirecTV, is now one of only three high-power DBS services.

“Since we are so niche, it took us longer to get off the ground,” says Nancy Christopher, VP of corporate communications, but now it’s in the 48 contiguous states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

PROVIDING A “SECURE OUTLET”

A privately held company, Naples, Fla.-based Sky Angel does not release subscriber figures. According to research firm The Carmel Group, it has 320,000 subscribers, a sliver compared with DirecTV’s 15.4 million and Dish’s 12.2 million.

But the company hopes to change that. It recently conducted its first major market-research study and will launch an advertising campaign that will reach beyond Christian bookstores and TV stations, where it has advertised sporadically over the years.

Although cable systems carry some religious networks, they are unable to sell local-ad avails or otherwise reap revenue enhancements since the networks are largely advertiser-free. As a result, digital cable tiers and satellite services have been more hospitable, allowing customers to access a slew of religious networks.

Sky Angel currently offers 17 networks, including Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), which debuted on the service May 31; Cornerstone TeleVision, a general-interest Christian network that airs programs like sitcom Pastor Greg; FaithTV, a movie channel; and KTV, Sky Angel’s youth-targeted network.

Also on the lineup are secular networks like HGTV, Hallmark Channel and Fox News Channel, which have little in the way of sexual content or rough language.

“It’s been very difficult for Christian, faith-based programming to get carriage,” Christopher says. “We wanted to provide a secure outlet. We felt there is a niche out there that would like faith-based programming but also family-friendly programming.”

Sky Angel doesn’t carry local stations, and Christopher notes that most subscribers, who pay either $14.99 a month or $149.90 per year, subscribe to it as an enhancement to other services like Dish.

For their part, Dish and DirecTV are offering more in the way of religious content.

Dish carries four such networks, including TBN and Angel One, which airs more than 100 local ministries. And there are several religious programs on its international networks, such as Korean Buddhist channel BTN and the Islamic Iqraa.

DirecTV has nine religious channels, including NRB, the National Religious Broadcasters’ new network; TBN; and Mormon-focused BYU Television, from Brigham Young University.

A DirecTV spokesman concedes that public-interest rules obligate the service to provide religious channels.

“Nonetheless,” he says, “our customer base is composed of people of many different faiths and religious beliefs, and these channels obviously serve a need among those viewers.”

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