Preaching to the Younger Choir

Religious channels look for a youthful infusion of viewers through affiliate networks, programs, social media

There is a sentiment that religious TV is for the AARP crowd. Whether it’s largely true or not, it’s a perception faith-based programmers are looking to change. Much like the broadcast networks fight over young viewers, religious and faith-based nets are looking to grab that same piece of the pie.

JCTV, the newest in TBN’s family of faithbased networks, was launched in April specifically geared toward younger audiences. The new affiliate net features contemporary music videos, teen talk and reality shows, movies and extreme sports. “Its high-energy format draws young adults, while also offering them a rare oasis of hope and inspiration,” says Bob Higley, VP, affiliate sales & marketing, TBN Networks. “We know that about one in three teens say their faith is important to them. JCTV is the only channel that consistently speaks to that substantial and unique demographic.”

Along with JCTV, TBN in September launched its iTBN service, which plays like a Christian version of Hulu or Netflix. “All of our networks— TBN, Church Channel, JCTV, Smile of a Child and [TBN’s Spanish-language channel] Enlace— have content they are putting into iTBN,” says Higley. “There is 10,000 hours already loaded.”

While explaining that catering to the younger demo is not the sole reason for iTBN, Higley adds that this desire played a role, also noting that those viewers tend to prefer a multiplatform viewing experience. “Obviously, [there is] a younger generation that is using online and TV Everywhere-type devices to view television,” he says.

National Religious Broadcasters, which represents a consortium of commercial and non-commercial stations, has developed iPhone apps for many of the member stations’ programming. “We have found that to be pretty successful,” says Craig Parshall, NRB senior VP and general counsel.

Instead of simply airing their slate of shows at times when younger viewers might be more apt to find them, some faith-based networks have more proactively developed programming specifically geared toward that audience.

Christian Broadcasting Network, one of the NRB’s non-profit members, has One Cubed, an international Christian music video show produced in multiple languages. CBN CEO Gordon Robertson explains that while trying to secure the teen and young adult audience, CBN is making a strong push to get younger children to watch as well. In November, CBN will debut Superbook (originally a 1980s cartoon developed in Japan), which tells stories of the Bible in a Japanese anime format, airing on Sundays. Superbook currently is slated for 26 episodes, but Robertson says “our goal is to take it out to [a higher number]” and hopes for a full two years of weekly shows.

Shalom TV, which does not describe itself as a religious net per se but as a channel dedicated to promoting Jewish heritage, has an entire programming lineup geared toward the young adult demo.

“There is a language, a way of speaking and relating to each other in the world, that is unique to each generation,” says Rabbi Mark Golub, CEO of Shalom TV. “The challenge that [the network] faces is how do we tap into the interests that drive young people’s attention to life experiences?”

The network launched a mock-reality series, From Date to Mate, which follows eight Jewish singles (four guys, four girls) as they navigate the New York dating scene. “It has created an enormous following,” says Golub. Jewish NYC, meanwhile, looks at young Jewish culture. “Music, art, a lot of rap is featured,” says Golub. Another series, Defenders (Lohamim, in Hebrew), features Shalom TV’s Eilat Feller visiting with different Israel Defense Force units, interviewing the young military personnel and even training alongside them.

One thing all the religious networks share is the realization that it’s next to impossible to bring in younger viewers without social media. Shalom TV created individual Facebook profiles for the characters on From Date to Mate, even having someone interact with users under the guise of each person. “There’s so much opportunity with social media, and we’re just now beginning to tap in,” says Golub.

As Golub puts it, it comes down to relating to the younger generations. “When they their interests on television, they will watch.”

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