Economic Crisis Tests Nets' Faith and Business

Programmers provide comfort, but don't forget to ask for donations

The economic crisis is testing religious and faith-based networks, even as it pushes many people to re-evaluate their lives and look to their faith for comfort.

“Religion is something you can count on to help you get through thick and thin, and that's a comforting message,” says Doug Keck, senior VP of programming and production at the Eternal Word Television Network. “Faith doesn't eliminate these problems, but hopefully it helps you deal with them better.”

John Roos, senior VP of corporate communications and research at Inspiration Network, which relies partly on advertising, says the downturn is “affecting everybody.”

EWTN, which is wholly donor-supported, has already felt some impact, though Keck says the network shrewdly extended (and paid for) contracts recently and has built up a warehouse of programming so it doesn't have to shell out more money.

Paul Crouch Jr., VP at Trinity Broadcasting Network, also sees the big picture: “It's a definite dip in the road, but my father [a co-founder of TBN] says he has seen the end of the world three or four times now.” The last time giving dropped dramatically, according to Crouch and Roos, was after Sept. 11.

TBN itself is debt-free and has good cash reserves, Crouch says. However, half of TBN's airtime is sold to national ministries, and some of those are struggling badly.

Craig Parshall, senior VP and general counsel for the National Religious Broadcasters, says there is belt-tightening among the group's members. But while some ministries have reported dire straits and donation declines of as much as 25%, Parshall says there is “not a lot of desperation.”

The biggest impact is on how everyone evaluates equipment upgrades,” he says. “People are looking at discretionary spending with a granular detail they weren't before. But this fine-tuning is not a bad thing.”

Jay Sanderson, CEO of Jewish Television Network, which produces programming for distribution largely to public television, says two of his major funders lost money in Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme; other funders, Sanderson says, are looking at television productions and cultural projects as a low priority in these demanding times. “We're very concerned,” he says. “It could dramatically impact the amount of projects we produce in the short term.”

The networks and ministries will not stop asking for donations or change their formula even if they soften their tone during the crisis, executives say. EWTN's Keck says that while his network still encourages viewers to put their pledge “between your gas and electric bills,” it is being sensitive to people's situations. But as Crouch of TBN points out, “Giving is an integral part of the Christian faith.”

Ultimately, the economic crisis presents opportunities for religious programmers to serve their constituents more than ever. Crouch says the meltdown might not only push people to think about their relationship to their faith, but also to their money. “Americans are way too materialistic,” he says. “Some of the unhappiest people I have ever known are billionaires, and in times like this people realize money does not bring happiness. If it gets people to reevaluate, that's a good thing.”

“It isn't just the minorities and working class struggling; it is the middle and upper middle class, too, and we have to tap into that. People are watching television as they are losing their homes around them,” adds Nick Stuart, president and CEO of Odyssey Networks, which produces religious programming. “There is an opportunity for religion to meet people at their moment of need.”