Faith-Based Networks Preach the Multi-Platform Gospel

Digital is key to expanding, redefining religious brands
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In recent years, faith-based networks, like their secular counterparts, have embraced a multi-platform approach to their programming by including VOD, mobile apps and Web series as part of their business strategy. But religious networks also face the challenge of preserving a distinct spiritual message while embracing the new-media outlets. Welcome to Faith 2.0.

Faith-based programmers are finding success with the multi-platform approach, according to Craig Parshall, senior VP and general counsel for National Religious Broadcasters (NRB), an organization representing 1,700 faithbased broadcasters on TV and radio.

“You have to be on multiple platforms— wherever there are eyeballs, you have to be,” Parshall says. “If not, you’re missing a much larger audience. It helps everything you do and lifts the number of people who are exposed to your message. We’re not turning back.”

Larger networks, like the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), are reaping more than the spiritual benefits of that exposure. According to CEO Gordon Robertson, since CBN launched 700 Club Interactive—a Web iteration of the flagship news talker where viewers can interact via Skype, chat and e-mail with the host—in June 2009, The 700 Club on ABC Family has seen a 7% increase in viewership. 700 Club Interactive also saw a 33% Nielsen increase year-to-year in September, and was up 20% from the second quarter to 4 million views in the third quarter for VOD on CBN.com. “We found a strong correlation with the main host interacting with our audience on Skype, and our growth from a [television] ratings standpoint,” Robertson says.

As a result of its multi-platform success, CBN plans to relaunch its hit 1980s animation franchise Superbook in fall 2011 as a CGI series. A new interactive Website to accompany the redesigned show is already up and running, and includes social networking features, games and contests for kids. Since the launch of Superbook.tv in November 2009, the site has received 4.4 million page views, averaging 435,000 each month—making up nearly 10% of CBN.com’s page views.

Faith-based FamilyNet is expanding multi-platform programming through television, radio and the Internet through a simultaneous broadcast, or “MegaCast,” as dubbed by the network, of FamilyNet Radio programs. The first MegaCast was broadcast Oct. 4 with The Kevin McCullough Show.

As a result of these brand extensions, says FamilyNet CEO Chris Wyatt, who also helped found social network and video platform God- Tube.com, the network has added millions in revenue to its bottom line, has shortened its rate of investment (ROI) timeline by 70%, and has increased viewership by 40% in the past year. Wyatt largely credits this to the network’s programming transitions from a 50-64 demo to a 35-49 demo.

Wyatt says that a multi-platform strategy has become part of the brand’s identity. “We are not only a faith-based broadcaster, we’re also a technology firm,” he explains, citing the development of a new mobile app, nextgeneration video technologies and the launch of a revamped “GodTube on steroids” as upcoming projects. “Without our multi-platform strategies, we would have to rely solely on our television and radio platforms. As a result, we would not be profitable.”

Smaller networks, however, like Boston-based CatholicTV, are simply grateful for the increase in exposure and ability to get their message out. The recent launches of the network’s iPhone app and video widget, CatholicTVjr, have expanded its brand awareness to parishes and dioceses across the country—and even to users in India.

“It’s given us some awareness of who’s watching.” says Bonnie Rodgers, CatholicTV’s director of marketing and programming. “The way [nonsubscribers] can see us is through the Internet, but they wouldn’t know to go look for us. So, being on a diocese’s Website generates some interest and awareness in CatholicTV that we would not have otherwise gotten.”

And with the Sept. 23 launch of the social community iCatholic.com, the net has also gained the confidence to start thinking big. “Our growth since introducing digital media has been more anecdotal than quantifiable, but [that medium] puts us out there for providers and generates interest,” Rodgers explains. “Our goal now is to be launched on all major cable and satellite carriers, and to provide as much Catholic programming in the U.S. as possible.”

Inspiration Networks has redefined its brands along a “multi-generational, multi-platform strategy,” according to John Roos, senior VP of corporate communications and research at the network. Inspiration targeted the hard-to-reach youth demographic with last October’s launch of Halogen, a channel that emphasizes entertainment and lifestyles rather than religion, and is aimed at 18-to-34-year-old viewers who want to make a difference with their lives.

Halogen defines itself as multi-platform, rather than just a television network. Though it first launched as only a linear channel and Website, Halogen has extended its brand over the past year to a Halogen on Demand VOD platform; a robust social-media presence on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube; and its own online community and feedback platform, Halogen Insiders. According to Kristina Hill, media relations manager for Inspiration, Halogen’s presence and focus on social media contributed to its recent launch on the AT&T U-verse channel lineup. As of August, Halogen’s availability was up almost 20%, reaching nearly 14 million households nationwide. Next, the network plans to go mobile.

Sometimes, digital platforms can also be used as a means to highlight content that didn’t make a splash on the small screen. Inspiration’s reality drama The Uprising, part of its Steelroots block, failed to draw a significant telecast audience in its first season, so Inspiration chose to relegate it—and the rest of Steelroots’ content—to the Web instead of killing it all together.

“Steelroots content was placed online because this is where the target audience is, and this is how they view content,” Hill says. “This strategy has resulted in increasing Web traffic for the platform.” In recent weeks, Steelroots.com also began streaming monthly live concerts and plans to launch a new Web drama called Next in November.

Shalom TV, a Jewish cable television network that airs in 40 million homes, is also harnessing the power of new technology to bolster itself as a source for Jewish perspectives on news and current events. According to CEO Rabbi Mark S. Golub, the network is “putting the finishing touches” on a Shalom TV server that immediately transmits news to myriad subscribing Websites, as well as making video available to the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, JerusalemOnline.com and other news partners.

However, Golub says Shalom TV is aware that some viewers may not adapt to new technology so easily. “We are also conscious that a number of Shalom TV viewers may be pressing the On Demand button on their cable remote for the very first time,” he says. “So, we’ve outfi tted our Website with an entire page that introduces On Demand to novice users, with step-by-step instructions and screenshots designed to demystify the technology for our audience.”

But beyond the hurdles of transitioning from traditional to new media, NRB’s Parshall says that Christian broadcasters must deal with another challenge that the mainstream broadcasters don’t.

“Connectivity and interactivity in our media platforms are crucial, but only if at the end of the day what has been transmitted [old-fashioned content] is transcendent truth,” he says. “If the medium distorts that message, it has to be rejected. Right now, we at NRB are concerned about being future-thinking in terms of 21st century religious liberty at the crossroads of a technological revolution. Things are changing so fast that we can’t afford to ‘catch the wave’ when it hits us—we have to be way ahead of the wave.”

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