More Clout, More Problems

Religious broadcasters showed power on election day but worry about losing viewers
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When Mark Twain said “politicians are uniquely respectful of anyone
who buys ink by the barrel,” he was talking about the power of newspapers.
But Dr. Frank Wright, the president of the National Religious Broadcasters
(NRB), has a new spin on that.

The November election proved the political power of evangelical
broadcasters and programmers. “In the modern world,” Wright says,
“politicians are respectful of broadcast platforms and broadcasters can have
an impact.”

The power of the television and radio pulpit is high on the list of
topics at this week's NRB convention in Anaheim, Calif. But so are other
issues, including an aging viewership and increased difficulty in finding
timeslots on station or cable outlets.

Wright downplays the idea that the Bush-Kerry presidential race marked a
landmark shift in the power of evangelicals. He stresses he limits on the way
the NRB and religious broadcasters can use their political clout. For starters,
as a non-profit group, the NRB is prohibited from taking partisan stands on
electoral issues; during the latest election, the NRB didn't endorse
candidates. But hundreds and probably thousands of ministers gave pro-Bush
sermons prior to the election.

Christians Voted in Record Numbers

But the NRB and a number of evangelical broadcasters did heavily promote
get-out-the-vote-campaigns, and on election day born-again Christians turned
out in record numbers, according to a recent survey by Barna Research Group,
which, it should be noted, specializes in Christian research for religious
groups.

Barna finds that born-again Christians comprise 38% of the population
and accounted for 55% of all votes cast nationwide. They supported President
George W. Bush by a 62%-38% margin.

In the days immediately following the election, the popular idea was
that “moral issues” decided the winner. That is probably overstating the
case, but there is no doubt Christian conservatives helped Bush ride to victory
and were part of his strategy.

Those voters are also leading a cultural shift that is boosting demand
for faith-based or religious media. Speaking at 2003 NRB convention, President
Bush noted that at least 144 million Americans use some religious
media—books, radio or television—at least once a month. That is more than
the 136 million Americans who attend church in an average 30-day period.

While the NRB is the largest association of faith-based broadcasters in
the U.S., Wright and the association don't pretend to represent all
faith-based programmers. Although a number of Catholic organizations will be
exhibiting at the convention, all NRB members must sign a distinctly
evangelical statement of faith that would probably exclude most Catholics and
certainly all Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist programmers.

Nor does the NRB claim to represent all conservative Protestant
evangelicals, a group that forms the heart of its membership.

Following the financial scandals of the 1980s, the NRB instituted rules
requiring its members to provide detailed financial statements. The Trinity
Broadcasting Networks and a number of evangelical broadcasters who are
unwilling to accept those conditions are not members of the NRB, even though
they regularly attend and exhibit at its convention.

Although reliable television ratings for religious programming are
difficult to obtain, a July 2002 poll by Barna, which was the basis for
Bush's numbers, found that about 43% of all adults—about 90 million
people—watched a Christian TV program in the past month. This same survey
found that about 38% of all adults listened to a teaching, preaching or
Christian talk show on radio and that about 43% had listened to Christian
music.

But those numbers need to be put into some perspective. No religious
programming is highly viewed. For example, the most-watched religious program
on television is Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network and its
The 700 Club. But according to CBN's own
data, the show, while being available to 95% of the country through ABC Family
Channel, Trinity Broadcasting Network and some TV stations is seen by 1 million
viewers daily.

“At a Crossroads”

Yet there is a mountain of other programming. The NRB convention will be
attended by 6,000 programmers and 300 exhibitors, and they are facing some
serious challenges as they attempt to expand their TV influence.

Wright probably speaks for many programmers, Christian and
non-Christian, when he admits that faith-based programming is “at a
crossroads.”

He ticks off a variety of issues—ranging from financial pressures and
demographic changes to a rapidly changing television landscape and the swift
speed of technological change—that threaten to slow the sector's progress:
“It's a bit like an intersection where too many highways are converging and
the traffic slows down.”

For starters, the industry's financial state remains precariously
dependent on the generosity of viewers. Most faith-based broadcast programmers
buy airtime on broadcast stations and fund their programs from donations, not
advertising. Likewise, a number of the religious cable networks, such as EWTN,
rely on donations and do not charge cable operators subscriber fees. That makes
it difficult to finance better programming that might attract younger viewers
or expand their audience.

“The audiences tend to skew older and the generation that has
supported [religious broadcasters] is retiring,” Wright admits. “We know
that trillions of dollars will pass from one generation to the next [in the
next few decades], but the younger generation has a much different conception
of charitable giving. We don't know what will work with them.”

In recent years, other items put the religious broadcasters under
pressure. The transition to digital is imposing hefty costs on broadcasters and
many programmers are finding it harder to get distribution for their
programming.

And because of media consolidation, many stations that used to sell
airtime to religious broadcasters have been snapped up by some of the larger
media groups. That reduces the number of potential outlets for religious
programming.

Demand for Programming Is There

“In the last decade, we've actually seen the free broadcast platform
[for faith-based programming] shrink,” Wright says. “We've found some
open doors on [DBS] but not among the major cable operators. The demand for
this programming is clearly there, but they don't seem willing to provide
carriage except on a local or regional level.”

Not surprisingly, the NRB convention this week will be focusing on many
of these issues. FCC Commissioners Michael Copps and Kevin Martin will address
regulatory concerns. There will also be educational sessions and “boot
camps” designed to help members attract more Hispanic viewers, improve their
fundraising skills and deal with a wide variety of technological issues,
ranging from the Internet to HD programming.

But as befits an association devoted to religious programming, the
conference is “intentionally oriented around the spiritual needs of our
members,” with a Sunday-morning service and performances by well-known
Christian artists like John Tesh.

Says Wright, “The gospel has to remain at the heart of everything we
do.”

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