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Opening a New Channel to God - Broadcasting & Cable

Opening a New Channel to God

National Religious Broadcasters adds a platform for Christian programming
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National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) has been a powerful force in the conservative evangelical community. Representing hundreds of evangelical television and radio broadcasters and producers, NRB played a key role in mobilizing Christian voters behind George W. Bush and enjoys a close relationship with the White House.

Now the trade group is looking to extend its reach by getting into the network business. In December, it launched the NRB Network on the DirecTV satellite service. At a time when the core audience for faith-based programming is aging, NRB Network aims to attract a new generation of viewers by raising the standards of quality and variety in Christian programming. And with funding and venues for faith-based programming still relatively limited, the network offers a new platform for religious broadcasters.

“Christian television has to raise the quality of programming production to be more visually compelling,” says Dr. Frank Wright, NRB’s president/CEO. “Our goal at the NRB Network is to be biblically faithful and culturally relevant.”

According to NRB Network Senior VP/COO Troy Miller, the network’s ambition is nothing less than “to change the face of Christian TV programming.

“Most other Christian programming has been predominantly teaching, preaching, church service and bible-study oriented,” he explains. “That is very important for us. But we want to go beyond that.”

Miller plans to broaden the range of programming with documentaries on science and history, family entertainment, and “reviews of books and movies that have a Christian point of view.” It’s an effort that reflects the reality that audiences for evangelical television are getting older—along with televangelical mainstays like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. But NRB is also attempting to address the financial problems facing faith-based television programming.

Because most faith-based networks are commercial-free, they largely rely on a public-broadcasting–style business model of endless on-air pitches for donations. And because producers generally can- not draw on advertising and carriage fees to fund their fare, most programming is produced on a shoestring.

The seed for NRB Network was planted in 2002, when News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch met with NRB board members sympathetic to his efforts to block EchoStar’s planned acquisition of DirecTV.

GOOD CONTENT WILL GET ACCESS

NRB members, concerned that a merger of EchoStar’s Dish Network with another satellite provider would reduce their already limited access to TV outlets, complained to Murdoch of the difficulties they faced finding carriage for their programming.

“After a while,” says Bill Skelton, president/CEO of Love Worth Finding Ministries and a longtime NRB board member, who attended the meeting, “Murdoch leaned forward on the couch and said, 'You’ve been talking to me for the last 20 minutes about access. From where I sit, the issue is not access. The issue is content. If you come to me with good content, I don’t see a problem with giving you access.’”

NRB ultimately opposed the merger, which was eventually blocked by the FCC, opening the way for Murdoch’s acquisition. A couple of years later, DirecTV asked NRB if it was interested in launching a channel on one of the operator’s public-service slots. (Skelton and others say that there is no connection between the NRB’s opposition to EchoStar and its carriage deal with DirecTV).

There was some debate over whether an NRB Network would compete with other faith-based channels that are trying to get carriage. But most members saw the network as an opportunity to expand the reach of their programming, and the board quickly assented. The NRB Network went live in December 2005, reaching all of DirecTV’s 15.4 million subscribers.

After seven months in operation, the NRB Network says it is in the black and even won a gold medal at this year’s Promax/BDA conference for its on-air design. But the network has a minuscule annual budget: under $2 million, less than what a big Hollywood studio spends to produce one hour of a network drama series. And there is little money in sight. Public-interest channels are prohibited from selling spots, so programmers on the NRB Network must make their money from donations and sponsorships.

NRB is hoping to tap alternative sources of funding by attracting corporate sponsors. The network posits that such sponsorships offer an excellent branding opportunity for a corporation looking to associate itself with programming that is faith-based and family-friendly.

“We are looking for sponsors among the Fortune 500 companies that want to put money into wholesome programming,” notes Skelton, although he and others at the NRB decline to name any that have been contacted. So far, no large corporate sponsors have signed on to the concept.

In the meantime, the network is drawing on a relatively large body of content that was originally produced for the home-video market. This fall, it will break the schedule into daily themed blocks, such as public-policy and social issues on Mondays, Christian films on Wednesdays, and music and entertainment on Fridays. A daytime block for women and a Saturday-morning kids block are in the works for sometime in 2007.

John Duncan, executive producer/director of media service at Ligonier Ministries, notes that his organization has been providing the network with a number of programs exploring biblical, philosophical and historical issues. The programs currently feature Ligonier Ministries founder and Chairman Dr. R.C. Sproul discussing the subjects in a studio, but Duncan hopes that, over time, they can increase the budget and production quality. He is also hoping to raise money for more investigative pieces, looking at current events from a Christian perspective.

Although NRB’s Wright credits PBS for some of its family-oriented programming, he promises that NRB Network will offer a very different perspective, particularly on issues that pit faith against science. “While [other networks] present science securely from an evolutionary and materialist point of view,” he says, “we will approach it from our Christian faith.”

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