Spreading the Word by iPhone

Faith-based networks are seeking followers far and wide through new ways and the Web
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If religious programming brings to mind only televangelists and donation drives, chances are you haven't tuned in to some of the major faith-related networks in a while. And if you have missed out, you can always catch up on your iPhone.

The faith-based networks, much like their secular TV counterparts, are seeking multiplatform pathways to get their message out. And while preachers and requests for funds are still staples of the religious TV landscape, the space has broadened in recent years to encompass reality TV, interactive shows, and a robust and growing cross-platform presence. This week, Trinity Broadcasting (TBN), the nation's largest Christian network, is launching a mobile app that will allow viewers to download all seven of Trinity's channels to their iPhones.

Even long-running religious programming like the Christian Broadcasting Network's (CBN) 700 Club has undergone changes to attract a more multimedia-savvy audience. 700 Club is still the cable and syndication leader of the niche market, with a fourth-quarter 0.24 live Gross Average Audience (GAA) rating on CBN and a 0.05 on cable via ABC Family, according to Nielsen. In June 2009, CBN launched 700 Club Interactive, which airs daily on ABC Family. Fifty percent of the show's viewers are under the age of 34, according to Gordon Robertson, CEO of CBN and son of the network's founder, televangelist Pat Robertson.

“Our experiments in interactive television—how to bring chat and Skype video into a television show, and really interact with an audience in real time and do that through streaming video and on-demand video—really seem to have resonance in a younger demographic,” Gordon Robertson says.

The multiplatform approach has caught on with shows like The Uprising on The Inspiration Network. The show follows a group of professional skateboarders as they preach the Gospel in unlikely settings like skate parks, prisons and schools. “That audience is very multitask-oriented,” says John Roos, the network's senior VP of corporate communications and research. “We're trying to find a way to provide programming that [the youth] market is interested in. We've taken a multimedia approach.”

Despite the embrace of 21st-century storytelling techniques and a desire even to push the envelope, programmers say the message to young people still comes first. “We are trying to affect and change people's lives,” says TBN Chief of Staff Paul Crouch Jr. “MTV says, 'If you have 32 girlfriends or boyfriends and an Escalade, you're going to be happy,' and we're saying, 'No.' Our programming reflects a more internal focus.”

But younger people aren't the only ones attracted to interactive programming. Robertson eschews the notion that older viewers aren't multimedia-savvy. “I think you could have said our audience was less active [in interactive media] five years ago, but one of the fastest-growing audiences in terms of social media is women over 50.”

Religious programmers, many of whom rely on charitable giving, admit to being hit hard by the recession. “We definitely saw a dip in giving,” Crouch says. The network's biannual telethons were down 20%, but Crouch is cautiously optimistic that giving will pick up. “We've already seen things start to head north,” he says. “Not dramatically, but revenue [losses] have definitely bottomed out and things are starting to head back up.”

“The commercial stations have been hit the hardest, although everyone's had to adjust,” says Craig Parshall, senior VP and general counsel for National Religious Broadcasters, an organization that represents 1,700 broadcasters on TV and radio.

According to Parshall, the recent Supreme Court ruling that corporations may spend freely to support or oppose federal candidates could help boost ad revenues among religious broadcasters. The decision could reap a $300 million increase for commercial stations in the coming election year, he says. “Is it going to go to our folks?” Parshall asks. “Well, some of it will. There is a trickle-down effect. I think there's going to be a lot of issue-advocacy ads” that Parshall believes could be targeted at Christian or so-called “values” voters.

In the face of tough financial circumstances, TBN, like other religious networks, is working on ambitious high-definition studio conversions. The network has already gone HD in its production hubs of Los Angeles, Dallas, New York and Nashville, and Crouch says he still plans to get all 36 studios across the country HD-ready within the next five years.

Parshall believes that spirit of gradual improvement will help religious programmers weather the economic storm. The broadcast ministries that are doing the best, he says, are “the ones that are innovative in terms of using new media, iPhone applications, Twittering campaigns. They stay on message, but they've adapted some of these [innovations] to stay on the cutting edge.”

E-mail comments to david.tanklefsky@reedbusiness.com