Christian Media

More on Christian TV – Ask for Money, or Broadcast Commercials?

Check out this story from The Broadcast Newsroom on the ad supported model of Christian television. Interesting discussion on the future of Christian media. Let me know which direction you think it should go:

The Ad-Supported Model: Heresy or Here to Stay?
By Tim Kridel
(Multichannel News) _ Faith-based networks have historically covered their operating costs exclusively by donations and, to a lesser extent, by sales of books, CDs and DVDs. But as overhead costs grow, some programmers have begun exploring a shift to an advertising-supported business model.

In an increasingly competitive market, the value of exclusive programming is a key way to stand out from the pack, but creating or licensing it costs money a lot of it.

An ad-supported model raises several issues for these programmers, though. One consideration is that the ability to run commercials depends partly on how the network is owned and incorporated. For example, TBN’s parent company is Trinity Christian Church of Santa Ana.


“As a general proposition, these are all tax-exempt public charities and churches,” said Colby May, an attorney who works with religious networks. “If they [sold ads], they’d have an unrelated business income-tax issue. If they did too much of it, they’d have an issue with the IRS [Internal Revenue Service], whether they could maintain their exemption. So you’ll find that universally they’re not going to go in that direction.”

There are other reasons why most religious networks say they’re staunchly against any form of advertising or sponsorships. One is that programmers believe that by forgoing ads, they can focus on their ministry. “It leaves us free to pursue our mission,” said Michael Warsaw, president of EWTN.

Another issue is whether dabbling in advertising would immediately undermine their primary revenue source: donations.

“It would kill their bottom line,” said Bill Keller, president of Bill Keller Ministries and host of Live Prayer , a nightly talk show aired on several ABC and i (formerly Pax TV) affiliates in Florida that gets additional exposure through cable retransmission. “Once they start selling ads, they can’t beg for money. They can make more money basically begging than they can by selling advertising. That’s why they won’t do it.”

Other religious programmers say that they won’t consider ads because doing so would be at odds with their mission.

“We’d feel as if we were doing a disservice to our viewers by running commercials,” said Lewis Gibbs, vice president of The Word Network. “That’s something we just wouldn’t do.”

Another network that won’t consider commercials is TBN.

“I’ve run the numbers. I could throw that switch tomorrow and probably double our income,” said Paul Crouch, Jr., TBN’s vice president of administration. “But that’s not what TBN is about. We could have become the Christian Home Shopping Network a long time ago.”

Still, not all religious networks are willing to rule out advertising. In fact, some plan to pursue it. One example is The Inspiration Networks, which believes that between its networks and online offerings, it’s getting to the point where it will have enough of an audience to start attracting advertisers.

“On Saturday night, our ratings are as good as a third to a fourth of the cable networks out there and much better than some of the more highly promoted networks,” said Inspiration senior vice president of corporate communications and research John Roos. “Why would an advertiser not want to be part of that?”

One reason is that some companies are reluctant to advertise on faith-based networks because they’re concerned that the programming might occasionally be at odds with their products or marketing messages. “It’s a challenge to find advertisers and agencies that are willing to embrace it,” Roos conceded. “The market’s there. The viewership is there. But there’s a reluctance on some people’s part to be associated.”

Another network that’s considering commercials is the startup Jewish network Shalom TV, which sees potential advertisers such as El Al Airlines and travel companies that specialize in tours of Israel.

“At some point, I believe that all of them will want to take advantage of reaching the Shalom TV audience,” said Rabbi Mark Golub, president and CEO of Shalom TV. “When that happens, we’ll have to determine how to place those ads. Then we’ll wait to see what the response is.

“My guess is that if the commercials relate to our audience, they won’t resent them. It’s a matter of when, not if.”

Religious programmers’ first forays into paid advertising will most likely be PBS-style, brought-to-you-by barkers at the start or end of a program. Some networks believe that it’s less disruptive than if an ad suddenly appeared 10 minutes into, say, a roundtable about the Koran. In the case of video-on-demand religious programming, viewers are less likely to fast-forward through commercials that do not interrupt the program.

“We believe that in most instances, it will be placed at the beginning of programming,” Golub said. “We believe that people will be less [inclined] to rush through than they would at the end of a program. There will be times when we insert commercials into programs, as with a linear channel.”

Depending on the program and target audience, sprinkling ads throughout a show remains an option. A program of music videos by Christian artists, for instance, could include spots from record labels. Those programs typically are aimed at younger demographics, which are less likely to be turned off by commercials.

How intrusive commercials on faith-based networks might be for viewers remains open for debate among networks.

“Running commercials on TBN would be like the pastor selling ad space on the wall behind him, or having ‘Home Depot’ on the front of his pulpit,” TBN’s Crouch said.

But others, such as INSP’s Roos, believe that secular networks have conditioned viewers to accept ads just about anywhere.

“Is it jarring to interrupt an intense [secular] drama with a frivolous ad?” said Roos. “It’s not obtrusive to them as part of their lifestyle to think about commercials and paying money. The challenge is how you blend it in. We have absolutely no problem with it all. The problem is finding advertisers that are willing to cross that line.”

One programmer that already has advertising in most of its shows is Faith & Values Media, whose programming is distributed by Hallmark Channel. Faith & Values owns a small percentage of Hallmark Channel, which handles the ad sales, but Faith & Values won’t comment on how those revenues are divvied up. Nevertheless, it’s an effort that bears watching by faith-based networks that are considering advertising.

“There is no inherent conflict between advertiser support and good faith-based programming,” said Ed Murray, president of Faith & Values. “It depends on the advertisement itself, which should be appropriate. There is nothing inherently wrong to have advertising in programs dealing with religion, except for worship services.”

Copyright The Associated Press 2006. All Rights Reserved

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  1. I find some very interesting quotes in this article. "I've run the numbers. I could throw that switch tomorrow and probably double our income," said Paul Crouch, Jr., TBN's vice president of administration. "But that's not what TBN is about. We could have become the Christian Home Shopping Network a long time ago." Paul…this is akin to saying "let's boycott". If the advertising model can double your income and present quality, unique programming that you don't have to beg people to support….um…wondering the real reason why you wouldn't do it? My guess is that, as you say, it would be like putting home depot on a pulpit.

    I have a better idea. GET RID OF A MAJORITY OF YOUR CHURCH SERVICE PROGRAMS AND START BEING CREATIVE! If you'd like…keep Sunday commerical free…run your church service programs there. Especially considering that you'd double your income…what's to taking a 1/7th hit in that?? Simple answer I know…but then again…some of the best ideas are just that. Which leads me to: Ed Murray, president of Faith & Values. "It depends on the advertisement itself, which should be appropriate. There is nothing inherently wrong to have advertising in programs dealing with religion, except for worship services." I would be very curious as to who would be the commerical cops. That could get VERY interesting. Maybe that's why we don't go there… Or…"Is it jarring to interrupt an intense [secular] drama with a frivolous ad?" said Roos. "It's not obtrusive to them as part of their lifestyle to think about commercials and paying money.

    I work in secular television. We are TRAINED in the art of a tease and in how to "stack" a show to keep eyeballs both tuned in and interested in what's coming up next, and later, and even much later (i.e. promos in commercial breaks). Good, growing church services do much the same in their services and manage flow just fine. But more to the point, WE ARE ALREADY CONDITIONED to commercials. The problem is that most secular viewers are also VERY conditioned to Christian television's art of begging, and choose to skip right on by (if not stopping for a minute or two to record it for use on late night talk shows as comedy fodder).

    It really does pain me to point things like that out…but am I wrong? To that point, I think what this article really reveals is the fear in most traditional Christian Networks to upset their "base" (political term…hey, it IS the season). We are afraid to take a risk or to to better things for coming generations. Those lack of risks will see things die rather than prosper. The author of the article writes: "In an increasingly competitive market, the value of exclusive programming is a key way to stand out from the pack, but creating or licensing it costs money a lot of it." The interesting thing to me here is standing out from the pack. I see very little exclusivity in Christian programming. Sure we all have the same message. But a little free market thinking can go a LONG way here.

    While we are all on the same team, survival of the fittest creates quality and excellence. Tell me otherwise…but I see very little competition in Christian programming. We are just barely good enough to hold on to donors that have been there for years. I could show you a LOT of churches that have died off using that model. And we think Christian TV will be any different? And I'm also wondering who our "supplier" is to fill that need (money for creativity and licensing)? Grey haired grandma's sitting in their living room? Or maybe global companies that see an opportunity to attach themselves to a wide open market?

    Oh yeah…I almost forgot. GOD would be the answer to that question…with him…there is no fear…and ALL things are possible! I know…I've been wildly simplistic in my thoughts. Just trying to get to the root of things. From there you can grow. Great, productive (however critical) conversation!

    Matt Gould Television Producer Buffalo Sabres Buffalo, NY

  2. How does someone with capital make $ off of Christian television? Is advertising the only revenue model? Sounds to me like right now Christian TV is solely funded by donors, but that's not a smart model-because there is never a return on the money-it's just a drain on the sourse. It's not really a legit business model. I think Christian businessmen would open the floodgates if there was a legit way to gain a return on an investment.

    How can an investor finance a show just for Christian TV and make a return on the investment? I've thought about it quite a bit and I can't concieve a way that an investor would ever get the money back. Am I missing any revenue outlets here? I'm assuming you'd say DVD sales, but then why not just make a movie? Christian tv only pays slight licencing fees to show programming, so how else is the revenue generated? I can see how with donations the station gets some funding, but independant producers have absolutely no way to recoup an investment for a Christian tv project that I can see. Do investors fit into the Christian TV puzzle?


  3. Matt Gould makes an excellent point, it seems to me, when he says that "church service" programs ought to be abandoned (with the exception of a few programs which would run on Sunday mornings, for the sake of people who are physically unable to attend regular church services for reasons such as hospitalization).

    Regardless of whether one is Catholic or Pentecostal, church is a participatory experience to some extent. By definition, TV is a passive experience. Therefore, anyone who thinks that a televised church service really replaces regular church services completely is deluded. At best, such services are pale imitations of the real thing.

    Also, there's no reason why those who want to watch church services at home on TV can't buy DVDs which would enable them to do that. That way, if they want to review a particular service in order to hear a particularly outstanding sermon, they can do so easily. Christian TV stations could even run ads for such DVDs. And since it's a lot easier for local churches to create limited edition DVD discs of their services than it is for them to create their own TV shows for national TV, those who enjoyed their TV church services in such a manner would have a lot more types of church services to choose from.

    Instead of trying to use TV to bring church services to people who are in prisons or hospitals, why not support (and advertise) Christian ministries (such as Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship) which take real, live church services directly to those who are in prison or in the hospital? That would free up TV airtime for more creative programming choices which could be ad-supported, without anyone feeling that including such ads somehow constituted excessive commercialization of Christianity. Moreover, it would be a much more faithful reflection of Jesus' teachings about visiting people in prisons and similar places.

    Why do Christian TV producers prefer the talk show format to more creative TV genres such as action adventure dramas? Because it costs a lot less to produce such shows, and because it's easy to settle into a formulaic rut in which real creativity is optional. I'm not opposed to talk shows in small doses, but there's a good reason why talk shows only occupy a small percentage of all of the programming on secular TV.

    I thought the comments about tax-exempt status were interesting, because they raised issues I've thought about for a long time. Namely, why is it that we seem to believe that it's impossible to have an effective Christian ministry without acquiring such status?

    When St. Paul preached the gospel in the first century, do you think that any of the governments of the day offered tax-exempt status to Christian ministries? Of course not. Did that stop Paul from preaching the gospel? Again, the answer is clearly "no". Do you suppose that ordinary Christians in the first century demanded to know whether or not ministries were incorporated as tax-exempt entities before deciding whether or not to support those ministries? Of course not!

    Admittedly, no one would want to return to the exact same climate the early Christians experienced. Being feasted on by lions isn't anyone's idea of a good time. It's great that we live in a nation which was built on a foundation of respect for Christian institutions and principles. But my point is that tax exemptions for Christian ministries are a very recent phenomenon. It seems to me that if a person is donating to a church mainly to get a tax deduction, then that person is donating to that church for an illegitimate reason. Even where tax exemptions are offered, they should be seen as a "perk," not as the main reason for supporting a particular ministry.

    While there are some cases in which tax-exempt status has substantially improved conditions for those engaged in ministry, there are other cases in which it has tied people's hands behind their backs, preventing them from being able to legally do certain things (such as actively and directly promoting political candidates who advocate policies they believe to be beneficial).

    If the result of the quest for tax exemption is that Christian programming is so radically different from secular programming that very few non-Christians care to watch it, then it could be said to have a deleterious effect on the ability of Christians to use TV and radio and other similar media as a means of reaching non-Christians with the gospel of Christ. The ad-supported model should be considered as an option, for the simple reason that it might change the types of programs which would be economically feasible for TV producers.

    Of course, it's important to exercise discernment regarding the types of ads which are run, if an ad-supported model is used. I don't think Christian TV stations should be funding their programs by running ads for products which are regarded by large numbers of Christians as sinful. But advertising is not inherently anti-Christian.

    In fact, I would argue that if you're running ads by Christian businesses in need of affordable promotion, running ads for those businesses could be properly regarded as a ministry to the brothers and sisters who run those businesses.

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