Engaging CultureChristian Media

For a Religious Program: Are Religious or Secular Networks Better?

For the answer to this question, I asked Chris Busch, Founder of LightQuest Media in Tulsa, about the right place for the media buy for your religious TV program. His response? Placement of programming (media strategy) is driven by the objectives of the client. If you don’t know where you’re going, then any strategy will get you there.

There are more eyeballs on major secular TV, but generally the response rate per dollar spent is lower. If outreach and evangelism is the objective, then secular TV provides the most reach and the larger percentage of “unchurched” audience. If the objective is to maximize response, then this is usually best achieved on Christian media. While you may be “preaching to the choir,” the choir is trained to respond and to support multiple ministries and is more inclined to have charitable intent toward your ministry. If audience support of the program and the ministry is critical, then the building of a base of support is best started on Christian channels.

There are also opportunities to air internationally, with some countries having Christian platforms, some just secular, and some with both.  Strategically, it usually is best to start in English speaking countries and move into non-English speaking countries as budget for translation, subtitling and overdubbing allow.

Media ministry usually gets funded through two channels – viewers who become donors and/or through a church’s outreach budget. Media ministries without an underlying church base must look to viewers/donors for the support necessary to operate the ministry. For those para-church media ministries, response to the broadcast (name acquisition) and conversion of those contacts into consistent donors is a critical element to the economic viability of the broadcast. Christian broadcasting outlets are very important to this type of ministry. If the para-church ministry grows to a significant size they may generate enough funds to underwrite more evangelistic/outreach placements of their programming which are not dependent on the financial response of that audience to continue.

If a church chooses to underwrite the media outreach from its budget, then response to the program becomes less critical and placement of the programming on secular platforms can make sense because it’s not critical to the objectives of the ministry that the program be funded by viewer donations. And, there can be the hybrid which is partially supported by the church budget and partially by viewer response.

Higher ratings do not always translate into higher responses. Usually the best response is found on Christian media, after that in “religious blocks” on secular media (such as BET early AM, or Sunday AM on certain local network affiliates), and lastly in non-block time on secular networks or local affiliates. There are a lot of other factors that affect the response to a program, media placement being just one. A lousy program with poor production, content, or marketing values can perform poorly in the best of media slots.

Then there’s the branding factor – Would your rather say your show airs on A Christian Network, or on Discovery? Different ministry leaders will answer that question differently. It’s important to understand who you are and how that fits into a strategy for broadcast media.

Some people want Christian network response rates on a secular channel. It’s just not going to happen. A good program in a good time slot will pay out eventually on secular, but it takes longer than a comparable placement on a religious platform.

There are many other factors, but that’s a summary. To me the critical elements in crafting a media strategy are knowing who you are (identity/brand) and what you are trying to accomplish (calling).


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  1. Chris is a sharp cookie. His comments and perspectives ARE just a summary, but he makes a good case that you need to know your identity and your calling to place your tv show in the right time slot on the right channel to be effective. And you need patience; it's gonna take some time for people to find you and your show. The other aspect that goes unexplored is that marketing within major church and non-profits often drives production. Too often it's the marketing people who get the pastor's or leader's attention due to the size of their buying budget and the constant need to raise funds. Production often is left the crumbs or has little or no say in the very program they produce or the spots created. All that can be said is that there needs to be a partnership there. Marketing and production working in sync. Sad to say, that's rarely the case.

  2. Hey Phil, 

    I'm guessing that it's a great thing for a ministry-based show to be on mainstream media outlets. As long as they can truely "cut the mustard". Just the other day, I ran across Kathy Tricolli and James Robison on the  Discovery Channel. I thought, "Wow. Bravo for them". I figure a great compliment would be to hear someone say…"I never watch Christian TV, but I've always loved your show." As long as a ministry can pull it off as far as winning over the imagination of their audiences, then I'd love to see more and more. I'm a little tired of The Gospel According to the History Channel, or PBS… they never really support a Biblical worldview. It would be fantastic if some Christian documentary film-makers could develop a whole archive of fresh material to pitch to these networks.
  3. A couple of thoughts… Based on the original question….how do you define the term “Better”? What is better… an Xbox 360 or Playstation 3? Is BET, USA, Discovery better than TBN, Daystar and INSP? The answers lie in the eyes of the beholder. What does “better” look like? More effective “Reach” to a wider audience? Or a more specific targeted demo, women 25-54, or 50+? Better could mean wiser media spending efficiencies or Better ROI’s for product sales, new names and donors, or may be it’s a better “spiritual ROI” with focus on pure ministry results and outreach… salvations, etc.  Maybe its some or all of the above.   A more Direct Response model isn’t driven by audience, demos, TVHH’s, ratings or shares as much as a botton-line financial ROI. If the ratios work, then the programmer seems happy…if the numbers don’t match up, then the cancelations start to fly…. there needs to be balanced mix between the two…financial and ministry outreach.   Once a ministry determines its goals and objectives, then a particular network may play a role in terms of strategy. If a ministry is basically more evangelistic and outreach in its content, then it would probably make sense to be on a secular network as opposed to a religious network (preaching to the choir).  With the high cost of airtime on secular networks…it appears that mostly the larger ministries can afford these networks…so if you’ve got the funds…then you can have your cake and eat it too…both secular and religious.   

     To be a wise steward…a ministry must determine the value of wasted dollars due to under performance and paying too much for airtime or being on the wrong networks at the wrong time or day. We have found significant lack of properly tracking media response and therefore many ministries are in the dark when it comes to media effectiveness.

    Knowledge is the key to success.   

    Steve Newton


  4. Good points.  One mistake I have seen too often is spending bundles on media placement and not enough on great production.  If Ben and Jerry had average ice cream, the number of stores they opened wouldn't matter much.  It just takes a bite of ice cream or television to know if you're eating something average.  Discriminating and savvy consumers won't stay around for a second bite of mediocrity.

    And you're right, patience is important as long as metrics such as ratings, response, etc. show there is a positive trend and a reason to remain patient.  Many newbies (and some oldbies) to radio and television have unrealistic expectations about how long it takes to break even and/or build an audience.

    The musical Oklahoma staged a song with the lyrics, "Oh, the farmer and the cowman should be friends…"   Same applies to marketing and production.

    "Cowboys dance with the farmer's daughters,
    Farmers dance with the cowboys gals…"




  5. Hi Chris–love the visual image.  Cowboys.  Farmers.  Phil Cooke.  BMC.  Yee Haw, indeed!!

  6. Once upon a time, when the Hour of Power was launched in 1970 the storefront universe on television was 6 channels or fewer in most markets across America. Oh, for the good old days of a captive audience. Today, media buying is part science and part intution. With the proliferation of channels – 200 plus in most markets, when you buy media you are buying an audience that tends to naturally gravitate to that station. We all have our favorites channels we watch, mine our the history and discovery channels, TNT TBS, ESPN, the movie stations, then the networks. Just like driving down the freeway we never look twice at many exits and choose only the ones that satisfy our needs, we do the same with Television viewing. Since most (if any) ministries do not have advertising budgets to drive the audience to their program, they must rely on the audience that is there already when they buy their airtime. So what does this all mean to us as buyers of airtime? Know your audience and who you are trying to reach. Stations are like automobiles. They each satisfy a segment of the market. Some ministries might do well in viewing numbers on Spike TV, but not raise any money. The audience might like edgy ministry content, but won't give. Ministry networks (in large part) appeal to the already saved choir and grew up tithing so the return is good if you satisfy their needs. I learned long ago from Schuller something I will carry with me to the day I die, "Find a need and fill it". That's the secret to succesful ministry. Know the audience for the type of ministry you provide, then meet the needs of that audience better than anyone else!  

  7. To take a (slight) detour: I haven't followed how it's held up in the ratings, but I do recall reading that "Saving Grace" on TNT was the highest-rated basic cable debut of 2007 (or something like that.)  I don't know any "secular" people who are tuning in, however.  All the buzz seems to be from evangelicals debating if it is "Christian" enough or if it is too "worldly."  Unfortunately, my basic cable service doesn't include TNT, so I can't make a comment on that issue … but to the larger issue of the blog topic at hand, would "Saving Grace" have been better-served had it been less worldly?  Less religious?  How do you strike that balance, and where does a show like that best belong? 

  8. Tony, are these the same people that did "Wanted" for TNT last year? It, like "Grace", dramatized police life as raw as possible but with death always possible, God and religion keep popping up and is dealt with in an honest way. I like both and find they're more honest than the set-up "reality" shows.

  9. I guess I'm just a midwestern, fly-over, prude, but as my wife and I attempted to watch the first episode of Saving Grace, we were made so uncomfortable by the gratituitous (by my way of thinking) profane, offensive, and vulgar language and situations that we gave up on it.  I realize that some will say that this represents reality, and is a vehicle for presenting Christian concepts to the world.  However, we weren't comfortable staying with the program long enough to ferret out any redeeming value.  If someone who stuck with it can convince me that there is a pearl in the pig pen, perhaps I can dull my sensitivity enough to give it another chance.

  10. Critical in the decision-making process is having a crystal-clear definition of “response rate”. Does it mean airing a program which will raise funds for ministries which will bring salvation to the lost and create disciples, or is the production you are creating intended to actually do that– and if so, are you OK with not being able to quantify that by simply looking at ratings?

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