Practiced executives back Christian/gospel network
April 22, 2004
By JEANNE ANNE NAUJECK, The Tennesseean
Fans of Christian and gospel music may get their own 24-hour, national music television network later this year.
Two cable industry executives backed by private equity firms are planning to launch the Gospel Music Channel in the fourth quarter of 2004, complete with music videos, star biographies and other fare commonly found on popular music video networks.
''Hopefully this will do for gospel what CMT (Country Music Television) did for country,'' said Jeff Walker, president of AristoMedia, a local firm that produces videos for Christian and country artists.
The new cable network will have headquarters in Atlanta but have studios in Nashville, which could bring work to local TV and video producers. The channel hopes to exceed 50 million subscribers in five to seven years.
But all that assumes the channel gets on cable TV systems, and that could be a problem because new programming must compete with a full lineup on the cable landscape.
Independent media analyst Robert Unmacht thinks there is plenty of demand for gospel or Christian music content. But he said getting the concept onto the cable lineup is an ''uphill battle'' without a cable company as a partner.
''It's a great idea - that's not their problem. It's getting space. There's limited space and even less good space,'' Unmacht said.
It's easier to get a startup network on higher-priced digital cable tiers because fewer people subscribe to that relatively new service; it's more difficult to get on the coveted basic cable lineup.
''If you want to get the prime property... you either get (cable systems) as partners or buy your way in,'' Unmacht said.
Charles Humbard, the new network's president and chief executive officer, has secured a multi-system operator (MSO) agreement with Cox Communications, the nation's fourth-largest cable provider. But that agreement only means the Gospel Music Channel can pitch its network to Cox's local market affiliates - which may take a lot of time and shoe leather.
A Cox spokeswoman said Cox has no ownership stake in the gospel channel.
Humbard said his investors are experienced cable backers and have committed to at least three years of startup money. The channel also will pitch to satellite service providers DirecTV and EchoStar.
The new service will be advertiser-supported. Humbard said he could not release the names of potential advertisers but said they would probably mirror those that advertise on Christian radio or sponsor major Christian touring acts. Christian rock band Third Day is sponsored by Chevrolet, for example.
''Advertisers ? will be national,'' Humbard said. ''The audience we're going after makes up the same demographic that shops Target, Wal-Mart.''
Ironically, because Nashville is served by Comcast cable, it's likely that the Gospel Music Channel won't be seen here until Comcast gives its blessing. The gospel channel will have to compete with programming concepts from the worthy to the wacky, with varying levels of financial backing and professionalism behind them.
''At any given time, there's probably 50 in the hopper, and most of them you never hear from again,'' Unmacht said. ''The all-martial-arts channel never took off.''
Humbard spent 25 years in the cable industry and was senior vice president and general manager of Discovery Networks, home of the Discovery Channel. He also is the son of an evangelist. Vice Chairman Brad Siegel was president of Turner Broadcasting's entertainment networks, home of TBS Superstation, Turner Network Television (TNT), the Cartoon Network and others. Larry Gatlin of The Gatlin Brothers also is on board, as director of artists and performances for country and Southern gospel.
Humbard has confidence in the concept.
''It's certainly a competitive landscape in cable today,'' Humbard said. ''But there is no other entertainment channel targeting the enormous fan base for Christian music.''
The gospel music business, largely based in Nashville, has been seeking an outlet devoted exclusively to the genre for years, but the market couldn't support it (the term ''gospel'' encompasses the full range of faith-based music, from contemporary Christian pop and rock to traditional Southern and urban gospel styles.)
One commercial attempt was Z Music, a Christian video channel purchased by Gaylord Entertainment in the mid-1990s as part of its family values entertainment division. Gaylord pulled the plug in May 2000.
The market may have improved with the recent crossover success of faith-based bands such as MercyMe and Switchfoot and with the commercial impact of the blockbuster film The Passion of the Christ, which has grossed more than $360 million domestically.
Barry Landis, president of Word Labels for Nashville-based Word Entertainment, said he's seen similar plans for the Christian/gospel industry come and go. ''I'm not sure they understood about getting on cable,'' he said of previous attempts to establish a video outlet.
Landis said Humbard could have better success.
''He's a TV guy and understands how to make television work. I believe more of the right things are in place this time than ever before.''
John Styll, president of the Gospel Music Association, was enthusiastic, but measured, in his reaction.
''It's really the missing link in the whole promotion and marketing mix for this genre. It can drive sales and break new artists,'' Styll said.
''The questions are, are they going to get enough carriage to reach the fans, will they market it well, will they be able to sell advertising and will they have compelling programming?
''I don't say that negatively. I am very hopeful that we'll finally have a viable gospel music channel.''
Jeanne Anne Naujeck writes about the music business and can be reached at 259-8076 or firstname.lastname@example.org.