Christian channel keeping the faith

January 28, 2005

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Friday, 01/28/05
Christian channel keeping the faith


Staff Writer

A 24-hour cable network devoted to Christian and gospel music might seem like a shoo-in for Nashville.

After all, this is the center of the musical genre, with most labels, production and distribution based in the downtown-to-Franklin corridor.

But before viewers here can see it, the long-awaited Gospel Music Channel has to undergo the same review that Comcast is giving other cable concepts, such as the Martial Arts Channel, Shalom TV and ''Fangoria,'' 24-hour horror television.

''Are you bringing something new, does it add to what we have, are people responding to similar product, and then can we reach a financial deal? That's the process we're going through right now,'' said Comcast General Manager Virgil Caudill. ''If all those hurdles can be overcome, we would certainly entertain launching the channel.''

Since its November launch, Gospel Music Channel has been picked up in about 40 markets, including Atlanta; Macon, Ga.; Baton Rouge, La.; Jackson, Tenn.; and small cities in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Mississippi. Its first multi-system operator agreement, with cable giant Cox, gave it the right to approach each market where it operates individually.

With sales of about 43 million Christian/gospel albums and acts ''crossing over'' to mainstream radio every year, the gospel channel's backers are betting plenty of people want programming from faith-oriented rock bands such as Switchfoot and Casting Crowns to singers CeCe Winans and Sandi Patty.

But getting distribution for a new network is a long, expensive process, with some analysts estimating a $100 million to $200 million initial outlay.

''Signing up a (multi-system operator agreement) does not mean you will get all its subscribers. You may not be added to some systems, and you may be on its digital tier, which limits subscribers,'' said Nashville-based media analyst Robert Unmacht.

''So far, Gospel Music Channel is not on DISH or DirecTV; and that is usually a big head start for a cable network as it adds 20 million or so subscribers,'' Unmacht said.

Charles Humbard, CEO of Gospel Music Channel, said his investors are prepared to see the journey through. The network is backed by Alpine Equity Partners and Constellation Ventures, a division of the Bear, Stearns brokerage house.

Humbard, the son of pioneering televangelist Rex Humbard, was general manager of digital channels for Discovery Networks before leaving to work on Gospel Music Channel three years ago.

''Our investors have experience in this space,'' he said. ''They know these businesses don't turn easy, they don't turn overnight.''

Constellation also backs TV One, an African-American lifestyle and entertainment channel that Unmacht said ''has been eating cash and on a slow build for several years.''

TV One appears to be gaining ground lately.

Earlier this month, DirecTV, which claims 13.5 million customers, became an equity investor in TV One and added the channel to subscriber packages that start at $40 a month. TV One also has commitments from cable systems in Washington, Cleveland, Boston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Detroit.

Tough sell

With Gospel Music Channel, Humbard has to overcome the fact that Christian programming is available from other sources; somehow he has to convince cable decision-makers such as Caudill that GMC's offerings are different.

A total of 136 outlets now include Christian music videos in their programming mix, said Jeff Walker, president of AristoMedia, which promotes and distributes videos to country and Christian outlets.

They range from TBN and the Worship Network, which reach about 75 million households each, to niche satellite feeds. Great American Country offers a two-hour block of videos each week that include some Christian songs. Black Entertainment Television also has some video programming.

But none are all Christian music, all the time.

Unlike other musical formats, which are categorized by sound, music is considered ''Christian'' based on its lyrics, and thus encompasses musical styles ranging from church hymns and traditional gospel choirs to pop, rock, rap and punk.

Humbard said the whole spectrum will be represented on GMC. Plans call for acquired and original programming such as its Faith & Fame biopics, footage from the making of albums, live concerts and blocks of videos. This week, Christian rock band MercyMe taped a feature.

A would-be cable competitor called the Music Positive Network said last summer that it would launch a similar product focusing on contemporary Christian music by the end of the year, but those plans appear to have sputtered.

''It's about content and programming, also about distribution,'' Humbard said. ''There's nobody else selling to cable operators. You need to be out in the field, and there's nobody else out in the field.''

Local connections

While Humbard works on distribution from Atlanta headquarters, much content and programming will originate in Nashville and Franklin, where many bands, labels and studios are based.

Next week, the company opens its local offices in Cummins Station, headed by Executive Producer Stacey Killian Hagewood, a veteran of CMT and The Nashville Network (TNN).

The Christian/gospel music industry generally produces about a third the number of videos that country does, said AristoMedia's Walker, who has been promoting country videos since 1983 and Christian videos since 1989.

Last year, country artists produced about 110 videos and Christian artists produced about 40. But Walker believes labels will be more motivated to spend money on videos if a TV outlet is there; in other words, ''build it and they will come.''

Gospel Music Channel has attracted advertisers including Airwick, Easy-Off, Electrasol dishwashing liquids, Woolite, Lysol products, French's Fried Onions and Time Life Products.

Christian label heads have expressed optimism about finally getting a video network, but seem to be taking the position of ''I'll believe it when I see it.''

Similar concepts have been tried before and failed. However, Provident Music Group, one of Christian music's ''Big Three'' labels, has given the new network access to all its video content. Also, artists such as Amy Grant, who records for Word, have endorsed it.

''I think all the label heads have signed off on Charlie (CEO Charles Humbard) and Brad (Vice chairman Brad Siegel) as executives, they've signed off on the business plan, they're excited about the potential but they're treading cautiously until they get in the homes,'' Walker said. ''It's 'chicken or the egg.' ''

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