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By 2009, all broadcast TV stations will be using digital technology—whether they like it or not. How will this change Christian television as we know it?
Just who is watching Christian television?
"Traditionally, the primary viewer of Christian television is a 65-year-old woman," says producer Phil Cooke. "That has not really changed throughout the history of the medium."
But Cooke and other experts believe it could—and should—change. And the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) might just be the impetus to make that happen. Regulations demand that all over-the-air stations must convert to digital transmissions by 2009.

The airwaves in the United States are cluttered with too many analog signals. The government needs this bandwidth for their own emergency signals—an incentive that was spurred by the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

And the FCC will most likely auction off remaining "spectrum" (or broadcast channels) for wireless carrier use. Stations have known about the new regulations for a few years now, and some have completed the equipment upgrade. One of these, Christian TV station SuperChannel 55 (WACX) in Orlando, Fla., recognized that operating one analog and one digital channel was too costly, so they decided to stop broadcasting over analog long before the 2009 deadline—in SuperChannel's case, March. So what's the difference between analog and digital broadcasting?

  • First, although analog stations can broadcast only one stream of programming per frequency, digital stations can use subchannels to broadcast multiple streams.
  • Second, a digital signal looks better than analog on newer televisions, and the long-term costs are excellent because the equipment is generally more advanced, more powerful and easier to maintain.
  • Third, analog broadcast systems are less complex, but rely on older, less reliable equipment and look a little grainy.
  • Finally, a digital signal is more streamlined. In other words, on a digital TV (DTV) the antenna must be pointed toward the transmission source. The signal comes in crystal clear—and the quality is about the same as a DVD—or it doesn't come in at all. Overall, DTV is a smart change because the signals are clearer, cause less congestion on public airwaves, give stations more programming options and reduce station costs.

    "There is no future for analog TV in the United States," says Laura Behrens, the principal research analyst for the media industry at Gartner Group, the world's largest information technology research advisory company. "The change to DTV is not really a matter of choice, but of meeting milestones that were set years ago."

    Behrens points out that the DTV shift will not affect the 90 percent of American households that receive TV broadcasts from either cable or satellite feeds. In the Christian market, for example, you can pay just $15 per month plus equipment fees for Sky Angel, a satellite system available across the U.S. Sky Angel has much of the same programming as over-the-air stations, including well-known speakers such as Joel Osteen, praise and worship channels and kid-friendly programs.

    "The typical Christian viewer is more sophisticated than ever," says Kathy Johnson, vice president of programming for Sky Angel. "They want the same level of quality programming and quality broadcasts as the secular market. Christian broadcasting is going through the same process that the music industry went through when they changed from LP albums to CDs. There are only a small handful of low-power Christian stations that won't do the equipment conversion to DTV, but these stations only broadcast for 10 to 20 miles. The signal is almost virtually worthless."

    In an added benefit of the DTV transition, an over-the-air broadcaster such as Cornerstone Television Network (CTVN) can rebroadcast its signal for a U.S. audience over a satellite or cable system and reach a much wider audience—meaning, hundreds of thousands instead of just thousands.

    Behrens noted that after the conversion to DTV, Christian viewers of over-the-air broadcasts would have several options available for receiving the DTV signal. The easiest method would be to just buy a new television. Retailers such as Best Buy and Circuit City are already selling models that come with a built-in DTV tuner. (After the FCC mandate goes into effect, it will be illegal to keep selling televisions without DTV capability.) The U.S. government will likely make subsidized DTV tuners available for about $50 to $100 (according to Gartner Group) for those who can't afford to buy a new television, or choose not to upgrade.

    The other important point is that most stations, including most Christian broadcasters such as Paxson Communications Independent Television (ITV), have already converted to digital. In fact, many completed the necessary upgrades one or two years ago—although many of those continue to broadcast analog signals. Still, midsize stations are still debating when to make the investment, and there are challenges they must face, such as whether to use DTV subchannels for additional programming and whether to move to digital for better quality.

    "It's significant, no question, because for a TV production facility or station, you're replacing virtually everything, from cameras and videotape machines to your video monitors," says Cooke from Cooke Pictures, a high-end TV production company based in California. "In the digital world, even the screen dimensions change. Change will happen right down to the cables, so this is something really huge."

    Granted, there's a high cost and added complexity with DTV broadcasting, although many stations seem to be making the necessary upgrades and accepting the upcoming changes. And content quality is certainly improving, as Cooke notes: His company is producing more and more high-definition content for the coming digital transition. Large broadcasters, research firms such as Gartner Group and Hollywood media moguls all view the Christian market as maturing rapidly—they are more than capable of understanding the DTV issues and making the switch to the digital age.

    But the question remains: While Christian television joins the ranks of its secular counterparts in modernizing its equipment, how will this affect the everyday viewer who has a low interest in advanced technology? As some suggest, there seems to be a disconnect between the big stations and the typical Christian viewer.

    "Does the typical Christian TV viewer care about the switch to digital?" Cooke asks. "It's hard to say. The fact is, watching a TV preacher through a digital signal versus an analog signal won't be very different."

    However, Cooke believes that the new technology is paving the way for when Christian TV broadcasts will be more than just an outlet for pulpit preaching.

    "That's why I'm calling Christian producers and media ministries to be more inventive and visual in their programming," he notes. "In a digital world, people will be looking for powerful visual images. In that world, another talking head won't make much of an impression."

    Though many Christians are becoming more and more sophisticated (and some already own HDTVs), there are several lingering issues. First, Christian programming does not always need to be sophisticated, especially when it comes to popular Christian speakers. Like AM radio broadcasts, the important ministry is the spiritual content, not whether it looks perfectly clear or has surround-sound audio.

    Second, there is that perception in the Christian TV industry—somewhat substantiated, according to Cooke—that the typical viewer is an elderly women who watches on a set she purchased in 1965.

    "One of our primary goals as we consult with some of the largest church and ministry media outreaches is lowering the demographic age profile that suggests that the average Christian TV watcher is a 65-year-old woman," Cooke says. "With our work with clients like Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, Ed Young Jr. and Robert Schuller Jr., we believe we can help them find a younger audience." There are signs that the move to DTV will become a hot topic in the coming years.

    Just ask Ida Diaz, a big supporter and fan of WACX-TV in Orlando—at least, until recently. A few months ago, she tried to tune into her favorite Christian station, only to find that the signal was not available over-the-air in analog form. "Poor people and senior citizens cannot pay for special boxes and cables. TBN was my spiritual vitamin for the day."

    Another second issue has to do with the added complexity. The media analysts and large broadcasters are right: Most people will buy new televisions or tuners anyway. By 2009, the vast majority of TV watchers will know all the new terms and prefer DTV.

    Yet, there is a demographic—which consists of low-income viewers and those who are not well-acquainted with fancy TV technology—that Christian stations will have a hard time reaching with DTV. Part of the issue is cost: These viewers may not have the funds to invest in a new digital antenna or tuner. More importantly, there's the added cost to receive digital cable or satellite feeds. Even at $15 per month, a low-income family might not be ready to sign up for a year of programming, which costs $180.

    DTV will definitely add another layer of complexity for some viewers. Anyone who has used DTV to receive over-the-air broadcasts knows the signal can be sketchy. For example, you need to point the antenna in one direction for one channel, and then make a fine adjustment to receive the signal from another station. Over the next few years, newer high-power antennas will become available, but might remain too costly for some viewers.

    There's one additional issue that will dramatically affect both Christian stations and viewers alike. Government regulations from 1972 and 1992 mandated that cable and satellite providers must carry locally available TV stations. This mandate is the reason you can easily find Christian programs on cable television, such as INSP and TBN. With the switch to DTV, current plans do not call for a mandate that cable companies carry subchannels. So, as one example, if TBN decides to offer some of its channels on DTV as subchannels, the cable and satellite providers won't have to carry those stations.

    With this possibility on the horizon, stations such as TBN are aggressively lobbying for a bill that would force cable stations to carry all of a network's digital subchannels—such as foreign-language and children's programming. The harsh reality is that if cable and satellite operators had the choice, they would not carry any of this additional Christian programming, mostly because they want to appear unbiased.

    In the meantime, Christian TV stations know that the DTV conversion is necessary, and it will make their programming work more efficiently and look clearer in the long run. There is concern, however, about the demographics. According to Cooke, the underlying issue has more to do with changing the programming so that a wider audience is interested in the shows. It's an interesting evangelistic paradigm shift, and perhaps an opportunity for Christian stations to think about a quality change.

    John Brandon is a freelance writer living in Minnesota.

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