Onward Christian Prodcos

With more than 40% of all US citizens calling themselves Evangelical Christians, it's no wonder the market for faith-based entertainment is experiencing a bit of a boom these days. And disciples such as Big Idea Productions and PorchLight Entertainment know that the Christian broadcast landscape is a great brand-building platform that can set a property up to make waves in the US$5-billion retail market for religious books, gifts, music and videos.
August 1, 2008

With more than 40% of all US citizens calling themselves Evangelical Christians, it’s no wonder the market for faith-based entertainment is experiencing a bit of a boom these days. And disciples such as Big Idea Productions and PorchLight Entertainment know that the Christian broadcast landscape is a great brand-building platform that can set a property up to make waves in the US$5-billion retail market for religious books, gifts, music and videos.

Interim GM Leslie Ferrel says 2007 was Big Idea’s most lucrative year yet. Its VeggieTales franchise, widely regarded as the holy grail of Christian market crossover, has sold 52 million videos, 13 million books and seven million CDs since it was created in 1993. Last year’s theatrical release, The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything, and 2002′s Jonas and the Pirates brought in combined box office revenue of US$40 million. And this fall, Big Idea is making hay on VeggieTales’ 15th anniversary with new merchandise, a 50-city stage show, and a re-mastered release of inaugural video, Where’s God When I’m S-Scared?

At Christian retail, Ferrel says the brand represents 50% of total kids market share. And it drives a lot of traffic into specialty Christian shops with its signature four- to 12-foot sections devoted to the whole VeggieTales’ line of product. In terms of mainstream broadcast strength, the VeggieTales series also consistently ranks number-one on NBC’s qubo Saturday morning kids block, giving up the honor only occasionally to another Big Idea faith-based series, 3-2-1 Penguins!

Taking note of the obvious appetite for faith-based fare, a few mainstream kids prodcos are launching new projects into the religious kids market this year. L.A.’s PorchLight Home Entertainment recently rolled out a specialty vid label called PorchLight Inspire, which encompasses a DVD range for PBS series Adventures from the Book of Virtues, based on Simon & Schuster’s The Book of Virtues. Three individual DVDs and a box set will roll out on shelves in August, and Inspire is also planning to release faith-based versions of Jay Jay the Jet Plane episodes on DVD for the first time in Q1 2009.

Also jumping on the opportunity is L.A.-based distributor MarVista Entertainment, which recently added two Christian properties to its library of kids programming: a 13 x half-hour series for preschoolers called BJ’s Teddy Bear Club and Bible Stories, and one-hour CGI movie The Hidden Treasure of Wompkee Wood.

Broadcasting faith

BJ’s pre-existing broadcast home is Santa Ana, California-based Trinity Broadcasting Network, which airs a Saturday morning kids block from 2 a.m. to 12 p.m., as well as operating a 24-hour US digital channel called Smile of a Child that reaches into 2.3 million cable households and three million digital households.

Smile of a Child’s director of programming Brenda Rossman says starting up the channel two years ago pushed the network to significantly beef up its portfolio of kids content. An open call for pilots and a focused scouting mission at the National Religious Broadcasters’ annual conference in February 2006 yielded a mix of half-hour preschool and kids shows as well as specials and movies that run on Friday and Saturday nights.

Viewer favorites that run multiple times a week include: Gina D’s Kids Club, a hosted live-action sing-a-long preschool show by Raven Moon Entertainment; Bible-centric adventure-comedy Pahappahooey Island (Guiding Light Video); and The Giddy Gander Company’s The Wumblers, a 2-D animated preschool series that promotes diversity. Rossman says the main criteria she looks for in pitches are the virtues of the Bible and compliance with the FCC’s educational mandate for broadcasting to kids.

TBN is just one of a handful of well-established religious broadcasters based in the US that has taken advantage of the emergence of expanded channel capacity and broadband to target kids specifically with dedicated nets. Headquartered in Naples, Florida, Sky Angel is a multi-channel TV operator with an IPTV kids channel called KTV that recently launched on Dish Network, a DBS service based in Colorado that plays to 14 million viewers. Through its subscription packages, Sky Angel is also the first Christian service to offer a lineup of mainstream, family-friendly channels such as Discovery Kids and Animal Planet.

One of KTV’s top performers is an original production called Halo Baby, a Baby Einstein-like program that combines scriptures with basic curriculum such as colors and numbers. In terms of acquisitions, Sky Angel Productions VP Hope Daley says La Rana Productions’ Swamp Critters, whose life-size singing puppets play to four- to eight-year-olds, and musical preschool series My Bedbugs (by Greenestuff Incorporated) are also viewer faves on the VOD service. Daley would love to diversify her lineup with a Christian tween program with the same flavor as Hannah Montana and some kids gameshows.

The broadcast day on KTV is broken up into age-defined blocks that are designed to accommodate half-hour shows. The preschool block airs from 5 a.m. to noon, followed by a strand for elementary school kids until 4:30 p.m. and teen programming until 1 a.m. In the four remaining overnight hours, the channel picks up a lot of college-aged viewers with Christian music videos.

Based in Virginia Beach, the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) is another big player, having built up a broad library of animated series and specials over 30 years serving the audience. Working with a non-profit budget, director of animation and creative services Angela Costello is able to produce about six episodes a year working with in-house pre- and post-production resources and freelance animators. As for acquisitions and co-productions, Costello says a lot depends on the benevolence and messaging priorities of partners. The American Bible Society, for example, co-produced a special with CBN to help kids deal with post-9/11 grief. It aired on the network and was also distributed as a DVD to counseling centers and fire departments. In terms of what kinds of kids content the net is interested in, Costello says, ‘I have no flexibility when it comes to the morality or integrity of programs. We can’t be funny just to be funny – not if it’s in detriment to the message of hope, kindness, peace and ‘God loves you.”

Though religious broadcast outlets for children’s programming are proliferating, MarVista CEO Fernando Szew says dealing with faith-based networks, many of which operate as non-profits and rely on viewer donations to fund their programming strategies, is completely different from dealing with mainstream kidnets. Sky Angel’s VOD library for KTV, for example, is built around a revenue-sharing model. And as an alternative to license fees, Daley often barters commercial time on the Saturday morning block of its Angel 2 net with kids property owners interested in building profile for their ancillary merchandise.

Likewise, TBN’s Rossman says donations are a big part of the net’s non-profit business model and license fees, if paid at all, are negotiated on a case by case basis. She adds, however, that the kids network, Smile of a Child, doesn’t have much to offer in the way of fees, but like Sky Angel, offers 30-second spots as barter.

It should be noted that Christian broadcast sales generally don’t yield high margins or substantial license fees. However, MarVista’s Szew says slots on religious airwaves help build a slate for content internationally and seed exposure for shows that also exist on DVD.

Leading by example

Creating shows that will attract interest from religious broadcasters and roll out successfully in retail is a formula that Rob Loos, co-founder of Studio City, California-based TLC Entertainment has been perfecting over the 20 years he’s been producing and distributing Christian content. Loos and his partner, George Taweel, first entered the faith-based market in the late 1980s with McGee and Me, a direct-to-video release that went on to air in 40 markets including the US (on ABC-TV) and the UK (BBC) before settling into its current home on TBN. Though Loos wishes it could be more, roughly 50% of the company’s production slate is devoted to faith-based programming; TLC takes on secular production work to keep the studio running at full strength and pad its revenues.

Within TLC’s faith-based portfolio, DVD sales far outweigh license fees from Christian broadcasters. Loos largely uses broadcast deals as a marketing tool to drive retail activity for its L&M business. The Kids 10 Commandments, a highly successful five x one-hour series that has run on TBN 50 times since its debut in 2003, has also spawned a US$129 church curriculum package that includes a board game, a family fun pack of activities, a Sunday school book and a companion CD series featuring kids singing songs from the show.

‘We have to put the business plan together in such a way that we can do a quality series and have it pay for itself,’ Loos says. And for TLC, that means working closely to develop kids properties with the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA), which gives feedback on the religious content of the programming and then lobbies its 4,000 independent retail outlet members to promote the merch lines.

As for creating content that satisfies faith-based broadcasters and distributors, Loos says that although there is no official religious quotient or third-party approval body, he’s built trust through working with the CBA and has credible religious experts attached to several TLC series. Kids 10, for example, had an advisory board of consultants that included a rabbi, two bible scholars and a pastor vetting its script.

Loos points out that DVDs, which can accommodate episodes that run longer than the average TV series, can also include more religious content. So making episodes that have the potential to be easily edited for transitioning between DVD and TV broadcast is a good idea for producers interested in entering the market.

Transitioning Jay Jay the Jet Plane eps to be saleable as religious DVDs was a fairly unobtrusive process that took less than six months. PorchLight president and CEO Bruce Johnson says the show already had moral and motivation elements, so the goal was to reinforce religious values to parents and introduce kids to faith-based concepts in a very subtle way. Rather than altering the storyline or the animation, the faith-based enhancements centered on the audio track – changing the line ‘It’s a beautiful day,’ for example, to ‘It’s a beautiful day that God has created.’

Depending on which side of the production scene you’re approaching the Christian market from, developing more/less religious versions is good for international sales. For example, Big Idea’s Ferrell says 3-2-1 Penguins! is more proverbial (i.e., no Bible quotes), which also makes it more palatable globally. Marvista’s Szew adds that he was conscious about picking up Christian shows that would also sell in mainstream US and international markets. The company takes on projects that focus on the Old Testament, thereby making them more universal. ‘We’ve always been careful to have quality control on the development side, so that we’re true to the stories that people have faith in, but we’re not alienating any group in particular.’

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