Religion Finds a Home On TV, Then Adds On
By Jacqueline L. SalmonWashington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 12, 2007; Page B01
A kosher cook-off, hip-hop entertainer Russell Simmons discussing anti-Semitism, Hebrew lessons, Talmud study and the "Jewish Mr. Rogers."
They're all part of the lineup on Shalom TV, a Jewish-oriented cable television channel that expanded last month into the Washington-Baltimore region, its second market.
The channel is the latest outgrowth of the burgeoning religion-oriented cable and satellite television business, which has spread beyond its evangelical Christian roots into what the industry calls "faith and values programming" that includes other faiths and cultures.
To be sure, the granddaddies of the industry, such as Trinity Broadcasting Network, the Eternal Word Television Network, Inspiration Network and the Christian Television Network, continue to reach millions of viewers nationwide.
But new stations and programming are proliferating. In the past few years, more than a dozen start-ups have been launched. Some are aimed at niche Christian audiences, such as a digital network from Trinity Broadcasting that shows church services 24 hours a day. Others, such as Shalom TV, focus on non-Christian faiths and cultures. A few are gaining success by focusing on a variety of faiths.
"The content has changed and widened," said Tim Kridel, who has covered faith-based programming for Multichannel News, a cable TV trade publication. "The distribution has changed and widened. They're really getting hip to different ways to reach their audience."
Young viewers are one new target audience. Last year, Trinity created a kids' network, Smile of a Child, which is available on Verizon FiOS TV in parts of the Washington area. And the NRB Network, launched in 2005 and available on DirecTV, is a Nashville network aimed at younger Christian viewers that includes such features as "The Christian Angler" and "Spiritual Outdoor Adventures."
Interfaith fare is also growing in popularity as faith-based networks seek to draw in bigger, more secular audiences who might be turned off by hard-core religious programming.
The Faith and Values Media Association, a coalition of about 30 Jewish and Christian faith groups, offers a varied menu of music, worship, talk shows and movies on the Hallmark Channel. Among its programming, singer Naomi Judd hosts a Sunday morning talk show that focuses on spirituality. Less frothy shows have included a documentary hosted by actress Lynn Redgrave on the global water crisis and the theological significance of water to Jews, Muslims and Christians.
Channels aimed at ethnic and cultural groups are catching on as well.
Trinity Broadcasting recently started TBN Enlace USA, for Spanish-speaking viewers, featuring some well-known Christian speakers such as Joyce Meyer but mostly high-profile preachers and other religious programming from Latin America.
Channels such as Shalom TV, which offer religious and non-religious programs centered on a particular faith, are also growing.
Bridges TV, a three-year-old digital television channel calling itself a Muslim lifestyle network, recently expanded into Virginia on Verizon TV and, shortly, will be available on Cox cable.
Unlike programming that focuses solely on religion, Bridges TV executives say they are aiming to reach beyond an Islamic audience to non-Muslims.
"It's not a Muslim program per se," said Hunaid Baliwala, manager of sales and marketing for Bridges TV. Unlike Arabic-language broadcasts geared to Muslims, Bridges TV airs in English and offers a broad range of range of religious and non-religious programming, he said. Along with interviews with Islamic scholars, it offers soccer, a cooking show, movies and international news.
Shalom TV is also aiming at a broader audience by offering cultural, social and religious programming.
"What Shalom TV is doing is really trying to feature the entire panorama of Jewish life, of which Judaism is an element, but it is only one element," said Rabbi Mark Golub, president and chief executive of the Fort Lee, N.J.-based channel, which started last year in the Philadelphia-Delaware area. "We are not a religion channel in the classical sense of that term."
The subscription-based, video-on-demand channel, available on Comcast, shows religious offerings, such as a series on Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, as well as Talmud study. But it also offers movies, celebrity kibitzer Arlene Peck, step-by-step Hebrew lessons and the finals of "The Simply Manischewitz Cook-Off" (winning entree: sweet-potato-encrusted chicken). It touts its children's show "Mr. Bookstein's Store" as the "Jewish Mr. Rogers."
"Most people don't imagine this when you tell them you're doing Jewish television," Golub said.