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Keeping Faith & Values a Success

Far from Hollywood’s world of million-dollar producers, Armani-clad executives and $100 lunches of pasta and mineral water is one of the country’s fastest-growing cable TV networks.

The Faith & Values Channel offers viewers, in its words, an “oasis of clean, uplifting entertainment” and a place to find “answers (they) may not find anywhere else.”

At the same time, it prides itself on eschewing crass teen-age sitcoms and violence-laden dramas.

That formula has helped New York-based F&V; win over some 20 million subscribers in just a few short years--a remarkable achievement in the crowded cable programming world, where many of its competitors are better financed. Much of the success appears to be owed to Faith & Values’ savvy programming strategy. More people, for instance, tuned into its coverage of the Pope’s visit to America last year than watched the O.J. Simpson hearings on Court TV.

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Not surprisingly, Faith & Values has religious roots. The network is jointly operated by the National Interfaith Cable Coalition and the Southern Baptist Convention. But unlike televangelist channels, it is run like a conventional cable channel--receiving its support from advertisers such as Arm & Hammer and AT&T; and from subscription fees charged local cable operators.

“Our biggest challenge is overcoming the perception of religious TV in this country,” says Jeff Weber, executive vice president at VISN, the interfaith group responsible for programming 16 hours of the channel’s 24-hour day. “It’s gotten a black eye from televangelists who claim they have all the answers and then ask for money.”

When it comes to programming, Faith & Values adheres to a strictly ecumenical approach. Many of the programs are supplied by NICC’s 64-member faith groups, spanning the Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish and Eastern Orthodox religions. It also acquires faith-oriented programming from Britain’s BBC and Canada’s CBS and from U.S. public television.

Increasingly, however, Faith & Values is producing more of its own programming.

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Next month begins a weekly series with Jim Hartz, the former co-anchor of the “Today” show, titled “Issues and Ethics,” which will analyze news events in a religious context. An upcoming half-hour comedy titled “Have Faith” concerns a monsignor overseeing an unruly parish and features guest appearances by John Ritter. Best-selling author Thomas Moore will host a series focusing on how people can discover spirituality in their everyday lives, and he will be assisted by “Frugal Gourmet” star Jeff Smith, himself an ordained minister.

Faith & Values is also able to call on a stable of heavy hitters in network news, such as Judy Woodruff, Carole Simpson and Meredith Viera, to anchor various specials.

At a time when the big Hollywood studios and local telephone companies are talking about investing billions of dollars to supply the 500-channel pipeline, the Faith & Values Channel has found a growing niche that has been all but ignored by traditional programmers.

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“We’re trying to give the TV viewer some programming which will stimulate and entertain them as well as feed the soul and spirit, motivate them to consider their own faith and what role it plays in their lives,” said Nelson Price, VISN president.

Unlike other so-called religious channels, however, Faith & Values was founded on three basic tenets: The channel will not proselytize viewers, does not malign other people’s religions and will not engage in on-air money-raising campaigns.

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Price says the budget for the cable network is a modest $9 million, and he predicts it will begin to turn a profit later this year or early next. Since Faith & Values is a not-for-profit corporation, all earnings are plowed back into operations rather than collected by its owners.

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Though it lacks the marketing muscle of many other networks, Faith & Values works through faith groups at the local level to get the word out about its programming. It also transmits discussion group literature via the Ecunet computer network.

Faith & Values was created out of a channel-sharing agreement two years ago between VISN and ACTS, the cable network owned and operated by the Ft. Worth-based Southern Baptist Radio & TV Commission. The merged channel is now marketed by Vision Group Inc., a subsidiary of cable TV giant Tele-Communications Inc. VGI, whose sole client has been VISN, now plans to market other niche cable networks.

TCI, in fact, helped launch VISN six years ago by providing some operational dollars for VISN. The intent of VISN, explains Weber--a graduate of Union Theological Seminary in New York and former executive at Nickelodeon--was to give viewers broader exposure to religion.

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“We asked why are we only seeing one kind of religion on TV and none of it reflects mainline religion in this country,” Weber says. “From the beginning we wanted VISN programming to represent the broad spectrum of faith in this country and build bridges of understanding between faith groups.”

Faith & Values executives think they have struck a chord with viewers, especially those in the 30-to-50 age bracket who are returning to or discovering a particular religious faith.

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Eventually, they hope, Faith & Values may do for religion what the Discovery Channel did for nature programming: provide an untapped audience with a programming alternative the traditional broadcast networks and cable channels ignore.

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Remembering the image that many people have of religious broadcasters, Weber says Faith & Values will never become a tool for any particular faith. It also won’t stray, he promises, from its television flock. “We’re not going to build any theme parks.”


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