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Using IPTV to Reach the Faithful
11/6/2009

SAN FRANCISCO
It’s a goal unique to religious broadcasters: How do you find and keep hold of viewers in a television market crowded with mainstream programming competition?

One answer has come in the form of IPTV. For mainstream broadcasters, of course, IPTV technology has served as an ancillary program stream to boost loyalty and steer viewership to network Web sites. But for some religious broadcasters, this IP technology—with its ability to deliver digital television over a packet-switched network infrastructure—has served as much more.

Like its brethren across the industry, religious broadcasters have turned to IPTV for its ability to reach a wider span of viewers via existing data networks with unlimited distribution to any network connected to a TV or PC.

Trinity Broadcasting Network is one of several faith-based broadcasters who’ve turned to IPTV technologies to broadcast programming, including shows that address teen-related issues, like WWJD-tv.
This flexibility has released some faith-based networks from the traditional carriage platform business model, which required negotiating sometimes-tricky carriage deals with MSOs and satellites, according to Brian Collins, senior vice president of programming and media sales for Sky Angel, a faith-based broadcaster. Often times, it could be difficult to secure space for sometimes-controversial faith-based programming on already crowded platforms, he said.

Freeing faith-based broadcasters from relying on traditional distribution methods has not only given Sky Angel networks access to a wider audience, but is enriching the network’s programming repertoire. Without the restrictions often imposed by a single-channel distribution platform, faith-based broadcasters like Sky Angel have the ability to expand programming into more unique offerings—for Sky Angel, that has included programming such as the Gospel Music Channel and Credo TV.

Other religious broadcasters have taken up the IPTV mantle as well, such as local networks like Loma Linda Broadcasting Network, which broadcasts its ministry in English, Chinese and Arabic, among other languages; niche broadcasters like CatholicTV, which broadcasts the Pope’s weekly benediction; as well as large-scale broadcasters like Trinity Broadcasting Network, widely known as the world’s largest religious network, and the Christian Television Network, one of the oldest U.S. networks and broadcasting since 1979.

EVOLVING TECHNOLOGY

The IPTV market seems ready for the revolution: A study by ABI Research found that IP set-top boxes are set to generate more than $3 billion in market value over the next five years, led in part by IPTV technologies.

For technology developers targeting the faith-based market, success may hinge on whether or not IPTV technology continues to take into account the facets that impact many current religious broadcasting venues: large worship facilities that broadcast from and to multiple geographically diverse campuses.

Harris Corp., for one, says its NetVX application has found a niche with the worship industry due in part to its ability to support video over IP encoding, decoding and multiplexing in a single network-agnostic system, and its relative affordability in the IP space.

Even though video is being sent over IP, quality remains a key priority.

“In worship houses where they are putting up beautiful projectors, you can’t get away with putting up video conferencing and have that look proper,” said Brian Ford, a broadcast systems engineer for Harris Corp.

While some faith-based broadcasters may seem financially sound enough to afford professional gear, Ford said, others are in rural areas, where issues of cost can arise. IPTV is meeting the best of both needs. “IPTV has really turned out to be a viable solution,” Ford said. “[IPTV technology] is helping to make [broadcasting] more affordable for everyone.”

Harris is currently working on a yet-unnamed deployment within the worship market, where the challenge has been moving real-time, live HD video, audio and intercom connections between facilities—such as when a sermon from a main campus is being broadcast to other geographically separate satellite facilities. Previously, a worship facility might physically drive a tape from one campus to the next. Using IPTV, a main campus church facility can push HD video, audio and intercom feeds to multiple facilities in real-time. At the receive site, the encoded signal can be decoded and displayed in real time.

Manufacturers continue to roll out solutions for different pieces of the IPTV puzzle, such as Tandberg with its iPlex video processing platform; Harmonic with its DiviCom Electra family of encoders; and SeaChange with its TV Navigator IPTV platform, which supports SD, HD, mobile and Internet TV capabilities.

IPTV technology is affording the worship community a “nice, clean, crisp, quality picture,” Ford said.

‘LIFTING BOUNDARIES’

As IPTV technology continues to make inroads, full-fledged Internet television companies like NeuLion have emerged to make sense of the growing market. The IPTV distribution service provider is streaming more than 200 U.S. and international channels.

For Sky Angel, IPTV technology is the cornerstone of their broadcast hub. The network has its headend facility in Cleveland, Tenn., after 20 years delivering programming via satellite on the channels Angel One, Angel Two and KTV. Since February 2008, the company has been has been broadcasting via IPTV, with 36 of its 80 channels devoted to faith programming.

“We looked a lot of different options, and what we saw occurring overseas and in the U.S. was a move toward IPTV,” Collins said.

In addition to the considerations of cost savings, the benefits of IPTV are the access and freedom it affords to non-traditional broadcasters like faith-based programmers, he said.

“You can put your channel in any home with an IP connection,” he said. “It’s given us the ability to distribute into any home. With cable or satellite, we might be restricted—a condo association might have rules about dishes, for example. With IPTV, that boundary is lifted.”

There’s also the issue of access, he said. “For faith-based community, many of us have struggled with cable operators who only allocate a few channel to religious programming,” Collins said.

Via IPTV, Sky Angel “is there to ensure that the signal reaches as many people as possible,” he said. “For us,” he said, “IPTV is as good [a broadcast solution] as cable or satellite.”

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