TBN goes after Hispanic market

Associated Press, Sep. 13, 2002
http://www.nytimes.com/

LOS ANGELES (AP) — When her faith wavers, Esperanza Falcone turns to where she first found God — her living room. She settles into a couch, flips on the TV and tunes in to the Trinity Broadcasting Network.

“Most of the understanding and learning that I have about the Gospel is through TBN,” she said.

The Salvadoran woman is among millions of Christians whose steady stream of donations have made commercial-free Trinity the nation’s largest and fastest-growing religious broadcaster. But TBN has failed to attract other, non-English speaking Hispanics — until now.

Orange County-based Trinity debuted its Spanish-language TBN Enlace network Sept. 1 in Miami. It should be available in 10 of the country’s largest Hispanic markets within a year.

The network is starting as the two other major national Christian broadcasters also target Spanish-speaking U.S. Hispanics. Eternal Word Television Network, a Roman Catholic broadcaster, launched EWTN Espanol in 1999. Inspiration Network is slowly rolling out family-oriented La Familia network starting in Colorado Springs, Colo.


Neither considers their spin-off networks to be competing with TBN Enlace, saying they each serve niche markets.

For Trinity, Spanish-speaking immigrants are a diffuse but potentially huge audience. TBN is filled with Pentecostal ministers who practice a charismatic, spirit-filled style of preaching that includes demonstrative delivery and emphasis on Biblical prophecy.

To start, 70 percent of Enlace’s schedule will be originally produced in Spanish and 30 percent will be English-language programs that are dubbed into Spanish. Eventually, TBN hopes Enlace programming will be entirely of Spanish-language origin from both foreign and domestic sources.

Enlace is part of a larger push by Paul and Jan Crouch, Trinity’s founders, to diversify their viewership and message.

Started in 1973, “TBN was very much rooted in a white, evangelical country culture,” said religion scholar Arlene Sanchez-Walsh of DePaul University in Chicago. “They’re recognizing that their audience is changing dramatically.”

The Crouches already manage a $516-million television empire with the global reach of 26 satellites. Trinity says it also owns and operates 22 full-power TV stations and about 500 low-power stations domestically.

The network uses about 3,300 affiliates to broadcast in over two dozen languages on every major continent, including Spanish broadcasts in Latin America. And it recently started The Church Channel, a new DirecTV satellite feed showing nonstop worship and prayer services.

TBN Enlace is a natural next step for the network, Christian media experts say. “Growth means everything to them,” said Timothy Morgan, an editor at Christianity Today magazine.

Paul Crouch, 68, has been called “God’s electrician” for his focus on obtaining the broadcast licenses and physical facilities necessary to, as he puts it, “spread the Gospel to the world.”

An aggressive businessman, Crouch operates outside and apart from other Christian media, said Glenn Plummer, president of industry umbrella group National Religious Broadcasters. Trinity dropped out of the NRB in 1989, after the group created a new ethics code barring broadcasters with family-controlled boards from membership.

Yet Trinity has outlasted other major evangelical cable networks. Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Praise The Lord operation all but vanished amid scandal, while Pat Robertson sold his International Family Entertainment channel to Fox in 1997.

The Crouches still look the part of 1970s TV preachers, with Paul sporting a full head of gray hair parted to the side and the 64-year-old Jan’s penchant for heavy makeup and huge wigs.

TBN has fended off Internal Revenue Service charges of tax evasion, an Federal Communications Commission probe of its station ownership and a lawsuit alleging it stole the concept for its film, “The Omega Code.” The IRS and FCC charges were eventually dropped, and TBN settled the film flap out of court.

Through it all, the network has continued to grow.

“For Paul Crouch, it’s all been a battle to acquire TV stations for Jesus,” said J. Lee Grady, editor of Charisma magazine. “But the question is — what are you piping through those wires?”

Answer: an often unpredictable mix of the old and new. The long-running “700 Club” — produced by Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network — and the “Praise the Lord” talk-worship show hosted by the Crouches share airtime on TBN with rapper-turned-preacher M.C. Hammer and the rock-flavored, youth-oriented “WWJDtv” show.

While critics accuse TBN of overemphasizing “prosperity gospel” and other hotly disputed beliefs, network spokesman Colby May says Trinity’s popularity speaks for itself.

“Just look at the Nielsen numbers,” May said. “I don’t think we’re out of the mainstream.”

Falcone, the Salvadoran immigrant, picks and chooses from Trinity’s schedule. “You throw away everything that’s not good, and pay attention if you think it will build up your faith,” she said.

As TBN approaches the Hispanic market, it is expected to tread lightly around the Roman Catholic roots of many in its target audience, trying to appeal to both Protestants and Catholics.

“They’ll have to be very careful,” Sanchez-Walsh said. “But this is a huge market for them, and it’s growing.”

Hispanics in the United States have indeed become more religiously diverse over the past two decades, said Tom W. Smith of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

About 63 percent of Hispanics are now Catholic, down from 78 percent in the 1970s, according to the General Social Survey, an ongoing national poll that Smith directs.

Although Paul Crouch won’t speak to “secular media,” and declined an interview request from The Associated Press, the TBN founder and chief wrote in a recent online newsletter that such numbers are on his side.

“When the year 2000 census revealed that there were over 40 million Hispanics in America, we didn’t need a special visitation of God to move us to action,” he wrote. “Common sense said it is time to ‘SE HABLA ESPANOL!”’

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