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Gospel gets born again with four music cablers

Advertisers pushed to get in the groove

NEW YORK — When the spirit moves buttoned-down venture capitalists like Alpine Capital and Constellation Ventures to sink money into a gospel-music network, the cable industry starts getting that born-again feeling.

Dennis Miller, managing director of Constellation Ventures, says last week’s re-election of George W. Bush “was a strong signal that evangelical, faith-based populism is more powerful than ever in this country.”

The newest of the four companies that distribute cable networks devoted to gospel music, Miller’s GMC (Gospel Music Channel) features as its top executives Charley Humbard, former senior VP of Discovery’s multiplex networks, and Brad Siegel, former president of Turner Broadcasting’s general-entertainment networks.

GMC’s toughest competitor could end up being the newly recharged spinoff of Black Entertainment TV, BET Gospel. Donovan Gordon, the cable veteran who joined BET three months ago as senior VP of affiliate sales and marketing, is making the rounds of cable operators, reminding them that they’re remiss in carrying so few black-oriented networks.

Black households watch TV an average of 10 hours, 23 minutes a day, compared with only seven hours, 42 minutes for the average home, according to Nielsen Media Research.

“Gospel has its roots in the black community,” says Gordon, “so our primary target audience is the black householder.”

By contrast, Siegel’s GMC will add contemporary genres like hip-hop gospel because the more young people GMC can attract, the more money it’ll collect from Madison Avenue.

Two major cable operators, Cox and Charter, plan to roll out GMC to some of their cable systems. The 10-year contract makes GMC free for two years. In year three, the cable operator ponies up a monthly payment of 6¢ a subscriber; that tariff rises only slightly over the rest of the contract.

But for another service, GMTN (Gospel Music TV Network), cable operators don’t have to pay one cent to Jimmy Jones, the owner, who says his Nashville-based cable channel reaches a modest 15- million people on about 200 cable systems.

Jones, a former mandolin player whose album sales catapulted him into the Music Hall of Fame, says he subsequently made a fortune in the rock-quarry business and is using that treasure to subsidize GMTV, which interrupts wall-to-wall gospel music with only a few carefully chosen informercials (calcium pills, low-rate insurance cards) and Sunday-morning miniseries.

Harold Brown, president and CEO of two Florida-based gospel networks that take no advertising, is skeptical that GMC and BET Gospel will ever be able to get Madison Avenue to funnel any significant dollars to gospel-music networks.

“Advertisers tend to shy away from anything that says gospel,” Brown says, “because the last thing they need is to look like they’re promoting one religion over another.”

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