Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.
The halo effect. GMC TV, riding a ratings wave thanks, in part, to the success of recent feel-good TV movies like The Heart of Christmas, Raising Izzie and Somebody’s Child continues to expand its programming slate with a deft mix of original movies and series with classic series like The Waltons, Family Ties, 7th Heaven and, beginning Saturday, Touched by an Angel. The network will launch its run of the faith-based drama with a Calling All Angels marathon beginning Saturday night at 7:00 PM and running until 3:00 AM Sunday morning. After a six-hour break, it picks up again at 9:00 AM Sunday morning and goes on until 2:00 AM (ET) Monday morning. The show will then air two episodes every weeknight beginning at 7:00 PM. All times are ET.
Touched by an Angel debuted on CBS in 1994 and ran for nine seasons (211 episodes). Roma Downey, Della Reese, John Dye and (later) Valerie Bertinelli starred as the angels who worked tirelessly the love of God into the lives of the struggling human beings (usually portrayed by well-known guest stars like Carol Burnett, Valerie Harper, Gregory Harrison, Debbie Reynolds, Randy Travis, etc.)
The consistent ratings growth of GMC TV continues to prove that there is an audience for uplifting, non-edgy, family-friendly entertainment. I recently talked about the network’s success with Charley Humbard, its founder and CEO. Here are some highlights:
JWK: You’re the son of the famed TV evangelist Rex Humbard.
CHARLIE HUMBARD: Right. He was the first person to take church and put it on TV on a weekly basis. He was the reason there’s a word called “televangelism.”
JWK: How did you get involved in TV and come to found GMC?
CH: I was, because of dad, born into TV. We had 13 of us traveling, three generations, right down to little grandkids, three years old…We were all just part of the Humbard Family Singers. I traveled the world with him from the time I was five on television and stage…Just playing all the places around the world. I grew up really with an experience of gospel and Christian music but also just music in general and production. So, I stayed on TV through almost 1980. I really sunk my teeth into production. I was an audio engineer, a recording engineer and, when I left dad’s ministry to go out on my own, I was an engineer at a company here in Atlanta called Crawford Communications. And then I was on to Discovery for many years and started a bunch of networks there… I had really a lot of experience in both gospel and Christian music and (television)…The creation of the Gospel Music Channel was really, for me, bringing both those worlds together.
JWK: But GMC has branched out beyond just gospel music programming
CH: Right. There are couple of key characteristics or key brand pieces that we’ve always been. Our programming when we were Gospel Music Channel, of course, was always uplifting music, the message of gospel music. We were always a very multicultural brand – with rap, pop, country and soul. We today are probably the most multicultural brand in all of cable (in terms of) the diversity of our audience in a given hour. So, both of those characteristics stayed with us as we evolved from being an all music network to adding other things that our viewers were telling us they’d like to see (including) movies that have a real core component of faith…as well as series and other programs that would be good for…their families to watch and wouldn’t run counter to their beliefs.
JWK: You’ve had a lot of recent success with TV movies like Raising Izzie and Somebody’s Child. Are you also developing series?
CH: We are. We just did a critics’ tour . I don’t have all the details here but The Bulloch Family Ranch and I Forgive You…are two series coming from us. They are both reality series…We’re (also) looking at scripted series. Right now we’re acquiring scripted series. The original scripted series we have on the network is Heartland which airs once a week on the channel. That series, which were in partnership with a production company out of Canada, is based on the Heartland books that were so popular.
JWK: Going forward, what do you want your network to be known for in the minds of viewers?
CH: “Uplifting Entertainment.” We have a basic core focus here for all employees in what we do and why we come to work every day. That’s to inspire souls to be better. So, our focus is not necessarily on your head or your body. We’re not a workout channel. We’re not focused on improving that part of you. But, if we can get viewers to share time with us at the network, whether it’s for five minutes or an hour or so…they’ll leave us with something in their heart that is moved for the better – making them think about their lives or helping them through a situation, giving them life lessons through our programs, inspiring their faith and inspiring them to go out and help others and do good. (If we do that) then I think we’ve accomplished our mission as a brand, at least as a core principal of our brand…(But) we’re not only trying to uplift viewers who tune into us for those minutes for hours but (we’re) also (out) to prove that, by committing to producing positive entertainment, there’s a great business model there. We want producers and others to see this and to follow suit.
JWK: Do you think there’s a resistance to faith-based and positive entertainment at the broadcast networks. Do you think it’s a matter that they don’t understand that this stuff sells or that they really don’t want it to sell?
CH: That’s a great question. I think that it’s hard to look at some of the examples of The Passion or look at The Blind Side and other things that have a real core faith component and say there’s a market for this. You know, every time that they do something that tends to appeal to families or has strong values or characters with values, they are very successful. But I think (ignoring that is) the easy way out. It’s kind of the least common denominator which is that it’s really easy to go produce for the bottom. It’s really easy to produce things and try to out-edge the next guy because there’s a big audience that follows that – that really enjoys that as well. It’s just not our place. I think everybody has their place in the programming spectrum but I think it’s important that there are more and more people recognizing that this can be a great business.
Certainly the producers that are coming to us now, some of the leading producers and directors, bringing us concepts for movies, concepts for series, recognizing that we finally an outlet 24 hours a day who’s committed to growing this area of the business and serving the massive population that really is looking for this type of programming. They can’t find it on a consistent basis anywhere else…The people in America who call themselves Christian, or practice their faith, is the largest group of any of the groups you look at…So, actually, we’re playing to the largest audience available in America.
JWK: What do you seen in GMC’s future? Number one?
CH: I think in the reasonable future, we’re going to be a top 10 cable net overall . We’re (already) having moments where we outperform others in cable. With Raising Izzie, we were the number one network in all of advertising-supported cable for African-American women 18-49. That’s huge for a network that’s still a growth network – still in the 50 million home range compared to others are that are in 80 and 100 million.
JWK: Can you think of a show from the traditional networks that represents the kind of programming you’d like to see on GMC?
CH: There’s a show we have on…called 7TH Heaven. Very contemporary look . It was a show that was on the networks for many years. It was very popular – actually the longest running family series in the history of television. Of course, we have The Waltons on their as well. I think those types of shows — that speak to family issues, parents’ interactions with kids. I think that is the kind of programs that, as we develop more and more, will be front and center for us. We’re also going to try some other kind of unique things that speak to core values.
JWK: Can you tell me about I Forgive You?
CH: I Forgive You…is an emotional, uplifting documentary series from Arnold Shapiro who’s an Oscar-winning and Emmy Award-winning producer. (It) brings together people who have been carrying through their life…a grudge, a moment that happened to them or a relationship that fell apart and…they carry this burden with them through life. We’ll reunite those people and give them a chance to look each other in the eye and ask for forgiveness. So, there’s going to be some amazing healing moments on television.
JWK: You’re also in business with Magic Johnson.
CH: That’s right. We just created and launched in June a new channel called Aspire with Magic, a fantastic partner in creating a channel whose values very much align with ours. He talks a lot about (remembering) Sundays with his family and watching family programming together…He said there’s just no place like that where you can go anymore to find that kind of programming for African American families. So, that was his goal – to create this network. He came to us as a partner – recognizing our success as an independent and also as a network that is truly diverse in our employee base. We’re 46% minority here at our company. So, when I say we are a multicultural network, we truly are multicultural – not just all African-American or all Hispanic or all Caucasian. We have a really interesting mix of people to help him create his new brand of Aspire. It’s off to a fantastic start. The channel’s going to be blowing past 10 million homes by the end of the year and I think will be in almost 20 million by the end of next year.
JWK: Is there a risk of splitting the values-based audience?
CH: I think we gain more. Both channels really super serve an audience. Trying to do too much with one channel is difficult. With Aspire, we go deep into African-American entertainment…but also there’s a chance to produce shows together. We’re going to do an award show together next year, The Uplifting Entertainment Awards, which will bring Aspire and GMC together. We’ve got a big movie coming up we’re roadblocking on both networks (called) Christmas Angel. Della Reese, Teri Polo, Kevin Sorbo and Tia Mowry are in it. It’s a diverse cast.
You know, all the things we produce…will be for a multicultural audience. When I say that, I don’t mean just for a black audience or just for an Hispanic audience. I like to use us in a comparison of what the fastest-growing churches are in America. It’s not like the old days where you go over to one part of town and it’s white church and you go to another part of town with a black church. You go to your big churches across America today and they truly are multicultural. The face of the new America is the face of this brand. And I think that really differentiates us from many of the other places out there on the cable dial— not only because of the strong faith component in our network, and the values base, but also the true diversity that we represent as a brand.
JWK: Where will GMC be 20 years from now?
CH: I think you’ll see GMC as a global brand with multiple tentacles in the world of TV Everywhere. We’ve recently launched a TV movie channel called G-Movies which is on right now with DISH and we’re gonna launch it with other cable and satellite partners. It allows you to watch movies anytime on your iPad or computer or on your television in the living room, anywhere you want you get the best in Christian movies. You’ll see, I think from us in the next six months or so, a music-based service as well for TV Everywhere.
JWK: Anything you’d like to say as we finish?
CH: As readers of Beliefnet believe that faith is important in their lives, I would hope that that they take the time to not only look for us and watch us but to tell others about us. It is so important for the success of their network – the network created for the people out there who have been under served and really have not had a channel (that shares) their values 24 hours a day and is committed to bringing great programming for them and their families…(then) the advertisers will come and the distributors will be happy and everyone will get great programming that has been in a real shortage in the past decade.
Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11