Two veteran cable executives plan to start the Gospel Music Channel in the fall, providing a TV outlet for a diverse genre that encompasses soulful church music and Christian rock and rap.
The Gospel Music Channel will be dominated by videos during the day, with such programming as concerts and biographical sketches in prime time.
Charles Humbard, former general manager of the Discovery Networks, and Brad Siegel, former president of Turner Entertainment Networks, are teaming with investors to launch it. Singer Larry Gatlin is also on board as an executive.
“We look at gospel music as the wellspring of so many forms of music today,” Humbard said.
They’re in a race with the Charlotte, N.C.-based MP Network — short for music & praise — that also is shooting for a launch in the last three months of the year.
Religious music, which accounted for 50 million units sold in 2003, is often underestimated as a sales force. Religious music made up only 2.9 percent of the music sold in the United States in 1995, but jumped to 6.7 percent in 2001 and 2002, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. That slipped to 5.8 percent last year.
An estimated 1,400 radio stations program gospel music, according to the Gospel Music Association.
An effort to start a gospel channel a decade ago failed, primarily because cable systems had limited space on their systems in the pre-digital era, said media analyst Larry Gerbrandt.
With more room now, the Gospel Music Channel has a better chance, he said.
“If you have Country Music TV, you can certainly make a case for gospel,” Gerbrandt said. “It’s a huge category and an underserved market.”
Will channel succeed?John Styll, president of the Gospel Music Association, said there’s a hunger for this programming. The success of “The Passion of the Christ” shows the power of an audience interested in spiritual-based entertainment.
“You can get any kind of music on television, pretty much, except for gospel music,” Styll said. “It’s very hard to find Christian music and programming and clearly people are interested in this.”
It remains to be seen whether there’s room for two networks.
The MP Network is going after a narrower niche, concentrating on an 18-to-34-year-old audience, which would leave out old-style, soulful gospel, said Larry Moore, its chief executive.
So far, neither network has commitments from cable or satellite providers to carry it. But Humbard said the Gospel Music Channel has reached an agreement with Cox Communications, one of the nation’s top cable providers, to negotiate space on its individual systems.
Religious artists now have to search for television time wherever they can find it, on religious channels and the occasional syndicated music show, Humbard said.
While other music channels, like MTV, Fuse or CMT, started by targeting a specific age group or musical style, the Gospel Music Channel will encompass many musical styles that appeal to many age groups. Organizers liken it to ESPN’s embrace of various sports.
“We’ll be so far in excess of what other music channels have been able to accomplish just with music that a lot of people will be surprised,” Siegel said.
The Gospel Music Channel will have its headquarters in Atlanta, with production offices in Nashville, Tenn.