By JAY REEVES
A global broadcasting operation based in Alabama is offering a different kind of news coverage of the election of a new pope.
Nestled among the Protestants and pine trees of suburban Birmingham, Eternal Word Television Network isn’t just talking about Vatican politics or the church sex scandal in its run-up to the papal vote. Rather, “Pope TV” is airing shows about how the new man may affect church liturgy, teachings and Vatican diplomacy.
While other media explained the basics of the smoke signals used at the Vatican to signal the vote outcome–white puffs mean there’s a new pope, dark smoke means there isn’t yet–EWTN analysts discussed the pontiff’s influence on the use of candles and crucifixes during worship. In a live Mass aired Tuesday, a priest asked viewers to pray for the conclave in Rome.
Faith and religious practices are a constant theme on the non-profit EWTN, which doesn’t air commercials but does broadcast papal appearances and pronouncements the way ordinary U.S. cable news channels cover an American president.
Started by a nun in a cramped garage more than three decades ago, EWTN now produces television broadcasts available in 225 million households in more than 140 counties and territories. The network, with 336 total employees, has about 50 staffers in Rome working on conclave coverage being aired in English, Spanish and German, said chief executive Michael Warsaw.
Aside from its television side, EWTN also operates two radio networks and a shortwave broadcasting operation; web-based programs; and a U.S.-based newspaper, the National Catholic Register.
Warsaw said EWTN’s coverage of the conclave is purposely different from that in the secular media, focusing more on how a new pope might affect faith practices and how that translates into the lives of believers.
“It’s a spiritual moment in the life of the church. It’s, we believe, the Holy Spirit guiding the cardinal electors to choose the right man,” he said.
EWTN is sometimes on the upper reaches of the cable dial and isn’t available in many homes, but many Catholics pay attention nonetheless.
Surveys show about 9 percent of adult U.S. Catholics, or about 5 million people, watch EWTN at least once every six months, and EWTN.com is one of the most-visited Catholic websites in the United States, according to Mark Gray, a senior researcher at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
“As Catholic media go, they draw a huge audience,” said Gray. Audience numbers will likely go up because of all the news from the Vatican, he said.
Critics fault the network for focusing too much on what’s happening in America and at the Vatican while essentially ignoring the rest of the world’s Catholics.
Faithful viewer Louis Sanchez, however, keeps coming back. Sanchez said he likes EWTN because it focuses not just on the politics and controversy within the church but also on faith, the church’s very reason for being.
Plus, Sanchez said, he’s a big fan of the “Vatican Insider” of EWTN, Rome bureau chief Joan Lewis.
Founded by Mother Angelica in 1981, EWTN is located in conservative, Deep South state. Though Hispanic immigrants have helped expand parishes statewide in recent years, Alabama’s coast was the center of the state’s Catholic population for generations.
EWTN looks much like any other TV operation: There’s a control room with TV screens in front of big desks filled with brightly lit buttons; a studio with stage lights hanging overheard; a forest of satellite dishes in the back of the 10-acre complex.
But it has other things you don’t see at secular operations, like white statues of angels and saints scattered around the exterior. There are indoor and outdoor chapels for Mass; crucifixes hanging in hallways; and photos of Mother Angelica, who is retired from the media and lives in a convent in north Alabama.
The network operates on a nonprofit basis and neither sells ads nor accepts money for its programming, yet it brings in millions annually. Federal tax forms filed by nonprofit groups show EWTN took in $36.3 million in 2011, nearly all of it in donations, and ended the year with more than $40 million in assets.
Warsaw said the network’s 24/7 focus on Roman Catholicism gives it an advantage when big events happen, such as the retirement of Pope Benedict XVI and the selection of a successor. But while the network is tweeting and offering live updates about the selection process, just like other media outlets, it won’t necessarily worry about being the first to break all the big news leading up to the announcement of a new pontiff.
Massimo Faggioli, an Italian who teaches theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., said EWTN is unique in its size and reach, but he faults the operation for being too hesitant to air opinions outside Vatican orthodoxy.
EWTN’s stated goal on federal tax forms is to “communicate the teachings and the beauty of the Catholic church and to help people grow in their love and understanding of God and his infinite mercy,” and Warsaw doesn’t make any apology for communicating Vatican beliefs to viewers.
The papal election gives the network another chance to put church business into spiritual terms for a wide audience, he said.