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Upstart Catholic TV offering family fare

Monday, July 02, 2001

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

If Catholic cable mogul Mother Angelica bought the Disney Channel, merged it with the History Channel and TVLand, then ran the result on a shoestring budget, the result would be something like the Familyland Television Network.

The 24-hour channel, available through the DISH satellite system, features sitcoms from the 1950s and original programming from the Catholic Familyland resort and retreat center near Steubenville, Ohio, as well as old movies interspersed with discussions of their historical accuracy and moral implications. The network's daily headliners are Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa and Cardinal Francis Arinze, the Nigerian who is considered a potential pope.

"This is 100 percent good, clean, family-safe family entertainment with solid spiritual programming," said Jerry Coniker, founder and president of the Apostolate for Family Consecration, which owns FLTV.

The Apostolate is better known as Catholic Familyland, which offers cabins, horseback riding and the Mass to spiritually minded vacationers. Coniker, with his wife, Gwen, founded it in 1975.

The network came about because, as the parents of 13 children and 50 grandchildren so far, the Conikers were distressed at the level of violence, sex and derision of parental authority they saw on television. After years of producing shows for Mother Angelica's Eternal Word Television Network, they decided to launch their own Catholic channel with a family focus.

Classic reruns include "Bonanza," "Make Room for Daddy," "Roy Rogers" and "Victory at Sea," and even those are edited for rough language, disrespect and violence. FLTV viewers will see Roy Rogers knock the bad guy off his horse, but they will not see Roy bash the bad guy's head against a rock. Viewers would be surprised, Coniker said, at how much disrespectful language he has to edit out of "Make Room for Daddy."

The list of movies includes "Lassie's Great Adventure," "The Jackie Robinson Story," "Nurse Edith Cavell" and "The Scarlet Pimpernel." Coniker is a fan of the History Channel, and he borrowed an idea by having war movies interspersed with commentary from a priest and a historian on the accuracy and moral implications of the films.

Original programs include a cooking show, sports analysis and a collection of children's shows, such as one that features a nun who tells stories to children. Event programming from Catholic Familyland features Catholic singers such as armless guitarist Tony Melendez.

The central resource for FLTV's religious programming is its video library of more than 15,000 programs based on interviews with or addresses by more than 500 Catholic teachers, including John Paul, Mother Teresa and Arinze. There is also the Mass, rosary and Apostolate's trademark "Be Not Afraid Family Hour" for family prayer and devotion.

A deal is in the works to produce a news show based on the English-language edition of L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's official newspaper.

"We are very encouraged by their positive plans for growth and expansion in the area of broadcast communication, and hopefully we can assist them through partnering up," said Daniel Medinger, the U.S. manager for L'Osservatore Romano.

All of this is done on a skeletal budget of less than $3 million per year, Coniker said. A celibate corps of dedicated volunteers does most of the labor.

"We do things differently, but we do them professionally," he said.

FLTV is available primarily through the DISH satellite network via the Sky Angel satellite. Information and signups are available through www.familyland.org.

Unlike most religious programmers, Coniker is determined to finance his operations through advertising, rather than begging viewers for money. Getting on cable would help, so FLTV is offered free to local systems. So far there has been little response, and he has urged his supporters to lobby their cable carriers for FLTV.

Bishop Anthony Bosco of Greensburg, a scarred veteran of Catholic cable TV wars, says Coniker is facing ferocious competition.

In the late-1980s, Bosco was among the founding board members of VISN, an interfaith cable channel that became the Faith & Values Network, Odyssey and, most recently, the Hallmark Channel. In the beginning, Bosco said, major cable providers were eager for the channel because it represented most of the nation's largest religious groups, rather than the efforts of a single evangelist.

Bosco soon discovered the perils of challenging Mother Angelica.

Whenever cable carriers attempted to replace her network with VISN, she exhorted her faithful following to protest. They did so promptly and effectively. Mother Angelica thrived, while the interfaith channel struggled for survival. Major advertisers won't touch a network that can't prove that it has many millions of viewers, he said.

For FLTV, "independent of the issue of the caliber of their programming, I think the bottom line is going to be the bottom line," Bosco said.

"There's a potential audience for this kind of thing, but I'm not sure how huge it is. Failure or success is by the numbers."

So far, more than 80 bishops, including Cardinal Francis George of Chicago and Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh, have endorsed FLTV.

Eternal Word network executives are on the record also in welcoming Coniker's effort to reach families with wholesome entertainment. Coniker himself insists that FLTV's programming is so different from that of EWTN that it does not pose any threat to Mother Angelica.

In addition to the sitcoms and movies, "what really makes us different from Mother Angelica is that all of our interviews are done from the perspective of what this means to the family. When I do interviews, I do them as the father of a large family," Coniker said.

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