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The Rebirth of Odyssey


Photo of TV by Ron Rack; CNS Photo of Pope from Reuters

Odyssey's programming now features coverage of papal events, such as the opening of the Holy Door in Rome.




The Odyssey cable network, with its interfaith partners, hopes to attract more viewers with the help of The Jim Henson Company and Hallmark Entertainment. The network includes Catholic features like the Mass and papal events.

By Dan E. Pitre


Catholic Shows Well-represented

Ecumenical and Family Programming

Catholic Priest Is Key Player

Religious Programming Integral

As Much Programming As NICC Can Handle

Relationship to the Church

Odyssey's Now Growing

No On-air Fund-raising

A Work in Progress

Odyssey's Odyssey


When the 12-year-old Odyssey interfaith cable network joined forces with The Jim Henson Company (The Muppets) and Hallmark Entertainment (Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movies), all parties were confident that viewership would be strengthened. At the same time, many in the cable industry and the faith communities raised questions about how visible religious programming would be in the new lineup.

April 2000 marks one year since Odyssey was relaunched as “a Henson and Hallmark Entertainment Network, the first network for today’s family” featuring “magical, mystical, spiritual and always entertaining” programming. Among this mix is 40 hours weekly of faith and values programming, including a daily Mass and other Catholic-produced programs. That is out of 168 hours available weekly.

What’s in this new arrangement for Henson and Hallmark? An opportunity to have an outlet for their vast award-winning libraries and to link these family programs with religious- and value-oriented programming.

“This combination of well-respected entertainment programming and quality, faith-based programming will make the network uniquely appealing and relevant to ‘today’s family,’ which is defined very differently than in the past and which has very different expectations of television,” says the new president and CEO of Odyssey, Margaret Loesch. The energetic, genial Loesch built the Fox Kids Network and was president of The Jim Henson Television Group before the new Odyssey partnership.

Throughout its history Odyssey has experienced several transitions and name changes and struggled with finances. So what’s in this new arrangement for Odyssey? Survival, even growth.

Catholic Shows Well-represented

In the new arrangement Odyssey is committed to providing 40 hours a week of faith- and values-based programming. Thirty hours of faith-based programs are acquired and provided by the National Interfaith Cable Coalition (NICC), composed of 70 faith groups, which is the founder of the channel and a co-owner of Odyssey. These programs, 11 percent of which are Catholic, are produced by 15 faith groups or their production agents.

The following are the regularly scheduled Catholic-produced programs (all times are Eastern and Pacific):

  • The Daily Mass from St. Ann’s Basilica in Scranton, Pennsylvania, celebrated by Passionist Father Peter Grace, 9 a.m. Monday through Friday, and 7:30 a.m. Sundays;

  • La Santa Misa, the Mass celebrated in English and Spanish by Father David Garcia from San Fernando Cathedral, San Antonio, 1 p.m. Sundays;

  • Paulist Productions’ Insight dramatic series, 8:30 a.m. Mondays;

  • Our Family, an in-depth exploration of Hispanic spiritual, social and cultural life in the light of Catholic faith, produced by Hispanic Telecommunications Network in San Antonio, 10 a.m. Mondays and 3 a.m. Friday mornings;

  • Christopher Closeup, produced by The Christophers and hosted by Father Tom McSweeney who interviews people who, based on their faith, make a difference in the world, 8:30 a.m. Fridays and 2 a.m. Wednesday mornings;

  • Today’s Life Choices, produced by Golden Dome Productions, the University of Notre Dame and Michael Doyle, which examines, with celebrities and specialists in their fields, social issues from religious and ethical perspectives, 2:30 p.m. Sundays and 3 a.m. Tuesday mornings;

  • Personally Speaking, hosted by Msgr. Jim Lisante, who speaks with celebrities about their faith, and produced by the Catholic Communication Campaign of the U.S. Catholic Conference, 10 a.m. Fridays and 3 a.m. Sunday mornings.

There are faith-sponsored production companies that produce specialty programming. Family Theater Productions, a Catholic family media production organization sponsored by the Congregation of Holy Cross, has three programs that relate the mysteries of the rosary to the real experiences of three families, being planned by NICC for broadcast on three Sundays starting May 14, Mother’s Day, at 7 a.m.

In addition, there are special seasonal programs, such as this past Christmas: live broadcasts of the Opening of the Holy Door and Christmas Eve Mass from St. Peter’s Basilica with Pope John Paul II and Midnight Mass from St. Patrick’s Cathedral. And this Lenten season NICC is trying to arrange live coverage of the pope’s planned activities in the Holy Land. Also, Odyssey will broadcast Mary, Mother of Jesus, the made-for-TV movie that first aired on NBC last fall. It will be broadcast on the day before Palm Sunday, April 15, at 8 p.m., and Easter Sunday, April 23, at 9 p.m.

Ecumenical and Family Programming

Moreover, 10 hours of programs are aimed at viewers of all faiths. Landmarks of Faith explores the roots of different faiths. Great Preachers highlights members of the clergy preaching from their faith traditions at their own worship services. News Odyssey is a thoughtful exploration of current events from a spiritual and values perspective, hosted by Mary Alice Williams.

Quiet Triumphs, also with Mary Alice Williams, features celebrities talking about how they got through the tough times of their lives. Attracting much viewer and media attention, the TV journalist was asked by HarperCollins Publishers to write a book about her celebrity interviews.

One of Odyssey’s more popular family shows is Donna’s Day starring Donna Erickson, a parenting expert who presents fun and easy projects for parents to do with their children to strengthen family ties and build self-esteem.

Then there are the acclaimed values-centered, entertaining programs from Henson’s and Hallmark Entertainment’s Emmy Award-winning libraries and acquired syndicated shows, as well as new productions, such as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a movie that premiered last fall on Odyssey.

The Henson and Hallmark library of programs will include Merlin, Gulliver’s Travels, The Muppet Show, The Muppet Movie, Moby Dick and numerous Hallmark Hall of Fame presentations, including Sarah, Plain and Tall. Some of the syndicated shows are Doogie Howser, M.D., Beauty and the Beast and The Road to Avonlea.

Catholic Priest Is Key Player

A Catholic priest has been a key player in Odyssey’s development and is now senior vice president for religious affairs. Father Bernard R. (Bob) Bonnot compares the cable network’s transition to new partnership and format to two things: the Hebrews entering the promised land after wandering uncertainly in the desert for 40 years and “a marriage made in heaven.

“We’re integrating interfaith religious culture with family entertainment, which is the culture of Henson and Hallmark,” Father Bonnot tells St. Anthony Messenger in an interview.

Admittedly, there has been some restriction of religious programming in an effort to make the channel more marketable and competitive in the vast cable environment with the inclusion of the Henson and Hallmark Entertainment and other family programs. Viewers of regularly scheduled or special religious programs need to be home 8:30-11 a.m. Mondays through Fridays, or be night owls (2-4 a.m.), or know how to set up their VCR’s for timed recordings. On Sundays, however, religious programming airs from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Father Bonnot, a priest of the Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio, thinks the blending of entertainment with spiritual and interfaith components “is our goal in redefining family entertainment. This partnership enables the full flowering of what instinctively NICC set out to do: redefine religious TV and make faith visible on television.”

Father Bonnot says, “The faith groups entered the partnership responsibly, addressing any concerns they had. They realize the partnership is a work still in progress. So this image surfaced for me: Abraham being called to a country God would provide. He didn’t have a clue where it was, what it looked like. NICC entered the promised land after 12 years. They are out of the desert, getting out of religious TV as it was and seeing the potential of what they want to achieve in the larger context.”

Father Bonnot is the in-house expert on religion and spirituality and the connection point between the entertainment part of Odyssey and NICC. In his spare time he likes to read theological and communication industry periodicals to keep himself updated. His brother-in-law calls him a “theological manager.”

The priest sees his role in administration as ministry, helping people to grow spiritually through Odyssey’s programming.

Religious Programming Integral

Odyssey moved its main offices from New York to the Los Angeles area after the new partnership formed, but maintains an office there as well as in Chicago (advertising).

Ed Murray, a Catholic layman, is president and CEO of NICC. As such, he works hand in glove with the Odyssey executives to ensure that religious programming is an integral part of the network.

Murray’s journey has taken him from being the first lay director of religious education for the Diocese of Richmond in the 1970’s, to the founding CEO of Oblate Media, St. Louis, for the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate in the 1980’s and 1990’s, to the head of NICC, based in New York, last July. A family man, he and his wife, Dianne, who celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary last year, have five children, ages 23 to 35.

Murray is also a former president of the Catholic Telecasters Group (CTG), and served as the Catholic representative on the interfaith coalition. CTG is composed of several Catholic production houses, most affiliated with religious congregations. CTG recommends what Catholic programs NICC should consider for NICC’s programming segments.

“It’s the sense of the faith group members that the 30 hours of weekly religious-oriented programming that they produce and which NICC schedules on Odyssey,” Murray says, “is about as much quality programming as the groups can produce right now.”

As Much Programming As NICC Can Handle

Regarding NICC’s regular programming, Murray says, “I want folks to understand that the 30 hours of religious programming is produced by real people, who make it happen day in, day out. They assume a large financial responsibility to produce the programs and pay an administrative fee to NICC each time their programs run. They have taken on a large burden for the long term.

“Resources were spread so thin when NICC managed everything,” says Murray. He knows because he has been involved nearly from the beginning of the channel.

“Those [founding] faith groups realized from the beginning that, unless the channel was a mix of entertaining, informational and inspirational programming, it was going to be extremely difficult to grow,” Murray says.

The brands of Henson and Hallmark Entertainment, the availability of 4,000 hours of successful and many Emmy Award-winning family programs from their libraries and more resources for the production of original programming have certainly given greater prominence to the network, making it more attractive to cable operators, viewers and advertisers.

“These strong brands, burned into the minds of the American public for their high-quality, positive values, dependability and commitment, not only don’t conflict, but actually are compatible,” says Murray.

Murray and Father Bonnot both say that the high quality of programs and services that Henson and Hallmark Entertainment bring to the network raises the bar for religious producers. They are challenged now to rise to that level but they will need the resources to do it.

Murray hopes that improved religious programs will merit more premium time slots in the Odyssey environment.

Relationship to the Church

The National Interfaith Cable Coalition was a pioneer from the start. Twelve years ago John Malone was chairman of TCI, the largest cable provider at that time, and he wanted to provide a legitimate place for religious and faith expressions in the cable universe. Malone approached mainline faith communities, saying he would fund the channel but the faith groups would have to organize together to run it. NICC was born and owned 100 percent of the Odyssey Channel.

The U.S. Catholic bishops’ Communications Committee declined to be officially involved, opting to affiliate with Mother Angelica’s Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), Murray says. (That exclusive arrangement between the bishops and EWTN ended in 1990.) The committee’s chairman, Bishop Anthony Bosco of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, however, expressed the need for some unofficial Catholic affiliation with NICC and Odyssey.

After a 1987 meeting of an association of Catholic TV and radio producers, the Catholic Telecasters Group was organized to represent the Catholic faith in NICC and to produce programs and recommend programming for the new channel. The U.S. bishops’ Communications Committee has continued to have a cordial and collaborative relationship with the channel. In fact, it currently produces one of NICC’s programs (Msgr. Jim Lisante’s Personally Speaking).

Odyssey's Now Growing

“We’re one of the fastest-growing cable networks,” Lana Corbi, Odyssey’s chief operating officer and a former Fox Broadcasting Company official, told a group of religious leaders and producers in Los Angeles last October. Sharply dressed in dark business attire, the well-spoken, focused and vivacious Corbi reported that Odyssey added 2.7 million homes in 1999, which gets it into nearly 30 million homes. The network’s goal is 50 million homes within four years.

Odyssey has signed deals with some of the major cable corporations and is negotiating with all of them, she says. This gives them more freedom and success in dealing with corporate cable outlets at the local level.

Odyssey is available on 1,500 cable systems and to C-Band dish antenna owners across the country (SatCom C-3, Transponder 5) and on Primestar, a direct broadcast satellite service (Channel 84). To find out if any cable systems in your particular area carry Odyssey, search zip codes on the Odyssey Web site: You can also get involved in Odyssey’s extensive community-relations efforts to get the network on local cable systems by contacting Odyssey at 1-800-522-5131, ext. 2423, or by calling your local cable company.

No On-air Fund-raising

Because the faith-produced programs for Odyssey are not normally attractive to advertisers or produced with sponsoring spots, these programs do not generate income but incur costs to air them. So NICC normally charges these producers an administrative fee averaging approximately $400 per half-hour program. And Odyssey/NICC’s policy prohibits on-air fund-raising. This puts programs under a substantial challenge to generate income for their productions, says Murray.

One Catholic producer, Divine Word Father Michael Manning, left Odyssey because the NICC fees became too expensive. The well-known host of The Word in the World, Father Manning depends on donations from his viewers for premiums he offers. Though the priest engages in other fund-raising efforts to preach the gospel on TV, such as pilgrimages, banquets and even a golf tournament, his major source of funds is from 600-700 viewer contributors, which stays fairly constant, losing and adding supporters every year.

Father Manning’s program continues to be aired on the evangelical Trinity Broadcasting Network, the largest religious network in the world, on which he can ask for funds.

“The big question is how do we get Catholics to give money to support Catholic programming,” says Father Manning, a tall, 50-plus-year-old priest with a boyish face and a zest for spreading the Word via television. It has been a financial struggle for more than 20 years to keep his program on the air, he admits.

Father Manning says he first had a positive reaction to Henson and Hallmark Entertainment joining Odyssey. “I felt it would make the channel more attractive, and I think it has. The power of Henson and Hallmark Entertainment is that their programs attract a larger and broader audience, which is good for the religious programs on Odyssey and their viewers,” says the affable priest.

“The danger [to religious programming] can be the success of the commercial aspect of Odyssey,” Father Manning says. “You gotta admit that religious programs are not going to have the same attraction” to audience and advertisers as “watching a Hallmark movie or Henson Muppet or cartoon show. I hope the network remains courageous in its commitment to religious programming.”

Odyssey COO Corbi and Father Bonnot both insist that Henson and Hallmark Entertainment are family-owned companies aimed at a family audience. Their goals are to entertain and serve their publics, and thus are not solely profit-driven.

“That’s a unique situation,” Father Manning says. “It’s the only way you can keep the religious programming on the air in such an environment—that financial success not be your only goal.”

A Work in Progress

Father Bonnot says that is in fact what brought the parties together for this unique partnership. “It was a coming together of two parties looking for what the other had.”

A marriage made in heaven? Father Bonnot thinks so: “We in the coalition would be comfortable with describing the partnership as a marriage. Like all marriages, it is a work in progress. Thus far, it has been a wonderful marriage for all concerned including, we trust, God’s people.”

Dan Pitre is director of public relations for Family Theater Productions in Hollywood, California.


Odyssey's Odyssey

Odyssey was founded as a unique interfaith effort of what is now 70 Protestant, Jewish, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox faith groups and traditions organized into the National Interfaith Cable Coalition, Inc. (NICC).

It has been called various names in its history and functioned under various arrangements, but its mission has not changed substantially. The channel was launched in September 1988 as VISN (Vision Interfaith Satellite Network). In 1992, the ACTS channel owned by the Southern Baptist Radio-TV Commission joined forces with VISN on the channel, first called VISN/ACTS and then in 1994 Faith and Values.

In 1995, NICC joined in a partnership with Liberty Media, a publicly traded company which owns all or parts of many secular cable networks like Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel, Animal Planet, BET, Home Shopping Network, USA Network, Encore and STARZ! Liberty Media Corporation’s parent company is now AT&T and it has interests in Time Warner, Inc. (which now makes it part of the merger with America Online). Under that 1995 partnership, the interfaith coalition retained majority share and management of the channel. Known as the Odyssey Channel from 1996 to 1999, the program service was renamed Odyssey Network on its relaunch.

In this new arrangement with Henson and Hallmark Entertainment, Liberty Media retains a 32.5-percent common equity stake in the cable network. The Jim Henson Company, Hallmark Entertainment and NICC each have a 22.5-percent stake.




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