A few miles south of Ballantyne along U.S. 521, a circle of spires arises, glinting in the morning sun. Behind it, two new buildings on a sprawling expanse of grass. In front of it, a sign: City of Light.
The $150 million, 93-acre campus is the new home to Inspiration Ministries, parent company to The Inspiration Networks Inc.
The religious broadcaster has grown steadily over nearly two decades, despite competition, critics and a battered economy.
In recent months, the growth has been dramatic.
Inspiration Network, the flagship channel, has more than doubled the number of households it reaches, to 55 million, after signing distribution deals with DirecTV and DISH Network, and the ministry continues work on its new campus.
Those steps will allow the company to expand further, officials say.
The ministry rose from the ashes of Jim Bakker's failed PTL media empire. Now, Inspiration is the most prominent network of its kind in the area and one of the best known of the 100 or so Christian TV broadcasters nationwide. It's considered one of the country's largest media ministries, along with Pat Robertson's Virginia Beach, Va.-based Christian Broadcasting Network.
“Imagine the projects we have on the drawing board,” said John Roos, senior vice president of corporate communications, from a sunlit office at the new headquarters.
“This campus is gradually becoming the fulfillment of all those dreams and visions we've had for years,” Roos said.
Launched in 1990
Chief executive David Cerullo launched Inspiration Network with a handful of employees in 1990 after buying PTL's broadcast facilities. The network features original and exclusive music, children's shows and ministry programming.
“The goal, in short, (was) to make the Gospel, in business terms, ubiquitous,” Cerullo said. “… There are 7 billion people on planet Earth. You could, in a loose sense, describe them as potential customers.”
There were obstacles to making it work, though. While cable networks of years past had succeeded solely because they existed, the early 1990s was a difficult time to break into the then-booming industry. It was full of competitors with more money and larger staffs, said Roos, who helped launch the Family Channel before coming to Inspiration.
It didn't help that Inspiration Network was independent and religiously affiliated, he said.
“We had to fight for everything,” Roos said. “And we still have to fight. Everywhere we go, we're competing against everybody.”
Inspiration leaders had to convince cable carriers to pick up their channel. One way was to stay on top of the latest technology. The ministry developed video on demand, for instance, partly to make its product more attractive to carriers such as Time Warner Cable. Roos also credits a talented staff and a strong sense, then and now, of what viewers want.
Before he joined the ministry, he recalls watching a live broadcast on Inspiration Network of a concert in Disney World in 1993. Roos, who had tried to coordinate something similar in his own job, knew it was difficult.
“I didn't even think it was possible,” he said. “But somehow they did it.”
A few months later, he joined the team.
Another key to Inspiration's success has been balancing the business and the ministry, Cerullo said.
He said he runs the company using principles found in the Bible, such as stewardship – and never loses sight of the goal, spreading the Gospel to as many people as possible. That's allowed Inspiration to thrive even when the economy is floundering, officials said.
“We think we're designed for difficult times like this,” Roos said. “Throughout history, people have turned to God and turned to faith in times of trouble.”
Its first year, Inspiration Network was available in about 3 million households. The ministry has since added three channels, including a Spanish-language family network. The four channels reach more than 125 million people and offer programs from 20 different faiths.
A network with distribution of 70 million or 80 million households is considered to be in the “big leagues” in the industry. That means Inspiration Network is bigger than many, but smaller than industry powerhouses such as ESPN. The August deals with DirecTV and the DISH Network make it the fastest growing domestic inspirational network.
Inspiration Ministries has produced quality programs with broad appeal, an impressive feat for a religious broadcaster, said Craig Parshall, senior vice president and general counsel for the National Association of Religious Broadcasters, of which Inspiration is not a member.
Many of the nation's Christian TV stations are “still trying to get a foothold” in an increasingly competitive and expensive field, he said.
Parshall said networks need a strong visual presentation, up-to-date technology and crossover appeal to succeed.
Still, Roos says money is an issue for the nonprofit ministry. Its annual operating budget, which it declines to disclose, is significantly less than some cable channels, which spend hundreds of millions of dollars on programming, he said.
How it makes money
Money comes from subsidiary Media-Comm, the ministry's commercial production facility in Charlotte, which counts Fox's Speed Channel among its clients. In addition, Inspiration is one of the few religious networks that sells advertising and air time, and some of its channels, such as the Spanish-language network, charge subscriber fees.
Inspiration Ministries seeks donations and has explored corporate sponsorships for its City of Light campus, too, officials said. Earlier this year, most of Inspiration's 350-person staff moved to the new campus from 11 buildings scattered throughout south Charlotte.
When completed over the next decade, the City of Light will include a Global Media Production and Training Institute, designed to train “media missionaries” from around the world, a conference center, youth evangelism center and entertainment pavilion.
“It's a factory, distribution center, catapult, training center,” Cerullo said. “… All of those have business as well as spiritual meanings.”
The campus is in a booming part of Lancaster County. The buildings are tall, with clean lines and shiny windows, peering over a reflecting pool, a park and an 11-foot bronze sculpture called “Exalter.”
Some critics see the new campus as excessive, sending “nasty letters” to Inspiration officials, Roos said.
But he said the company is approaching the expansion responsibly, making sure it has the money before starting a new building. Roos is also quick to point out that the community will benefit: The campus will be open to the public once it's complete.
The City of Light also will help the ministry achieve goals. The staff will grow to 1,000, and the ministry will finally have answers for those who ask, “What can you do to help us? How can I make my church better?”
“You can see the range of stuff we've done,” Roos said. “That's a taste of what we want to do.”