John Elson’s grandmother used to watch daily Mass on television every morning, and it was a very special time for her.
“It allowed her to begin her day with the Lord and to have that spiritual community with our Lord,” he said. “Watching the daily Mass allowed her to be a vital member of the body of Christ.”
Elson has more than a personal interest in the joy that Catholic television brought to his late grandmother’s life. He is director of program acquisitions and coproductions at EWTN-TV, the Eternal Word Television Network based in Irondale, Ala.
EWTN operates 24/7 on more than 4,800 cable and satellite stations in 144 countries and reaches 148 million homes. Many viewers are senior citizens, a niche audience that has a special interest in programming geared to its generation.
“We have shows that the older audience really appreciates,” Elson told Our Sunday Visitor. “There’s the whole genre of teaching programs, and one of the top series is [Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s] ‘Life Is Worth Living.’ Many of our viewers grew up watching that show, so it resonates very well with them.”
Seniors also enjoy “Blessings of Aging,” which covers relevant issues, such as a segment on the truth about euthanasia. A nostalgic series features Hollywood legends James Cagney, Loretta Young and Christopher Plummer.
“They are values-oriented shows that really bring very positive views,” Elson said.
Audience feedback initiated two programs in the making. One has Ray Guarendi, a Catholic psychologist and author who is popular in Catholic and secular media.
“One segment is geared toward answering questions seniors have,” said Peter Gagnon, director of programming and production. “It will cover things like being involved in the parish or children who have left the Church.”
The studio is currently filming Father Roger Landry and Dr. Vincent Fortanasce in “Remembering Jesus.” It will debut in March 2012.
“It’s specifically about Alzheimer’s disease, how it affects you and how it affects those around you,” Gagnon said. “It will be about people who are caregivers now and about people who have the disease but are still cognitively available.”
Older viewers also identify with the series with author and psychologist Father Benedict Groeschel and Catholic philosopher and author Alice von Hildebrand. They discuss suffering, growing older, the spiritual response to suffering and the link to Christ’s suffering on the cross.
“We get a lot of thank-you notes for our devotional programs, for the Mass, rosaries and chaplets that we have daily and that allow seniors to participate in the life of the Church from their homes, nursing homes or hospitals,” Gagnon said. “Sometimes seniors feel left out, but they are vital members in the Church. We want to encourage them to participate, even it’s just praying, offering up their suffering or being on parish council.”
Lifeline to spiritual life
Surveys indicate that more than half of Immaculate Heart Radio’s listeners are older than 50, and nearly half of those are older than 60.
“Some of our most popular programs are the Mass and the Rosary, which are especially helpful to seniors who are shut-ins,” said Tom Huckins, director of stations development. “They love to say their prayers along with the listening audience. We get a lot of folks telling us how much that means to them and that it’s a lifeline to their spiritual life.”
Immaculate Heart Radio originates in Loomis, Calif., and broadcasts programming from various sources.
Huckins calls broadcast media “the best form of catechesis available today.”
“People are learning their faith for the first time, and even people who have been in the Church for a long time let us know that they are finally understanding the Church,” he said.
The Catholic Television Network of Youngstown, operated by the Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio, broadcasts a Sunday Mass that’s taped earlier in the week at the studio chapel. Various priests from the diocese celebrate the liturgy.
“We show only the altar and the ambo, so it’s like we have turned their living rooms into their pews,” producer and director Bob Gavalier said.
CTNY sends missalettes to those who request them and also provides them to nursing homes so that viewers can follow along with the Mass.
KNXT-TV is owned and operated by the Diocese of Fresno, Calif., and is broadcast on cable and digital outlets. The worldwide stream reaches about 84 countries. Because it is public television, scheduling includes community service programs like “Forum For A Better Understanding.”
According to webmaster and program assistant Kue Lee, a segment in which religious community leaders discussed a Florida pastor’s intentions to burn the Quran caught a lot of attention.“It was very time sensitive,” Lee said.
KNXT-TV also broadcasts PBS’s “California Gold,” hosted by Huell Howser, who goes around California talking about history and people.
“It has a pretty big following, especially a lot of seniors,” Lee said.
Older viewers also like “The Golden Age of Television,” featuring a Groucho Marx game show from the 1940s and 1950s. Another favorite is “Classic Cinema with Father Ricardo.” In that, Father Ricardo Magdaleno, an avid movie fan, hosts classic films and presents comments and trivia during breaks.
KNXT-TV broadcasts Bishop Sheen episodes, devotionals and daily Mass from EWTN. The station also produces Sunday Masses in English, Spanish and Portuguese.
CatholicTV.com, based in Watertown, Mass., broadcasts on cable and the Internet. “We have a locally produced program that’s not specifically for the elderly, but I would say that we get the most response from it from older viewers,” said Bonnie Rodgers, who is responsible for programming. Senior viewers like devotionals and “anything with the pope.” They even report that they like the children’s shows.
The “Going My Way” program has a format like a late-night television variety and comedy show. Rodgers calls it a “21st-century version of ‘The Merv Griffin Show.’” Father Chris Hickey is host with co-host Father Paul Rouse, his mentor-turned-sidekick. Father Rouse, who is retired from the Archdiocese of Boston, plays the piano for Father Hickey and other talented singing priests from the archdiocese and beyond.
“Father Hickey is young, but he loves the old songs,” Rodgers said. “We do hear from the young and old, but the elderly call in with song requests. They talk about it at senior community centers and they come together to watch it.”
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.
Additional articles from our Senior living special section:
Social media tools keep seniors connected
Older Catholics find romance and companionship online
Charities, programs focus on senior needs