- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 12, 2013

IRONDALE, ALA. (AP) - 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.

“The regular media is managed so they can show only one side of the story,” said Sanchez, of Memphis, Tenn., who visited the EWTN studios with his wife and two children Monday. “They don’t show you the religious side, and EWTN does.”

Plus, Sanchez said, he’s a big fan of the “Vatican Insider” of EWTN, Rome bureau chief Joan Lewis.

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