Not only have you probably never heard of INSP, you might not even know how to say it. (The cable channel’s Wikipedia page starts by explaining that it should be “sounded out letter-by-letter.”)
But the former Inspiration Network, which was originally founded by televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, currently grabs more viewers each day than better-known stations like USA and TBS — and it’s knocking on the door of becoming a Top 10 cable channel in total viewers.
In terms of overall viewers (so, anyone over the age of 2), INSP, which was chock full of religious programming prior to a 2010 rebrand, ranks 11th (out of 121) on cable year-to-date in total-day viewing, according to Nielsen, and that’s whether you look at “live” tune-in or include one week of (mostly) DVR viewing. That ranking stays the same for primetime (8 p.m. to 11 p.m.) in Live + Same Day viewing, but INSP slips to 15th when including one week of delayed viewing.
To not overburden you with data, we’re going to stick with Live + Same Day numbers for the remainder of this story. We knowledge that it will disproportionately reward news and sports programming, which helps explain away at least a portion of four of the networks in the top five.
Fox News Channel and MSNBC are No. 1 and No. 2 in both total day and primetime viewership, according to that Nielsen data set. CNN, HGTV and ESPN fill out the Top 5 (just in different orders, depending on the day part).
In terms of total day, INSP (which averages 426,000 viewers) is currently ahead of USA Network (422,000), History (412,000) and TBS (404,000), to name a handful of better-known stations. While those three cable channels best INSP in primetime viewers (when it averages 733,000), INSP still beats TLC (708,000) and Food Network (690,000) during those key hours. This, from a cable channel that used to be in literal last place.
While we’re talking about those old days, here’s a quick history lesson: INSP originated in the late 1970s as PTL Television Network (short for “Praise the Lord”). In its current iteration, INSP completely distances itself from the Bakkers, and mostly from religious programming (INSP only airs services early on Saturdays and for a few churchy hours on Sundays). INSP became a for-profit entity, supported by commercials, in 2010. It is wholly owned by Inspirational Network Inc., which does business as Inspiration Ministries.
Each previous version of the channel relied heavily on faith-based programming. The majority of its programming these days comes from the Western genre, a mix of acquired movies (like “Big Jake” and “Rio Lobo”), classic TV shows (like “Gunsmoke” and “The Virginian”) and originals (like “Wild West Chronicles” and “Ultimate Cowboy Showdown”). The programming focus is working: INSP has increased its ratings each of the past seven years, which is when overtly family-friendly programming like “Little House on the Prairie” and “The Waltons” made way for the good old-fashioned cowboy stuff.
Speaking of old, INSP targets adults 55 and over, a demographic that network COO Dale Ardizzone described to TheWrap as a “somewhat underserved” group that “loves classic stories.” Clearly, INSP is serving them, and the viewers in that demo are loving it.
The channel’s median-age viewer is 66, according to Nielsen, which may explain the decline when DVRs get involved. But get your old-people jokes out of the way here, because one benefit to catering to seniors is a built-in “length of tuning” — how long a channel or TV set remains on — and INSP has that for days (perhaps literally, sometimes).
Another benefit of going old is reflected in Ardizzone’s nickname for his going-gray consumers. He calls them “cord-cuddlers,” a group that is “fiercely loyal” to their tradition cable packages — the polar opposite of cord-cutters from the millennial and Gen Z generations.
These cord-cuddlers appreciate INSP’s programming for the nostalgia from their younger days, yes, but Ardizzone believes it is more so INSP programming’s theme of “justice” and “timeless values.” These are viewers who like watching “people trying to do the right thing,” he said.
And in turn, those viewers are doing right by INSP.