Chapter 1: The Emergence of Religious Television

Religious Television: The American Experience
by Peter Horsfield

Chapter 1: The Emergence of Religious Television

The First Twenty Years

Religious programs on television are not a new phenomenon: they have been a part of the schedule since television’s first year of operation, just as religious programs were some of the earlier types of broadcasts on radio.

The early years of television were dominated by the three major faith groups: the Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Jews. By the time the networks had developed television, they had had several decades of experience with religious groups on radio. They had worked out many strategies for dealing with the large number of religious groups who wanted to broadcast their messages, and with the religious mavericks whose fire-and-brim-stone preaching could be dangerously libellous.

The practice of the networks was to deal primarily with only the reputable and mainline religious groups. Catholics were represented by the National Council of Catholic Men, Jews by the Jewish Seminary of America, and Protestants by the Federal Council of Churches of Christ. Each of these three groups had enjoyed a working relationship with the radio networks and when television networks emerged these relationships were extended into the new medium. The practice of the networks was to produce religious programs, either by making production facilities, technical services and some budget resources available to the religious groups for the production of their own programs, or by using these religious agencies as consultants on their own religious programs. These programs were then fed to affiliate stations for airing on “sustaining-time,” or public-service time. Local stations often acted similarly, producing religious programs in association with local church bodies or representative councils.

The arrangement was mutually beneficial. For the networks and their affiliates it supplied one of the means by which they met the requirements of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Most stations broadcast a certain amount of religious programming as part of their license obligation to operate in the public interest. By working with these established religious groups, the networks were able to maintain substantial control over the content of the religious programs and thus avoid controversial material which could have caused legal or broadcasting repercussions. The CBS network, for example, adopted this policy in 1933 after it was involved in legal problems caused by the radio broadcasts over its stations of the controversial priest. Father Charles Coughlin.

By dealing with representative groups, the networks also avoided the problems of trying to manage the numerous individual denominations and independent religious groups, all of whom wanted to gain free access to television’s airwaves.

The arrangement was also most beneficial for the established religious groups. It gave them access to free air-time, the valuable technical and in some cases budgetary resources of the networks, and a large measure of control over the content of religious faith communicated by television.

In working to maintain this favorable relationship with the networks, however, the mainline groups were under continual pressure. The networks maintained substantial control over the content of religious programming produced under their auspices, and they worked continually to fit the religious perspective into their own particular perspectives. The religious organizations working with the networks were forced to make compromises in the face of this substantial censoring or levelling effect on the presentation of religious faith.

The compromise was not always one-way, however. Though the networks sought to make all religious programming emphasize broad religious truths rather than individual tenets of denominations and to avoid dealing with controversial economic and social issues which were of religious significance, many programs produced by the churches in relation with the networks were critical or prophetic in nature. For example “Duty Bound,” an NBC one-hour religious special on March II, 1972, drew more than 10,000 letters in response.

Programming on all three networks has also consistently dealt with views, actions, and testimony from the different denominational viewpoints, reflecting the churches’ conviction that Christian witness and action cannot be divorced from particular persons and denominational perspectives. The presentation of relevant and prophetic material did not come without a fight and some mainline broadcasters considered that for the exposure and benefit gained, network programming was not worth it. Everett Parker of the United Church of Christ’s Office of Communication eventually withdrew his denomination’s participation from network religious programming because he felt that there were more important areas of ministry within television, particularly in the area of media reform.

Other broadcasters expressed similar concerns. Mike Gallagher, who was the Roman Catholic producer for NBC-Catholic programs, criticized the lack of seriousness which characterized the network attitude to religious programs: “I have a rather cynical attitude towards the networks. They’re just using religious shows to fulfill their FCC obligations.”(1) Dr. Franklin Mack, also of the United Church of Christ, suggested that networks were “more a waste of time in terms of resources for the minimal time and audiences that you can get.”(2)

Such an imposed control also drew criticism on theological grounds. Theologian Martin Marty, as early as 1961, suggested that the communication of the Christian faith under such conditions is difficult because the essence of Christianity lies in its particular beliefs and affirmations, not just in its general ones. To ask a Christian communicator to reduce his message to “broad truths” is to remove the essence of the Christian faith. (3) Evangelical broadcaster Ben Armstrong has similarly attacked the programs produced under such conditions as “bland discussions about good deeds, rather than the mandates of the gospel.”(4)

In general, though, the communication agencies of the established faiths and denominations were prepared to accept the prerequisites of the networks and their affiliates. Not only was the free use of network facilities and air-time too good to pass over, but the communication agencies had been conditioned to the acceptance of broad religious truths over idiosyncratic truths by the ecumenical movement. Their social emphasis on justice and equity also provided justification for network controls which appeared to promote commonality and the socially responsible use of a public medium.

The 1950s therefore became the heyday of network mainline religious programming.(5) Long-running and award-winning programs such as “Lamp Unto My Feet” (CBS), “Directions” (ABC), “Frontiers of Faith” (NBC), and “Look Up and Live” (CBS) all began production in this period.

The proportional use of time which the networks maintained with the various major religious groups was not totally satisfactory for some of the larger individual denominations and the individual fundamentalist and evangelical organizations and they turned to alternative methods of broadcasting as well. Some of the larger Protestant denominations, such as the Southern Baptists, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod were of sufficient stature to be able to gain free sustaining-time directly from local stations and they used this to supplement the smaller amount of time they received from the networks. Funds for the production of this denominational programming came exclusively from members of the denominations. These independently syndicated, sustaining-time programs did well. Many of them won numerous awards for quality and have achieved international syndication, such as “The Answer” (Southern Baptist) “Faith for Today” (Seventh Day Adventist), “This Is the Life” (Lutheran Church- Missouri Synod). It has been estimated, for example, that by 1974 the Southern Baptist Radio and Television Commission had nearly 2,500 broadcasts a week on sustaining-time valued at $10 million annually donated by individual local television stations. (6)

Part of the reason for the early successful syndication and acceptance of these independent programs was their quality and dependability. Though produced by evangelical denominations, the programs reflected characteristics similar to other sustaining-time programming: they were low-key in their approach, they were moderate in their doctrine, and they often employed a dramatic format.

There were many other independent Christian groups which had neither the resources nor the stature to attract free time from either networks or local stations for the broadcast of their programs. These were generally evangelical or fundamentalist Protestant groups from the Southern states, most of whom had been active in radio. When television arrived, the more aggressive also moved into programming on the new medium. Because they lacked the advantage of free air-time and the resources of large denominations behind them, those which eventually survived on television were highly competitive in nature and had developed the structure and charisma for attracting substantial financial support from the viewing audience to enable them to purchase commercial air-time from the stations. It was these independent, audience-supported evangelists who came to take over the religious airwaves in the 1960s and 1970s and earned the nickname of the electronic church.

Coming into the 1960s, therefore, there existed primarily a four-part structure in religious television.

1. Network sustaining-time programs, produced by networks in association with the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Roman Catholic Church, the National Council of Churches, and several other recognized faiths and denominations.

2. Syndicated sustaining-time programs, comprised primarily of pro- grams produced by individual denominations and syndicated nationally.

3. Local programs, mostly sustaining-time programs, produced by local television stations either independently or in association with local religious groups or churches.

4. Paid-time, audience supported syndicated programs, produced primarily by independent Protestant groups, supported by audience contributions, and aired on time purchased from individual local stations.

In spite of the obvious financial disadvantages of having to purchase all their air-time, raise their own money, and produce their own programs, paid-time programming fared very well. By 1959, 53 percent of all religious time on television was occupied by programs that purchased their air-time, compared to 47 percent by all other types of religious programs. (7) Though much of this air-time was initially in the smaller markets, it illuminates the doggedness which has characterized these smaller religious broadcasters.

“Angel of the Airwaves”

One religious broadcaster who does not fit into any other category was the Roman Catholic bishop, Fulton J. Sheen. Sheen’s charisma and career were unusual in the life of the American Roman Catholic Church. Though he was trained as an academic with a strong background in philosophy, Sheen was able to sustain the interest of and communicate to a wide range of people of all faiths.

He began broadcasting in 1928 with a series of radio sermons over the popular radio station WLWL in New York, and continued as the regular speaker on the national “Catholic Hour” program which appeared opposite “Amos ‘n’ Andy” and was followed immediately by comedian Fred Allen. Of such competition are great religious communicators made!

Sheen’s national fame, however, came through national television. He was approached by a commercial television network to present a regular television program with commercial sponsorship (i.e., to compete commercially with other programs). The church had nothing to do with the invitation, nor with sponsorship of the program.

 Sheen’s program was a marked change from similar programs of the time. He avoided the lavish flourishes of other commercial broadcasts. His program consisted solely of a speech or classroom lecture on a religious or moral subject, presented in a study-type set, with the aid of a blackboard on which he occasionally illustrated a point being made. The only assistance he received throughout the program was from a stagehand who cleaned the board while it was off-camera. Sheen frequently referred to the cleanliness of the board when coming to use it again, attributing its cleanliness to an “angel,” who became nationally famous. For many of Sheen’s viewers, however, it was Sheen himself who was the real “angel of the airwaves.”

The clean blackboard was Sheen’s only “trick.” The rest of his program was meticulously planned, with Sheen spending about 30 hours each week preparing for the telecast. A day or two before the actual broadcast he would present the talk to friends in Italian and French in order to clarify his comprehension of the subject. The actual program, however, was unrehearsed, partly because Sheen never used notes or a tele-prompter and thus could not accurately be predicted. Time magazine, which could not believe that he could consistently present a program under such conditions, actually sent a writer to the studio to detect what special tricks Sheen was using.

Sheen’s program was ecumenical in its content, ranging over a broad spread of subjects from communism to art, science, war, family life, and personal problems, though the fact that he was a bishop of the Roman Catholic Church was continually apparent to viewers because of his priestly garb and cape. Interest in the program was sustained solely by Sheen’s meticulous planning, vocal variety, facial expressions, gestures, the relevance of his content, and the dynamic of his authoritative personality.

His program brought a great response. Between the years 1952 and 1957 he continued to draw a competitive share of the evening television audience. Many bars tuned their television sets to his program; taxi drivers would stop work for a half-hour in order to watch. A blind couple in Minneapolis bought an Admiral television set to express gratitude to the sponsor of his program. (8)

Sheen was paid $26,000 for each program, the money being given to the office which he directed, the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. When he occasionally made a direct appeal for a dime from viewers or listeners for the poor of the world, he would be deluged with coins taped to letters. In one telecast he even mentioned offhandedly that he liked chocolate cookies. His office was subsequently overwhelmed with mailed gifts of cookies.

No other religious program has ever gained such sustained commercial sponsorship and no other religious program has ever drawn the consistently high audience which Sheen attracted during his five-year series. Yet his success in many ways provided a model which was to be adopted by later conservative broadcasters. His success in taming a common medium overcame any theological differences which are normally of major concern to evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants. For this reason, when Sheen appeared as a guest before the 1977 convention of National Religious Broadcasters he was given a standing ovation by these conservative Protestant broadcasters: he was a symbol of a dream of success shared by most of those present.

The Explosion of the 1960s and 1970s

Changes in the relative structures of religious television began to occur during the 1960s. There was a marked decrease in programming which was broadcast on sustaining-time, and a corresponding growth in both the number and size of the independently syndicated evangelical programs which were broadcast on purchased time. These changes accelerated even further in the 1970s.

Some of the growth patterns for these evangelical programs are dramatic. Rex Humbard, for example, began his television ministry in 1953, broadcasting his local church service in Akron, Ohio. From 1953 to 1969 Humbard was able to develop his program and financial support so that he was able to purchase air-time regularly on 68 stations. In the following year, the number of stations carrying his program rose to 110, and an additional 100 stations were added in each of the following two years. In just three years his purchasing capability and syndication quadrupled!

Oral Roberts experienced similar growth with his program. His television ministry began in 1954 with a revivalist program which was syndicated over 16 stations. In 1967 Roberts perceived that television was a medium which required a different approach from the one that he had been using and that had brought him controversial fame on radio. In that year he closed down his television program and began to redesign it. His new program appeared two years later. It comprised a variety show featuring well-known guests and performers, with a message delivered by Roberts in a much smoother, “cooler” style. His formula apparently worked. His Thanksgiving Special in the following year, using his new approach, reached over 27 million people.(9)

Since the late 1960s there has been a rapid growth of independently syndicated evangelical or fundamentalist programs which purchase their air- time from local stations and raise support from their audience. The number of these programs increased from 38 in 1970 to 72 in 1978. (10)

Starting in 1960, independent evangelical organizations also began to purchase and establish their own television stations and to develop their own programming networks. While these groups had owned radio stations in different parts of the country for several decades, the scarcity of television frequencies delayed their entry into the television market. The expansion of UHF-frequency licenses provided them with the opportunity they needed, and by 1978 there were approximately 30 religious television stations with another 30 applications for a television license by religious groups before the FCC. (11)

The impact of this recent growth on the nature of religious television in America has been profound. Programs that purchase their air-time (primarily evangelical and fundamentalist programs) have come to dominate television’s regular religious programming. The extent to which they have grown is indicated by their dominance of air-time. While in 1959 programs that purchased their air-time accounted for 53 percent of religious air-time, by 1977 they occupied 92 percent of air-time used for religious programs. As has been noted, much of this air-time was still

held in smaller markets and at more marginal times than most of the mainline programming which has continued. However, paid-time programs have virtually eliminated local religious programming, and the pressure they have exerted on the networks through network affiliate stations has caused the networks to reexamine and in some cases reprogram their religious offerings. In 1979, for example, CBS discontinued the long-running “Lamp Unto My Feet” and “Look Up and Live” and substituted another half-hour series “For Our Times” at a different time.

The near elimination of local programming has come about because local stations have found it more profitable to sell time to evangelical and fundamentalist syndicators than to provide time free for public-service programming.

These changes have caused a marked lack of representativeness in the presentation of religious faith on American television. In 1979 more than half of all national airings of religious programs were accounted for by only 10 major evangelical programs. Other religious expressions and traditions were almost forced off the air totally by these (now) wealthy conservative Protestant organizations.

The irony of this situation is that most of these independent broadcasters are associated with National Religious Broadcasters (NRB), a business association of evangelical broadcasters. NRB was formed in 1944 with the primary intent of gaining more and better air-time for their associates. These broadcasters, who once could not get enough time, have been so effective in their struggle that they now hold a virtual monopoly over air- time used for religious programming, having forced most other religious programs off the air by their cut-throat purchase of time. Yet they show none of the consideration for other types of programming which they originally sought for themselves.

The dominance of religious television by this one minority expression of American religious culture assumes more serious implications when it is considered with the factors that have influenced it, which is the substance of our next chapter.


1. Quoted in Roger Kahle, “Religion and Network Television,” M. S. thesis, Columbia University, 1970, pp. 11:3-4.

2. Ibid., p. 11:12.

3. Martin Marty, The Improper Opinion, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961, p. 66.

4. Ben Armstrong, The Electric Church, Nashville: Nelson, 1979, p. 133.

5. There is substantial disagreement in the terms used to distinguish the different Christian traditions. Some of the differences become theologically technical, with distinctions drawn not only between mainline and conservative churches, but also between different varieties of evangelicalism, fundamentalism, and pentecostalism. For clarity in this study, the term

“mainline” will be used in relation to the Roman Catholic Church and those churches identified with the National Council of Churches. The terms “Evangelical,” “Fundamentalist,” and/or “Conservative” will be used to identify those churches or broadcast groups affiliated with the National Religious Broadcasters or its parent body, National Association of Evangelicals. No attempt will be made to locate a group precisely within the evangelical or fundamentalist distinctions except to serve a particular purpose,

6. J. Harold Ellens, Models of Religious Broadcasting, Grand Rapids: W. B. Erdmans, 1974, pp.


7. Federal Communications Commission, Submission by the Communications Committee of the United States Catholic Conference and Others in the Matter of Amendment of the Commission’s Rules Concerning Program Definitions for Commercial Broadcast Stations, BC Docket No. 78-355, RM-2709, 1979, Table II.

8. Much of this material on Sheen’s career and method is drawn from his autobiography Treasure in Clay, Garden City: Doubleday & Co., 1980, particularly Chapter 6.

9. Ellens, Models, p. 76.

10. Arbitron figures, quoted in Jeffrey Hadden and Charles Swann, Prime-time Preachers: The Rising Power of Televangelism, Reading, Mass.: Addison- Wesley, 1981, p. 55.

11. Personal correspondence from Ben Armstrong, Executive Secretary of NRB, on March 31,

1980. Definitions of what constitutes a “religious station” vary significantly, from one owned by an identifiable religious group to one with a specified amount of religious programming,