Chapter 2: The Making of the Monopoly
There have been many attempts to explain how the paid-time broadcasters have come to dominate the religious programming on television. There have been suggestions that their success has lain simply in their having out-hustled the mainline broadcasters, while others have suggested that their success lies in having grasped the essential nature of the medium -- more clearly than the mainline broadcasters -- and communicating within those terms. Some conservative broadcasters themselves see their growth solely within theological terms, as God's blessing on their sincerity and faithfulness to the Gospel.
A close examination of the changes that have taken place over the past several decades in religious television suggests that the answer is not simple. The nature of religious television in America can be seen to be a function of the interaction of four main players; changes over the past decades have come about because of changes in the relative power and relationships of the four following players: (1) the regulatory agencies of the federal government, which, through the legislative process, provide the structure within which interaction inside the television industry takes place; (2) the television industry, primarily network and local station managements, which control the airwaves within the legislated structure; (3) the viewing public, which selects what it is that will be watched; and (4) the religious broadcasters who provide the material for broadcasts. If one is to understand the present situation in religious television in America, one must consider the part that has been played by each.
The Role of Federal Regulation: The FCC
The Communications Act of 1934 gave the FCC the power of licensing individual stations to broadcast in a particular area over a particular frequency. Included in the license authority given to each station is the requirement that the station is to operate in the interest of the viewing public within its broadcast area. This requirement is an extension of the principle that the airwaves belong to the people and that stations are acting as the agents of the people.
Though the power of determination of the specific content on television remains with the local station management, the FCC has on different occasions offered suggestions on the types of programming that should be present in a station's schedule in order for the station to fulfill the conditions of its license. On each of the occasions that the FCC has elaborated these types of programming, "religion" has been one of the suggested programming categories. Though the
FCC does not have the authority to force stations to present religious programming, most broadcasters feel that to ignore the FCC's recommendations would be a decided risk at license renewal time. In the earlier years of broadcasting, broadcasters promised Congress to provide churches and other public groups with free air-time for the broadcast of their programs in exchange for favorable legislation which did not bind them to such a compulsory arrangement. On the basis of these promises they were also given freedom in other areas.
For a long time this arrangement persisted. Networks and stations provided free air-time for the broadcast of religious programs on a representative basis. Such programs were generally not commercially sponsored because sponsorship for such low-rating programs was difficult to secure. Some broadcast licensees also considered that religious programs were of such a nature that commercial sponsorship was not appropriate.
Changes in this situation began to occur around 1960. In that year, the FCC released a programming statement in which they concluded, under a good deal of pressure from particular groups) that no public-interest basis was to be served by distinguishing between sustaining-time programs (those broadcast on free air-time) and commercially sponsored programs in evaluating a station's performance in the public interest. As long as the required categories of public-interest programs were present, whether they were public service or commercial in nature was no longer to be a subject of consideration in license-renewal evaluations. This statement opened the way for stations to meet FCC regulations equally with programs that paid for their air-time as with programs for which air-time was provided without charge.
This change in FCC policy did not have an immediately dramatic effect on the nature of religious programming; however, it effectively changed the structure within which religious programming was to be considered by releasing stations from any regulatory obligation to provide free air-time for the broadcast of religious programs. As the social climate changed, and as the number of religious programs that were willing and able to pay for air- time increased, television stations found it more profitable to present religious programs that paid them money rather than programs that cost them money. As will be seen, the growth of independent UHF stations markedly increased the pressure on other stations to maximize their profitability, even on religious programming.
Two other policies of the FCC have strongly influenced the nature of religious television. Communication lawyer Linda-Jo Lacey suggests that the FCC has unfairly favored paid-time religious programs over other types by its uneven enforcement of rules regulating religious commercial time and on-air fund raising. Though there are strict regulations governing the raising of money by stations that hold a noncommercial license (e.g. educational stations), the FCC has avoided enforcement of these regulations when it has been a religious group or organization holding such a license, thus making it easier and more profitable for religious organizations to hold noncommercial licenses by lowering the normal restrictions on the raising of money through on-air solicitations, the sale of religious items, and so on. The FCC, for example, has specifically stated that rules governing the amount of commercial time permitted for each hour of programming do not apply to paid-time religious programs. Though they spend a part of each program soliciting funds for their organizations, the FCC has ruled that paid-time religious programs are not commercial-length programs. This means that television stations may sell unlimited time to religious broadcasters without worrying about usual restrictions on commercial time. This uneven enforcement of FCC policy has made it more than normally profitable for stations to sell time to religious broadcasters who are prepared to buy it. Whereas before the low-audience period of Sunday morning was a difficult one in which to sell commercial time, stations have been able to compensate by selling whole blocks of time to the religious broadcasters.
Each of these decisions has favored the paid-time religious broadcasters and severely handicapped the religious broadcasters who have been dependent on public-service time previously granted by the station. (1)
The FCC has also avoided ruling on the representativeness of religious programs in relation to particular issues or religious-affiliation patterns in a viewing area. Normally the "Fairness Doctrine" ensures that various community opinions on a controversial issue are represented on television. The FCC has ruled, however, that the fairness doctrine does not apply to the broadcast of religious material because religion has not reached the level of social controversy. Neither has the FCC attempted to rule on the differentiation of one expression of religious faith over another. In the opinion of the FCC, the representativeness of religious faith presented on television is a matter to be decided solely by a television station if it wishes to venture to do so.
Through these rulings, the FCC has effectively removed itself from the field of religious television. Though much of the function of the FCC is ostensibly to protect community interests against the economic drive of the television industry, because of the hazards of church-state definitions and perhaps its own timidity, it has largely avoided this responsibility in relation to the regulation of religious television. By its avoidance of the issue, however, it has in fact preferred particular religious expressions over others. By relegating the determination of religious programming on television to individual stations, it has placed religious faith into the hands of the economic marketplace, thus giving a distinct advantage to those expressions of religious faith which are economically competitive.
Changes in the Relative Power of Religious Broadcasters
Part of the reason for the takeover of religious television by conservative, paid-time religious broadcasters has been the changes that have occurred in American religious culture, changes that have reduced the power of those broadcasters who represent the mainline denominations while increasing the power of those representing the conservative denominations and groups.
When television first began, the mainline churches were experiencing the peak of their membership and influence in society. Consequently, when the networks and stations sought a representative religious voice they turned to the mainline churches. The mainline cooperative and moderate approach to religious programming also suited the legislative and public-relations needs of the newly emerging medium of television. The evangelicals and fundamentalists, who were not seen as a major force within the mainstream of American cultural and religious life, existed mainly on the fringes of influence within the television industry.
Major changes in this structure began to occur during the 1960s. Membership of mainline denominations in general began to decline, while membership of evangelical denominations and individual religious groups began to increase. (2) In evaluating the changes in religious television, it is necessary to consider some of the reasons for these more general changes.
Many attempts have been made to explain the phenomenon of declining membership in mainline churches, and increasing membership in evangelical denominations, with varying degrees of emphasis placed on different factors. The most recent, and perhaps the most systematic attempt to base conclusions on empirical rather than speculative foundations, has been the symposium edited by Dean Hoge and David Roozen, published under the title Understanding Church Growth and Decline, 1950-78.
In their analysis, Hoge and Roozen affirm that the more important phenomenon to explain is not the growth of conservative churches during this period, because prior to the 1960s all churches had been growing; rather, the phenomenon to note is the decline of the mainline churches -- why didn't they continue to grow as the conservative churches did? Hoge and Roozen conclude that the main explanation for denominational trends lies in contextual factors: there was a broad cultural shift in the direction of diversity within society which produced a distance from many of the traditional social institutions. This shift in values hit hardest those denominations and churches whose practice and theology were most closely tied to the culture, namely the affluent, educated, individualistic, and culture-affirming mainline denominations. (3) The trend was most observable among college youth who have traditionally been the source of new church members for these denominations. This shift, which first affected college youth, has spread to other youth and also to large sectors of adults, to the extent that some denominations of moderate and conservative theology have also been experiencing membership decline in the past few years. (4)
The period was one of major social trauma, unrest, and confusion. Beginning with the assassination of John Kennedy, in just 10 years Americans witnessed and experienced the Civil Rights movement with its massive challenges to established American values, the Vietnam war and its social and political consequences, student unrest and riots, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, radical changes in the perception and practice of morality and authority, and the crisis of Watergate and the consequent threat to national leadership and traditional national symbols. The mainline churches during this period appeared to be in disarray as they struggled to come to grips not only with the impact and meaning of the social changes taking place around them, but also with their declining strength and the resultant conflict within.
The social situation of the period, on the other hand, created within many the need for clear leadership and unambiguous answers to social and religious questions. Many people, including some disillusioned former members of mainline churches, found these answers within the evangelical churches. Unlike the mainline churches, the conservative churches as a whole had experienced few setbacks as a result of the changing conditions. They therefore presented an image of certainty, strength, and competent leadership and management. In addition to their unambiguous theology, their personal discipline, the distinctiveness of their life-style and morality, and their authoritative structure provided a secure and unambiguous social alternative for those who were confused and battered by the social changes going on around them.
Other studies confirm Hoge and Roozen's thesis. A study by Bibby and Brinkerhoff reinforces the idea that there has not been the same falloff of youth from the conservative churches, and that they have acquired some members from the other churches. In a study of membership additions to
20 evangelical congregations during the period 1966 to 1970, they found that over 70 percent of the new members in these evangelical churches came from other evangelical churches, largely because of geographical or social mobility, while 20 percent of the new members were children of existing members; two groups which the mainline churches found difficult to hold. Of the remaining 10 percent, they found that the majority were people with a previous church background. (5) The authors concluded that it seems likely that relatively few new members of evangelical churches come from outside the Christian community. . . . conservative church growth is mainly a matter of retaining those who are already familiar with evangelical culture. (6)
Evangelical broadcasting began to play a significant role within this broader social movement. In addition to their identification with the growing evangelical movement, evangelical television programs helped unify the broader movement and give it visibility as a growing alternative. It gave evangelicals contact with and visibility of their national leaders and celebrities, a sense of identification with a wider evangelical community, and reinforcement for their individual personal commitment. In return, the evangelical community, whose focus of commitment is less scattered and whose financial contributions are more generous than members of mainline churches, 7 has faithfully supported such perceived evangelistic efforts with its time (viewing) and money.
During this period, therefore, evangelicalism as a whole began to shift away from the fringes of American society into the country's religious main- stream, shifting the relative power in relation to the television industry away from the mainline broadcasters and their viewpoint to the evangelical broadcasters and their approach to television.
The fact that the evangelicals were not a majority group was of less importance to the television industry than the perception that they were part of a broader movement. Television, which prefers to present movements rather than established realities, began to turn its attention to this group.
At the same time, however, there was a second major factor that contributed to the disproportionate growth of evangelical television programs, viz. the developing sophistication of computer technology. If it had not been for the development of computer sophistication during this same period, the changes now seen in religious television may never have occurred.
One of the problems continually faced by religious broadcasters has been that of handling the large volume of correspondence generated by their programs. This problem has been of critical concern to the paid-time religious broadcasters who are dependent on continuing audience response for their essential income.
The development of sophisticated computer technology and application in the 1960s gave the paid-time broadcasters the tool they needed for handling larger volumes of personal mail, and for solicitation of funds from their viewers. The computer made possible not only computation of responses, but the development of an extended quasi-personal relationship between broadcaster and audience members, similar to that between a pastor and his congregation. It opened the way for mass counseling of individual problems and, through the retention of relevant personal histories, it gave the means to broadcasters to target specific financial appeals accurately to potential givers.
There were both practical and theological factors that caused the computer to be more advantageous to the evangelical than to the mainline broadcasters. It particularly suited the paid-time broadcasters' need to manage a large volume of data at a centralized organization. The mainline broadcasters, who depended more on support from decentralized congregations, did not have the same need and therefore did not experience the same advantage.
Evangelical theology and practice tended also to be more clear-cut, almost dualistic in its concepts. This made it extremely adaptable to the binary characteristics of computerization. The mainline churches, with their more abstract theologies and ethics and their more complex concepts of personal counseling could not conceive of the conduct of personal relationships via a computer.
Evangelicals reflect a more utilitarian attitude toward technology. For most evangelicals the morality of a particular technology lies principally in the morality of the user and his purpose. Most of their energy was spent, therefore, not in debating the social and ethical implications of computer technology (as did the mainline churches), but in adapting them most advantageously to their own purposes.
It has been the computer, perhaps more than any other single factor, which has made possible the development of the power base on which the independent evangelical broadcast organizations are built, namely, audience support. Development of this financial resource has given them their inordinate leverage within the television industry. A third factor that promoted the growth of the paid-time broadcasters over the mainline broadcasters was the paid-time broadcasters' willingness and ability to adapt their message to the demands of television.
Television in American society has been found increasingly to present a particular world-view. Running through its diverse programming is a coherent and consistent mythical system by which events are interpreted and its diverse activities integrated. This system includes contextual charac- teristics such as the tendency to simplify and sensationalize events and issues and to promise and provide instant gratification, and conceptual characteristics such as particular and recurring images of power, happiness, meaning, and the nature of success. These characteristics, along with the typical social uses of television which at times approach the level of ritual, have led several thinkers and communication researchers to suggest that television now functions for many people as an integrated religious system. (8) Research has found that this repetitive use of television, along with television's recurring images, influence people's perception of reality. (9)
There are significant parts of evangelical and fundamentalist theology which correspond to television's approach. Evangelical theology places stress on the individual as the effective social unit, corresponding to television's preference for the individualizing of issues and the personalizing of events. Evangelical theology is simple in its conceptual formulations of ideas and events, at times almost stereotypical. It places great emphasis on the overt experiential and emotional aspects of religious faith, making it more appealing and engaging to television viewers than other more mystical or conceptual expressions of Christianity. The urgency of evangelicals' evangelizing activity is communicated well by television as vitality and dynamism compared
to the other, more low-key expressions of the mainline churches. Evangelicals have always placed emphasis on dramatic change and interventions of God, making their message more adaptable to television's predilections towards sensationalism. Finally, conservative theology and practice have tended to be strong in their affirmation of traditional American culture, including the values of free enterprise and the validity of its financial rewards. Mainline programs, on the other hand, were often critical of aspects of the American system. Instead of reaffirming central American values, mainline programs often presented the fringes of American life and culture, making them seem out of place in the context of general television programming.
Evangelicals were also more willing than the mainline broadcasters to adapt actively to the requirements of television. They were not afraid to sensationalize, to present images of luxury, affluence, success and grandeur, to entertain, to cater to their viewers' self-interest and consumerism which had been cultivated by commercial television. Paid-time broadcasters there- fore extended the evangelical movement, being those who popularized it within terms familiar to
most Americans, the terms of television-land. While many mainline and some evangelical leaders criticized the validity of this interpretation of the Christian faith, the paid-time broadcasters intuited accurately that television had become the "real world" for millions of people, one to which the Christian faith must be communicated in terms common to that world. Whether in the process they lost the essence of the Christian message has been a subject of debate among the various religious traditions ever since, and one which shall be considered in a later chapter.
The Differences between Audiences of Religious Programs
It is a common mis-perception that sustaining-time religious programs have never attracted as large an audience as present paid-time programs. Many network sustaining-time programs have consistently rated higher than even the current large paid-time programs. This mis-perception has led to an un- balanced support for paid-time programs on the basis that they are more effective in their use of television than the earlier religious programs were. Television station managers have on occasion replaced mainline sustaining- time programs with paid-time programs because, in their opinion, the paid-time programs were attracting larger audiences and therefore meeting the needs of the viewing public to a greater extent than were sustaining-time programs.
While the audiences for paid-time programs have grown in the past decade, the programs do not attract a large audience within the relative terms of the television industry. As will be seen in more detail subsequently, Nielsen figures for 1979 show only five syndicated religious programs that were able to gain equal to or greater than a rating of one. The largest-rating syndicated program, Oral Roberts, gained a national rating of only two. (10) Sustaining-time programs still attract comparably large audiences by religious television standards when they are given comparable broadcast time. (11)
While many sustaining-time programs have had as large or larger audiences than paid-time programs, what has made a big difference in the disproportionate growth of paid-time programs has been the differences in the nature of the audiences between the two types of programming.
The audiences of paid-time programs have tended to be more demonstrative and vocal in their support of the programs than have the audiences of sustaining- time programs. It has been this vocalization of the audiences which has carried a power with local television stations disproportionate to the actual size of the audiences. The paid-time audiences' willingness to support their programs financially has made local stations think that the size of the audience for paid-time programs is larger than it actually is.
The audiences of paid-time programs tend also to be more demonstrative in support of their programs than other audiences. This was clearly demonstrated in Texas by evangelist and television programmer James Robison. Robison had created controversy and legal problems for the local station WFAA by his attacks on homosexuality on his television program. Homosexual groups had complained to the station and had demanded equal time for rebuttal of Robison's attacks. The station eventually found it most expeditious to cancel Robison's program. It is indicative of the loyalty of the audience of some evangelical programs that Robison was able to draw 10,000 people to a rally in Dallas to protest the station's cancellation of his program. This demonstration of support, along with threatened legal action, was sufficient to get the station to reinstate his program.
It is unlikely that a sustaining-time program could muster such support. Viewers of sustaining-time religious programs have never been as loyal or demonstrative, nor has this aspect of viewing been cultivated. The effect, however, was that when paid-time programs began to displace sustaining-time programs there was hardly a word of complaint by the audience to station managers. The takeover by paid-time programs in the decade from 1965 to 1975 went virtually unnoticed and unchallenged. It was only in 1976, when the monopoly was virtually complete, that criticisms began to be heard. At this stage, however, the paid-time broadcasters and the station managers were firmly established in their mutually profitable enterprise.
The Economic Interests of the Television Industry
The major factor influencing the growth of the monopoly in religious television in America has been the commercial television industry. The primary reason why the lack of representativeness in the presentation of religious faith on American television has occurred is this situation is most favorable to the economic interests of the television stations themselves.
Television in America is primarily a commercial activity. Eric Barnouw, the broadcast historian, notes that the dominant pressure in influencing the shape of television has been the demands of the advertisers. Television has developed around advertising, the primary purpose being to gather as large an audience as possible to "sell" to the advertisers. When conflicts have emerged between the producers of programs and the requirements of these industrial goals, it has most frequently been the advertisers who have. (12)
Part of the function of the Communication Act of 1934 was not to change this, but to create a framework of regulation within which this economic motivation could be contained in order to achieve desired social goals as well. While this regulation has encouraged stations to present some religious programming, as has been noted the FCC through its rulings has largely left the determination of the content of this religious programming to the individual station managers.
In the early years of television, most stations made an effort to be representative in their presentation of religious faith. Most retained the outlook that religion was to be viewed as a public service to their viewing areas, and they attempted to maintain a balance in the content of this programming. Representativeness of different points of view was maintained through the broadcast of various network programs, locally produced programs, denominationally syndicated programs, and independent paid-time programs.
It has been seen that this attitude began to change during the 1960s, largely because of the growing intensification of the commercial competitiveness of the television industry in general. Station managers have always been strongly influenced in their programming by the behavior of other station managers and movements within the television industry as a whole. This influence has also applied to religious programming. A survey by the Broadcast Institute of North America in 1971 found that in choosing and scheduling religious programs) station managers were most strongly influenced by the behavior of other station managers rather than by individual local factors such as community interest and response. (13)
The model for change in relation to religious programming came largely from the growing number of independent UHF stations. These new UHF stations generally did not have a network affiliation and therefore were not provided with network programs for public-service airing. These stations also did not have the resources to provide as much public-service air-time as did the larger VHP stations, and were forced to maximize their profit- ability wherever possible. The use of paid-time religious programs offered the opportunity to make a profit on the sale of air-time, particularly on Sunday mornings, which were normally a slow audience period. These independent stations therefore tended to broadcast more paid-time religious programs than other stations. The Broadcast Institute study found that on the average 58.4 percent of an independent station's religious programming was paid-time programming, compared to 32.3 percent to 42.1 percent for those stations with a network affiliation. (14) With the precedent set by these UHF stations and in the absence of specific direction from the FCC, other stations also came to recognize the commercial potential of paid-time religious programs. Increasingly other stations began to replace network programs, local programs, and denominational programs with programs that paid for their air-time.
There were accompanying factors which enabled television station managers to live with the obvious inequity caused by these trends. The FCC decision in relation to religious programming provided the structure within which station managers were freed from the obligation of having to distinguish between different expressions of religious faith or the representativeness of religious programming for a particular area. As has been noted also, the audiences for the paid-time programs tended to be more demonstrative in support of their programs than were the audiences of other religious programs. This demonstrativeness easily created the impression that there was greater desire and support for paid-time programs than may actually have been the case.
The paid-time programs have tended also to be more in harmony with the general interests of the television industry than have other types of religious programs. Evangelical programs have tended to be more affirmative toward and supportive of the American broadcasting system than have other religious organizations. (15) The content of the paid-time religious programs has tended also to be more like other television programs -- formats have been similar, appeals have been consumer-oriented, guests have been faces familiar to the television audience, production techniques have been those common to the television industry -- and this has made possible an easier blending of religious programs with the programming intentions of station managers in general.
Changes in the nature of religious television in the 1960s and 1970s can therefore be seen to have been a function of a historical coincidence of a number of related factors: social conditions, government regulation, audience response, and general trends in religious culture. The adjudication of these factors and how they were to be represented to the public, though, has lain primarily with the television industry, which controls the airwaves and the content communicated through them. Of greatest concern is that the television industry has preferred to present only those aspects of American religious life which are advantageous to their own financial interests. The danger is that as broadcasting becomes increasingly deregulated, the tendencies of the broadcast industry in this direction will intensify.
The power of the television industry has acted in this way to shape the public perception of American religious life and culture, not so much by the creation of a particular phenomenon, but by the selective promotion of one particular expression over another in a way that distorts the factual situation. For while evangelical expressions of Christianity in America have been increasing in strength and influence in recent years, there is still a major, if not majority, segment of the American population whose religious faith does not fall under the evangelical umbrella. Yet these major religious expressions are rarely seen on television in America anymore.
In relation to American religious culture, therefore, television has exercised a major status-conferral effect, not on the basis of a representativeness, nor on a calculated moral-evaluative basis, but solely on the basis of a correspondence of a minority religious ethos with television's own economic, functional, and mythical goals. It is one of the affirmations of this study that this power exercised by the television industry in relation to religious culture is of greater concern than any individual aspect of religious television. When one attempts to assess the present and future situations in religious television, the power of the commercial television industry over the perception of social reality must be of major consideration.
1. Linda-Jo Lacey, "The Electric Church: An FCC 'Established' Institution?" Federal Communication Law Journal 31 (1978), pp. 252-62.
2. Dean R. Hoge and David A. Roozen, eds., and Understanding Church Growth Decline, 1950-78, New York: Pilgrim Press, 1977, pp. 328-30.
3. Ibid., p. 328.
4. Ibid., pp. 329-30.
5. Reginald W. Bibby and Merlin B. Brinkerhoff, "The Circulation of the Saints: A Study of People Who Join Conservative Churches, " Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 12 September 1973, p. 276.
6. Ibid., p. 283.
7. Rodney Stark and Charles Y. Glock, American Piety: The Nature of Religious Commitment, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968, pp. 81-107.
8. See for example, William Kuhns, The Electronic Gospel, New York: Herder and Herder, 1969; George Gerbner, "Television as New Religion," New Catholic World, May/April 1978, pp. 52-56; and Gregor T. Goethals, The TV Ritual-. Worship at the Video Altar, Boston: Beacon Press, 1981.
9. See particularly the cultural indicators research centered at the Annenberg School of Communication in Pennsylvania, described in George Gerbner et al., Violence Profile No. II: Trends in Network Television Drama and Viewer Conceptions of Social Reality, 1967-79, Philadelphia: Annenberg School of Communication, University of Pennsylvania, 1980.
10. That is, two percent of the possible national television households. Nielsen, "Report on Syndicated Program Audiences," November 1979, p. R-7.
11. The Roman Catholic program, "Insight," for example, was the third largest-rating religious program in the areas in which it was broadcast. A wider national exposure could easily have made it one of the largest-rating religious programs. Some network religious specials also rate as high as or higher than the syndicated paid-time programs.
12. Eric Barnouw, Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television, New York: Oxford
University Press, 1975, pp. 163-64.
13. Broadcast Institute of North America, "Religious Programming on Television: An Analysis of a Sample Week," New York, 1973, p. 47.
14. Ibid., pp. 49-52.
15. Compare, for example, the comment by NRB Executive Secretary, Ben Armstrong: "That's the great genius of the American system. There is a choice of radio and TV stations, each working to capture its share of the audience. Broadcasting in this country is unique because it operates as part of the competitive system of private enterprise." Electric Church, p. 134.