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Religion and Television: Report on the Research

by William F. Fore

William F. Fore received a B.D. from Yale Divinity School and Ph.D. from Columbia University. A minister in the United Methodist Church , he was Director of Visual Education for the United Methodist Board of Missions, then Executive Director of the Communication Commission of the National Council of Churches in New York City. From 1989 to 1995 he was Visiting Lecturer in Communication and Cultural Studies at Yale Divinity School.. His publications include Image and Impact (Friendship Press 1970), Television and Religion: the Shaping of Faith, Values and Culture (Augsburg 1987, currently reprinted by SBS Press, 409 Prospect St., New Haven, CT 06511), and Mythmakers: Gospel Culture and the Media (Friendship Press 1990).

This article appeared in the Christian Century  July 18-24, 1984, p.710. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


For almost a decade the debate has been inconclusive: Does the electronic church lure members away from the local church or does it encourage them to attend more regularly? Does it take money away from local churches, or does it further overall giving? Is it an evangelistic tool or does it merely reach the already committed?

Mainline church leaders, and many evangelical leaders as well, have tended to he critical of the electronic church, while its supporters have been almost euphoric about its value. But because neither side has been able to buttress its arguments with solid facts, the controversy has been clouded by charges and countercharges made all the more strident by the lack of real information.

In July 1980 the National Council of Churches’ Communication Commission, and the National Religious Broadcasters jointly issued an invitation to the groups on both sides of the debate to join a major research project to get at the facts. The result was the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Television Research -- one of the most broadly based religious coalitions currently in American life. Eventually some 39 groups participated in funding the $175,000 project -- ranging from the Old Time Gospel Hour (Jerry Farwell) and the Christian Broadcasting Network (Pat Robertson), to the U.S. Catholic Conference, the Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ, with representation from virtually every part of the religious spectrum in between. The controlling idea was that since both sides wanted solid information, they could at least agree on what questions should be asked, and then jointly hire the best researchers to find the answers.

The coalition wisely diversified its political base. It chose the Catholic representative as its chairperson. It lodged coordination with the National Council of Churches, and it banked its money with the National Religious Broadcasters.

After receiving more than a dozen proposals from major research organizations across the country, the group settled on the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania to he the primary contractor, conducting Phase One (the content analysis) and Phase Three (the regional survey). It asked the Gallup Organization of Princeton, New Jersey to conduct Phase Two (the national survey). After two years of planning and fund -- raising, and two more of field research and analysis, the results were announced on April 16, 1984, at a meeting of the participants and the press at the Graduate Center of City University, in New York City.

It had bee n hoped that the study could compare and contrast the electronic church, the mainline denominations’ offerings and local-church programs. Unfortunately, the sheer number of electronic church broadcasts overwhelmed the other two categories in the sample: out of 101 program titles recorded for the content analysis, only eight were local-church programs and seven were mainline nationally syndicated or network programs. Because the study combined the data on these local and national mainline offerings, in is impossible to get specific information about the national network programs. Thus, except where specifically noted, when the study talks about “religious television” it is essentially referring to the electronic church, rather than to all religious broadcasting.

Most research tends to confirm conventional wisdom, and that on “Religion and Television” is no exception. But the results did settle a few issues and raise some interesting questions. The following are the highlights of the findings of the 140-page report and its inch-thick appendices.

1. The viewing audience for religious programs is far smaller than has been claimed. In a fit of hyperbole in 1980 Jerry Falwell claimed an audience of 25 million for his program alone. A Gallup survey conducted in 1982 found that 43 per cent of the total population said that they had watched religious programming in the past 30 days. Another in 1981 showed that 32 per cent said that they had watched during the past week. This would be some 71 million viewers.

But what people claim to do and what they actually do are very different. To get around this problem, the Annenberg researchers went to the Arbitron archives of television viewer’s diaries, and thus were able to identify “confirmed viewing” as recorded by hour, day and channel. This information told a far different story. According to the diary data, there is an aggregated duplicated national religious television audience of 24.7 million. Taking into account viewing duplication and correcting for the fact that the diaries may underreport by as much as 15 per cent, the study says that the number of people who have watched at least one-quarter hour of religious television per week is about 13.3 million, or 6.2 per cent of the national television audience.

Unfortunately, the study bases this key finding on a questionable assumption. What Arbitron really provides is only the number of households viewing, which then must be multiplied by the number of people per household who are assumed to be watching. Annenberg assumed 2.4 persons -- the national average number of people per household. But almost all religious programming is scheduled during fringe or even deep-fringe time, when a figure of 1.4 is more likely. And the households of religious television viewers are often made up of older or single persons. Therefore, even when religious programs are on semiprime time, the number of viewers per set is probably no more than about 1.8 -- the viewers-per-household figure widely used by the rating firms themselves. If the 1.4 and 1.8 figures are used, the number of people watching a quarter of an hour or more per week is 7.2 and 9.2 million, respectively. When the Annenberg researchers were asked about this at the press conference, they agreed that the 13.3-million figure was “most certainly a high estimate.”

Furthermore, this is the number of people watching one-quarter hour per week -- not very much when the average viewer spends more than 30 hours per week watching TV. If we look at the number who tune in one hour of religious programming per week -- a more realistic definition of the “regular” viewer -- the figures are considerably smaller. Using the 1.8 person-per-viewing household figure (which may be high), there are about 4.84 million persons, or approximately 2.17 per cent of the total population, who watch an hour or more of religious television per week.

Interestingly, the study shows that the development of cable TV has not had a major effect on total religious television viewing. The national survey found that cable penetration is nearly identical in households that view religious television and those that do not. In other words, there is no more viewing of religious programs in areas that have cable than in areas that do not.

2. The electronic church is not effective at evangelism, but it is an effective reinforcer of the existing religious beliefs of viewers. “The audience for religious programs on television is not an essentially new, or young, or varied audience. Viewers of religious programs are by and large also the believers, the churchgoers, the contributors. Their viewing appears to be an expression, a confirmation of a set of religious beliefs and not a substitute for them” (pp. 2-3).

Viewers of the electronic church are somewhat older, lower in education and income, more conservative, more “fundamentalist” and more likely to live in rural areas of the South and Midwest than are nonviewers. Of these, 48 per cent attend church once a week; 75 per cent attend once a month. Confirmed frequent viewers are largely Southern Baptists (19 per cent) and other Baptists (21 per cent), followed by charismatic Christians (10.5 per cent), Catholics (10 per cent), Methodists (7.1 per cent). Mainline Presbyterians, Lutherans, Disciples, United Church of Christ members and Episcopalians each make up less than 2 per cent of the viewing audience.

Heavy viewers are much more likely than nonviewers to read the Bible, pray frequently, take the Bible literally, believe “that Jesus Christ will return to earth someday,” report having been “born again,” believe in miracles and favor “speaking in tongues.” They thus scored high on the “literalist/charismatic” scale.

When this rather homogeneous group of viewers was asked whether watching religious television had changed their involvement in the local church, 7 per cent said that it had increased their involvement, and 3 per cent said that it had decreased theirs. But one in six (18 per cent) said that religious TV contributes more than the church does to his or her spiritual life, and one in three (34 per cent) felt that it contributes more than church to his or her information about moral and social issues.

As to community involvement, the percentage of persons who had done local church volunteer work during the past year was only slightly higher among viewers than among nonviewers, while both groups had donated time equally to helping people in their communities during the year or to doing volunteer work.

On the other hand, 14 per cent claimed that their viewing of religious programs was a “substitute for going to church,” and about 20 per cent said that they watched religious programs on Sundays during church hours. Undoubtedly, this includes a number of the ill, the elderly and those who could not readily get to church.

The Gallup report summarizes the situation:

When the level of religiosity and other factors are held constant, religious television viewing does not seem to be associated with lower levels of church attendance, volunteer work, or church contribution in the sample as a whole. Within small subgroups of the population, however, religious viewing does seem to be associated with lower religious involvement. . . . These subgroups include persons requiring assistance in going places, persons past the age of fifty, divorced persons, those with low levels of education, and those who have become dissatisfied with their local church.

Thus, while the electronic church may not be the cause of decreases in mainline church attendance, it does provide an attractive alternative for a relatively small group of people who find watching television an acceptable substitute for attending church.

Financial support is a major part of the reinforcing process. The most prominent electronic church ministries were the most likely to request money, and their requests were numerous -- four out of ten programs included three or more requests during the course of each telecast. Their average minimum request was $31; their average maximum was about $600. (No mainline church program in the survey asked for a specific amount of money.)

The correlation between making contributions to a local church and to the electronic church was fairly strong and positive: “People who contribute to one contribute to the other.” But only 6 per cent of all viewers of religious programs were regular contributors, though 13 per cent contributed “once in a while” and 5 per cent gave to “special appeals only.” Of the regular contributors, 40 per cent gave to three or more programs. Regular contributors averaged $35.17 per contribution. The national survey indicated that the mean contribution was $95.24 per year.

When the national survey asked viewers about their contact with these programs, one-third said that they had been contacted by mail during the past year, 20 per cent said that they had received five or more letters, and 11 per cent said that they had written to or called the programs they watch. On the other hand, only 3 per cent said that they had received a telephone call from any of the programs. When viewers were asked with whom they often discuss the programs, the replies were family (23 per cent), friends (13 per cent) and others at church (6 per cent). Only 5 per cent mentioned their pastors.

Finally, the study showed that people watch broadcasts affirming what they already believe. The national survey used an index of evangelical belief (as opposed to membership in an evangelical denomination), which showed that holding these beliefs was more strongly associated with the viewing of religious programs than any other single factor, including contributing to or attending church, participation in community activities, income, age or sex. The regional survey’s similar “literalist/charismatic’’ scale also showed a strong correlation between holding such beliefs and viewing religious programs. Belief was the most important single factor in determining whether a person watched religious television.

In sum, electronic church broadcasters rarely speak to audiences outside their natural constituency, people already highly “religious” in terms of literalistic and charismatic beliefs. Electronic church programs “serve primarily to express and cultivate, rather than extend or broaden, existing religious beliefs in the lives of viewers who turn to them.”

3. The roles of people are essentially the same on both religious and general television programs. In both, men outnumber women three to one, they are dominant, and the women tend to be young. In both, the professions are vastly overrepresented, though the clergy are prominent in religious television, while they hardly appear in general commercial programs. As the study puts it, “in both prime-time drama and religious programs, blue-collar workers, the unemployed, the retired and housewives are practically invisible” (p. 52).

Children and adolescents, who comprise about a third of the U.S. population, account for only 4 per cent of the people on religious, and 6 per cent of those on general, television. The elderly, 12 per cent of the population, make up little more than 3 per cent of those appearing in either religious or general programs. Nonwhites are also somewhat under-represented in relation to their numbers in the actual population.

And religious television contains special distortions all its own. Five per cent of the participants in religious programs claim to have been healed either during or after the telecasts, and the healers of these programs play major roles. Most recipients of healing are women. On the other hand, men constitute the clergy, quote the bible, and do not suffer from as many ailments and/or personal problems as do women.

Three-quarters of the programs mention personal problems and ailments, particularly family, financial and health problems, unemployment, and physical handicaps. Among the most prominent electronic church ministries, 60 per cent mention three or more ailments or problems per program. The solutions are “usually spiritual in nature.” In fact, the researchers were able clearly to identify only one specific cure proposed for all ailments: “making a financial contribution to the program” (suggested on one-fourth of the prominent electronic church ministries, but never on mainline programs). These broadcasts also give a great deal of attention to sexually related topics. Abortion, sexual deviancy, the new morality, pornography and homosexuality are mentioned (always negatively) on 10 to 20 per cent of the programs.

4. For most heavy viewers of religious television, watching is both an expression of belief and an act of protest against the world of general television. General television has a “mainstream” effect. That is, it cultivates a commonality of outlook that tends to be shared by its heavy viewers. The Annenberg researchers have traced the mainstream in general television for many years. For almost two decades we have known, as the study puts it, that “general television is, in many ways, the common mass ritual of American civil religion.” Therefore it should not be surprising to find that general television relates to and cultivates religiosity in its own way” (p. 93). The study boldly suggests that “commercial television viewing may supply or supplant (or both) some religious satisfactions and thus lessen the importance of religion for its heavy viewers” (p. 10).

But what is new is the study’s discovery that there are two television mainstreams, and the two differ greatly from each other. Religious TV’s mainstream tends to be conservative and restrictive rather than permissive. General TV’s mainstream tends to be politically moderate, more restrictive than permissive, and populist but not puritanical. Thus heavy viewers of religious programs are more likely than light viewers to describe themselves as conservative, to oppose a nuclear freeze, to favor tougher laws against pornography, and to have voted in the last election. (This identifies one of the strengths of the electronic church: its ability to mobilize political clout.) On the other hand, heavy viewers of general TV tend to describe themselves as politically moderate, are more likely than light viewers to favor a nuclear freeze, are not as concerned with pornography, and are far less likely to have voted in the last election.

While heavy viewing of religious TV is positively associated with church attendance, heavy viewing of general TV is negatively associated with it. The same holds true for making contributions to the local church, for participating in nonworship activities at church, for upholding the traditional role of women, for being dissatisfied with today’s moral climate, and for expressing traditional and more restrictive sexual values. Because religious conservatives sense this conflict between general television and their own values and beliefs, their viewing of religious programs is both an act of protest against general television and an expression of support for the beliefs associated with religious programs.

These differences between the “mainstreams” cultivated by religious and general television are significant because for many years general television has been functioning as a powerful, and perhaps even the major, cultivator of our society’s values, attitudes and behavior. It may well be, as the study puts it, that “for matters of religious importance, experience, participation and dollars, the churches’ principal competition is not the television ministry but general television” (p. 12).

The mainline denominations can learn much from the Annenberg/Gallup study about how to deal with television in general and the electronic church in particular. First, the churches should understand that, while the electronic church does not represent a serious institutional threat to them, it does pose a threat to mainline theology, especially in the areas of mission, evangelism and education. The electronic church is not an institutional threat because its audience is relatively small and static. Two-thirds of its viewers are not affiliated with mainline churches, and those who are by and large are giving to their local churches, in addition to watching and supporting television ministries.

However, the research also shows that the electronic church consolidates and reinforces a restrictive and narrow view of religion and of the world. Mission is focused on nurturing those who already strongly hold literalist/charismatic beliefs. Evangelism, in the sense of reaching out, is ineffective. Education is essentially one way, emphasizing the obligation to make financial contributions to keep the programs going. And most of the blatant distortions of general television are also found in the electronic church. At almost every point, its underlying theology is at odds with the theologies of the mainline churches.

Second, mainline churches should continue to use television, while rejecting the way that the electronic church uses it. One of the participants at the research conference, an electronic church broadcaster, summed up all of the data by stating, “It looks like the research is saying that all that religious TV is doing is to make people feel good and to get them to keep on doing what they’re doing!” The electronic church finds itself in this Situation because it must employ some of the worst elements of commercialism in order to maintain its financial support. By making a Faustian compact with commercial television, these Christians attempting to “reach out” through the media have merely gained a small, highly motivated group of followers who will pay the bills, while they have lost the gospel that they originally set out to proclaim.

The challenge to mainline churches is to find ways of using television’s considerable potential while recognizing its considerable limitations. Television can reach some peopIe not otherwise reached by the church, but only with messages that are close to what they already believe. It can reinforce existing beliefs but not radically change them. It cannot evangelize in the sense of-bringing people to a major conversion, but it can pre-evangelize by planting the right questions: Who am I? What is life all about? What is right and wrong? What should I be doing with my life? And it can suggest that people may find their answers among the community of the faithful in the local church.

The mainline churches have chosen to stay in the general television mainstream, attempting to be a leaven within it. The electronic church has chosen to go another way -- to separate out a small but highly supportive segment of the audience and deal with it. Reinforcement of the faithful has its value, so long as it does not degenerate into pandering or manipulation, but it is different from working within the mass media, dealing with the values and world view of the whole society.

It is not easy to be within the media world but not of it. The increasing commercialization of communications, and especially the creeping deregulation of broadcasting, make it difficult for the church to stay in the mass media mainstream. Mainline programs are being pushed off the air because they cannot pay their way in competition with commercialized religion and because they do not make profits for the stations. These stations should be supplying access to religious views, without charge if necessary, as a part of their public service accountability in exchange for receiving a government-protected license monopoly.

But to give up the opportunity to be a part of the principal cultivator of society’s values and attitudes, choosing instead to live on society’s fringe, is a failure of nerve, a failure to be relevant. And to be satisfied with merely working among the already converted is to fail in our evangelical and missional task -- even when doing so confers ample rewards of fame, prestige and power.

Third, the mainline churches must take the effects of general television itself much more seriously. The research shows that it is general, not religious, television that really challenges people’s belief systems and their church attendance and funding. It is the heavy viewers of general television who attend the least, give the least and believe the least. And general television is 100 times more pervasive than religious television.

During the past 30 years general television has gradually taken over many of the functions historically belonging to the church. Television, not the church, now communicates what is going on outside the parish, telling us how to behave, what to wear, who has power and who is powerless, what to believe about the world and what is of ultimate value. In this sense, general television, far more than religious TV, is the church’s real competitor.

For this reason, teaching about television becomes a high priority for the church -- teaching pastors how to function in an informational rather than an industrial society, teaching denominational leaders how to deal with the new kinds of ethical situations that have resulted from the dominance of this new institution, with its new kind of power, and, above all, teaching parishioners how to cope with the enormous wave of exciting. soporific, entertaining, debasing, informative, misleading phenomena that enters their homes on an average of seven hours a day, every day.

It is clear from the “Religion and Television’’ study that a major task now confronting religious institutions must be learning about and dealing with television, so that people can control rather than he controlled by it. The electronic church is, unfortunately. part of the problem rather than of the solution, but both it and the mainline churches are dwarfed by the immensity of the challenge of television itself.


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