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Religious Television: The American Experience by Peter Horsfield


Dr. Peter Horsfield is an ordained minister in the Uniting Church in Australia. He is currently employed on the Electronic Culture Research Project, a special initiative of the Uniting Church's Commission in Victoria to explore the impact of electronic media on global cultures and the implications of this cultural change on religious institutions and on the social experience and expression of religious faith. For ten years previously he was the Dean of the Uniting Church's Theological Hall and Lecturer in Practical Theology in the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne. He has published extensively in the areas of mass communication and society and media, religion and culture. Among his publications are two books: Religious Television: The American Experience (Longmans 1984) and Taming the Television: A Parents' Guide to Children and Television (Albatross 1986). This book was published in 1984 by Longman, New York. The text was prepared for Religion Online by Paul Mobley.


Chapter 6: Research and Religious Television


One of the curious aspects of the recent public concern about the growth and influence of religious television programs and broadcasters has been the virtual absence of any factual verification of rumors and speculation. It is curious both because of the importance of the political positions that religious television was said to be influencing, particularly the presidency of the United States (positions normally subjected to precise scrutiny and analysis); and because of the magnitude of the influence that religious broadcasters were believed to be exerting on these positions. U.S. News and World Report, for example, sub-headed a December 15, 1980, article on preachers in politics by asking the question o{ them, "Decisive Force in '80?" Even the otherwise astute Wall Street Journal dropped its guard on July II, 1980, and reported that the television evangelists were reaching an estimated 128 million viewers every week, a figure which we will come to see is grossly overestimated. Some religious journals were even drawn into the mild hysteria and were debating whether the religious broadcasters intended or would be able to establish America as a religious republic.

It was not until 1981, after much of the election furor had passed and the country was settling down to a new president that writers began to challenge publicly the empirical validity of many of the claims which had been made about the size and influence of the religious broadcasters. One of these articles was appropriately called, "The Making of a Media Myth." (1) Had this empirical evaluation been done earlier, much of the explosiveness that the paid-time religious broadcasters brought to the political climate may have been defused.

It is instructive to consider why the situation developed the way it did: why so much of what was said about the size, extent, and influence of religious television has not been subjected to sound empirical analysis.

To a large extent the situation was exaggerated by the social conditions in which it arose. The ambiguity of the pre-election atmosphere provided an environment in which reports on the possible influence of religious broadcasters on the election outcome were able to grow. (2) This perception was backed by a widespread public feeling that conservative religious practice and influence in America were in the ascendancy. The previous election of Jimmy Carter as president raised the public consciousness of evangelical Christianity, leading pollster George Gallup to proclaim 1976 as "the year of the evangelical." Once raised to the status of a social trend, obvious examples of evangelicalism's existence and influence were frequently featured as news items, thus reinforcing the public perception and lowering the barriers of skepticism which usually accompany new movements. Though some social commentators questioned the public's perception of the size of the evangelical movement and the validity of some of the measures used, few of them could match the status granted the movement by the general media as a whole.

Journalists and editors also failed to authenticate the empirical validity of the data they were using. To a certain extent this failure reflects their own belief in the existence of a major evangelical revival. To a certain extent it reflects the pressures on them to meet deadlines, maintain dramatic appeal, and sustain attention for their readers. Their failure to check the information was also caused by the lack of readily available data on the subject of religious broadcasting. Though there is a substantial amount of empirical information accumulated over the past 25 years on religious broadcasting and of relevance to religious broadcasting, this research has not been collated into a comprehensive statement and therefore has not been readily available for reference concerning specific aspects of religious broadcasting's extent and influence.

One of the purposes of this book, and particularly this second section, is to collate all the research available on the subject of religious broadcasting, so that issues which have been raised may be reexamined on an empirical basis rather than on the basis of a biased expectation or speculation. By laying such an empirical foundation, it is hoped also that future efforts and directions in religious broadcasting may be more realistic in their goals and objectives.

Some particular issues have already been identified as central to the debate over religious television and its influence. These issues will be re- examined in the light of what has been demonstrated empirically. The issues identified in this regard are:

1. The nature of changes in the structure of religious television. Chapter 7 will examine the research relevant to this issue, particularly as it addresses the questions: Have paid-time religious programs really displaced other types of religious programs? What effects have they had on the structure of religious television in general? Have paid-time religious programs been able to break through the programming restrictions experienced by other types of religious programs?

2. The size of the religious television audience. In chapter 8 the research concerning the following questions will be examined: How large is the religious television audience? What have been the historical trends in the audience? Which programs attract the largest audiences?

3. The characteristics of the religious television audience. Chapter 9 will examine the research pertaining to the questions, What kind of people watch religious programs? Are religious programs watched by people not otherwise in contact with a church? Why do people watch particular religious television programs?

4. Attitudinal effects of religious television programs. Chapter 10 will cover research of the following issues: Do religious television programs effect attitudinal and behavioral changes in viewers? What is the expected nature of this change? Is there evidence of people's being "converted" by religious programs?

5. The local church and its relationship to religious television. Chapter II will discuss research on the following questions; Are religious television programs having a positive or negative effect on local churches? Are they diverting money away from the local church? Are they increasing or de- creasing local church membership?

6. Cultural effects of religious television. Chapter 12 will examine the following questions in the light of the available research: To what extent did religious broadcasters influence the outcome of the 1980 elections? To what extent are religious television programs affecting American culture?

The Nature of Research in Religious Television

Before examining the specific research that can clarify many of these questions, it will be valuable to consider in overview the extent to which religious television has been subjected to empirical analysis and evaluation.

The subject of religious television was given an early research impetus. One of the most significant and comprehensive research projects on religious television was conducted only a few years after regular religious television series had begun. The study, published in 1955 under the title The Television-Radio Audience and Religion, was developed by the National Council of Churches in association with Yale University. Using a sample of 3,559 households, the study examined the radio and television viewing habits of both secular and religious programs by residents of the community of New Haven, Connecticut. The study correlated a range of relevant social and personal variables, utilized a variety of research methodologies and statistical tests, and brought forward a series of conclusions and proposals which will be referred to throughout this section. Many of these proposals have been demonstrated by subsequent research and experience to have been prophetic.

Despite this impressive beginning, little research impetus was retained as religious television developed. The amount of subsequent research conducted on religious television in America has been relatively small in comparison to the large number of people and agencies which have been producing religious programs over the past 35 years. Of the 176 religious program producers, agencies, and television stations approached by the author in 1981, for example, only six indicated that they had undertaken independent research into their program audiences or program effectiveness.

This scarcity of ongoing research into the effectiveness of religious television programs reflects to a large extent the costs involved in such research. Until recently, religious broadcasting has been the Cinderella of church mission. Producers of religious programs within churches have consistently had to fight to convince church hierarchies of the value of mass-media communication. The producers have generally been able to procure only minimal funding from the church for programming and have been heavily dependent on public-service grants of time and facilities by stations and networks in order to continue their programming. Little money was available for promotion, let alone for research into program effectiveness. What evaluation took place was usually based on informal feedback, mostly in the form of viewer-mail response.

Religious television has not been successful in attracting public funding for research either, as have other areas of mass media such as television violence and children's programming. Because public research funds are often allocated on a strongly socially functional basis, it has only been recently when religious broadcasting had risen to the level of social and political controversy that funds have begun to be allocated for social research into the phenomenon.

The broadcasters who have had money available for research into religious television's effectiveness, namely the evangelical and fundamentalist organizations, do not have a tradition of using empirical research for evaluating effectiveness. While for the social scientist empirical data form the major source for his or her understanding and evaluation of a phenomenon, for the religious practitioner empirical data are just one source of determinative information, and often fill a secondary role behind other sources such as personal experience, intuition, and religious tradition. This is particularly true for the evangelical tradition of Christianity, which is strongly revelation-centered. Most of the large evangelical broadcast organizations do use statistical research, but that use is limited largely to market research for the purpose of syndication and program planning. The effectiveness of programming in reaching theological goals tends to be assessed on the basis of mail response and its theological implications rather than by consistent statistical analysis.

For these reasons, research into religious television has been scattered and piecemeal. The major source of the research has been academic dissertations; these have been the most substantial in terms of empirical methodology and usable information for critical purposes. The other major source of research information comes from that research which has been privately commissioned by religious agencies for their own in-house use. Because of the "hidden" nature of the research, little of it has been known or publicly available.

The majority of the research undertaken on religious television has been directed toward understanding the nature of the audience of the programs. The emphasis that has been placed on this area of research reflects the concern to measure the extent of a program's outreach, as well as the desire to define research parameters clearly in such an area of study, and the ease of access to primary data. The major studies in this area are the following:

1955. E. C. Parker; D. W. Barry; and D. W. Smythe, The Television-Radio Audience and Religion, New York; Harper and Row.

1962. J. L. Dennis, "An Analysis of the Audience of Religious Radio and Television Programs in the Detroit Metropolitan Area," Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan,

1965. H. W. Robinson, "A Study of the Audience for Religious Radio and Television Broadcasts in Seven Cities throughout the United States," Ph.D. dissertation, University of Illinois. (The two studies by Dennis and Robinson parallel each other to a large extent and reach similar conclusions with regard to the audiences of religious programs in these locations and in this period.)

1969. R. Ringe, "An Analysis of Selected Personality and Behavioral Characteristics which Affect Receptivity to Religious Broadcasting," Ph.D. dissertation, Ohio State University. (One of the first attempts to study empirically the correspondence between personality characteristics and program preference.)

1971. D. C. Solt, "A Study of the Audience Profile of Religious Broadcasts in Onondaga County," Ph.D. dissertation, Syracuse University.

1978. The Gallup Organization and the Princeton Religion Research Center, "Evangelical Christianity in the United States: National Parallel Surveys of General Public and Clergy," Princeton. (This is one of several studies conducted by this group. This one was commissioned by the evangelical journal, Christianity Today, and in its multi-variate analyses provides useful information on differences between users and nonusers of religious television.

1978. Market Research Group, "National CBN Partner Survey," Southfield; and "National Former '700 Club' Partner Survey," Southfield.

(Two of a larger number of market-research studies commissioned by the Christian Broadcasting Network for in-house use. The first is the larger, providing statistical analyses on specific characteristics, preferences, and habits of a sample of CBN supporters.)

1979. J. M. Buddenbaum, "The Audience for Religious Programs," M.A. thesis, Indiana University. (Using data from another study of media usage, this is one of the first studies of religious television to incorporate theoretical directions of the uses-and-gratifications school, and provides some insights into how people use religious television programs.)

Findings of these studies have been remarkably consistent in relation to major demographic characteristics of the religious television audience. Along with other research studies, they provide the material for development of a relatively clear profile of the religious television audience.

There have been only limited studies concerning other areas of religious television. There have been no substantial analyses of the content of religious programs, for example, to indicate objectively the presence or nature of common content forms or patterns in religious programs, how these may have changed over time, or how they relate to other variables influential in the process such as the sponsoring tradition or the method by which the program acquires its funding. Such an absence of objective data on program content is surprising, considering that intense discussion on the message of religious programs has been taking place for almost a decade. While there have been limited surveys, none have employed a transferable statistical analysis.

Similarly, there are only limited major statistical studies in the vast area of uses and effects of religious broadcasts. These are:

1966. W. H. Rockenstein, "Children and Religious Television: An Experimental Study of the Reactions of Children in the 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th Grades in Monogalia County, West Virginia, to Children's Television Programming," Ph.D. dissertation, Northwestern University. (The first of only two known studies of religious television to employ an experi- mental laboratory setting.)

1975. G. S. Thompson, "The Effect of the Use of Mass Media to Establish a Local Church: A Study of the Pilot Church Project of the Christian and Missionary Alliance in Tallahassee, Florida," Ph.D. dissertation, Florida State University. (Despite some methodological inadequacies, this study is useful for the data it provides on the use of various media of communication in a practical church situation. To date it has not been duplicated.)

1979. F. Klos, "A Study of the Origin, Utilization, and Impact of the 'Davey and Goliath' Series, 1959-77, and Its Present Effectiveness in Teaching Religious Values to Children," Ed.D. dissertation, Temple University. (The second study to employ an experimental laboratory method to study specific attitudinal change produced by religious television programs.)

1980. R. E. Frank and M. G. Greenberg, The Public's Use of Television: Who Watches and Why, Beverly Hills: Sage. (As part of a much larger study, this work provides useful information on characteristics of the audience and non-audience of religious programs, particularly in regard to how the use of religious programs corresponds to other personality characteristics and social stances.)

The above studies do not exhaust the statistical research available for clarification of issues in religious broadcasting. There are a large number of minor studies which contribute some relevant research information on one or more aspects of religious television. Not all of these are concerned exclusively with the subject of religious television, but they provide information on religious television as part of a larger study into a broader area of mass communication. When linked with other information, though, these smaller studies make a significant contribution to the overall picture.

Substantial data on religious television is also obtained by the rating services, Nielsen and Arbitron. These services are able to derive on a regular and comparable basis a large body of information on different aspects of the audiences of religious television programs. The Nielsen Company, for example, each November produces a "Report on Syndicated Program Audiences" which lists not only audience sizes for the various syndicated religious programs, but also age and sex variables, national and DMA ratings, and syndication information.

Not all research that has been conducted on the audiences and effects of religious television is available for scholarly use. The competitive nature of religious television that has developed in recent years has resulted in some broadcasters becoming secretive about such things as privately commissioned market research, finances, and developmental intentions. Of the four large paid-time religious broadcast organizations that responded to the author's search for research, three indicated that they had conducted private research but that they did not make it available to "outsiders." Even the fourth, which eventually made some of its research available, required numerous letters, phone calls, and the author's personally cornering the broadcaster himself in a New York elevator before research data from the organization was finally obtained. It is likely, therefore, that substantial research is being held by the major religious broadcasters which could be of value in addressing some of the persistent questions in religious broadcasting, if it were made available for wider use.

The nature of the research conducted over the past three decades appears to suggest that one of the major aims of religious broadcasters has been simply to acquire a particular audience. Research has been concerned primarily with evaluating whether this was being done. There has been little persistent research designed to evaluate the extent to which particular goals were achieved once the audience was attracted.

It may be argued that the lack of research into the effects of religious programs is compensated by broadcasters' use of research from other areas of mass-media effects to form opinions on the effects which may be expected from their programs. Certainly the religious broadcaster has access to the much larger body of general communication research on associated topics such as audience patterns and viewing behavior, attitude and value change, and communication uses and effects. There is evidence in various religious communication textbooks to indicate that religious broadcasters have drawn heavily on communication theory in formulating goals for religious broadcasting. However, it becomes apparent in these textbooks that the selection of broadcast theory used as a basis for broadcast planning is heavily influenced by the broadcaster's theological stance. Quite obviously the theoretical perspective from which one views the data determines to a large extent the influences one derives from it.

The attitude of the present paid-time religious broadcasters, for example, is indicative of what Schramm referred to as the "hypodermic" approach to mass-communication effect (i.e., where the message of the broadcaster acts as a powerful and direct stimulus to action on the part of the receiver). A close parallel is observable between a comment by an early protagonist of the theory, Dorwin Cartwright, who in 1949 suggested that, "it is conceivable that one persuasive person could, through the use of mass media, bend the world's population to his will,"(3) and the 1979 affirmation by NRB Executive Secretary Ben Armstrong, "I believe that God has raised up this powerful technology of radio and television expressly to reach every man, woman, boy, and girl on earth with the even more powerful message of the gospel."(4) This very dramatic and direct theory of mass communication effect blends easily with the evangelicals' well-defined theology and their predilection for unambiguous concepts of preaching and behavior. The mail they receive from viewers for them is adequate verification of the influence they believe they are having. Appeals to viewers for support by these broadcasters are continually couched in terms that reflect their conceptualization of a dramatic and powerful mass-communication effect.

Mainline broadcasters, on the other hand, usually hold an understanding of mass-communication effects as being less dramatic and more indirect than do the evangelicals. Their programming, consequently, has consistently been low-key and non-urgent in tone and content compared to the intense, urgent, and sensational evangelical programs.

In evaluating the influence religious television has or may have on its audience and society, one needs to be aware, therefore, of the perspective from which the subject is being viewed. The previous lack of available research into the effects of religious broadcasting has contributed to the ambiguous situation in which different Christian broadcasters presented very different views on the issues arising from religious broadcasting, each claiming an empirical basis for their assertions. It is hoped that the following analysis of research, as it relates to the issues which have been raised, will advance substantially a sound and impartial evaluation of the effects and effectiveness of religious broadcasting, and lay a foundation for future research and planning.

Notes

1. The first to do so were William Martin's article, "The Birth of a Media Myth" and Hadden and Swann's book Prime-Time Preachers.

2. It is interesting to note the extent to which the process that emerged in the reporting of the influence of the paid-time religious broadcasters parallels that of development of rumors, as described in G. W. Allport and L. Postman, The Psychology of Rumor, New York: Henry Holy, 1947.

3. Dorwin Cartwright, "Some Principles of Mass Persuasion: Selected Findings of Research on the Sale of U.S. War Bonds," Human Relations 2, July 1949, pp. 253-67.

4. Armstrong, Electric Church, p. 7.

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