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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 7: The Effects of Paid-Time Religious Programs on the Structure of Religious Television


In chapter 1 it was noted that rapid changes in the structure of religious television occurred during the 1960s and 1970s. This chapter will consider the nature of these changes in more detail, focusing especially on whether the growth of paid-time religious programs has furthered the presentation of religious faith on television, and whether the paid-time broadcasters have been successful in breaking through some of the restrictions faced by religious broadcasters in communicating by television.

The Effects of the Growth of Paid-Time Religious Programming

Research supports the observation that there has been a marked increase in both the size and number of paid-time religious programs during the 1960s and 1970s. However, the research calls into question some of the claims that have been made about the extent and universality of this increase. It is wrong to conclude that the growth in the number and size of paid- time religious programs has simply increased the amount of religious programming on American television, and thus advanced the general cause of religious faith. The growth in paid-time religious programs has taken place primarily through the displacement of other types of programming. When the Broadcast Institute of North America surveyed religious programming in the country in 1971, they found that stations which had begun to sell time for religious programs averaged fewer network and locally produced religious programs than did those stations which did not sell time for religious programming.(1) The study identified what they called a "water table of religious programming nationwide." The researchers found that station managers tended to look at each other's behavior rather than at community interest and response in determining how much religious programming to broadcast. The growth of paid-time religious programs had

Table II. Figure 7.1 Proportion of Time Devoted to Sustaining and Paid-Time Religious Programs -- Nationwide, 1959-1977. (NOTE: The graph originally in the book is here converted to a table, with the same data-picture presented)

1959 1962 1965 1968 1971 1974 1977

Paid-Time Programs 53% 55% 58% 65% 70% 88% 92%

Sustaining-Time Programs 47% 46% 43% 38% 32% 18% 8%

SOURCE: 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, etc.. (BC Docket No. 78-355, RM-2709, 1979)

not raised this level of programming, but had simply changed the nature of the programming. Station managers have tended during the 1960s and 1970s to substitute religious programming previously aired on public-service time by the more profitable programming that paid for its air-time. Figure 7.1 illustrates the changing proportions of time occupied by paid-time religious programs and time occupied by sustaining-time programs nationally since 1959. As can be seen, there has been a steady growth in the amount of time occupied by paid-time religious programs versus sustaining-time programs since 1959, with particularly rapid changes occurring from 1971 on.

This characteristic is illustrated further by comparing the syndication patterns of three of the major paid-time religious programs with three major sustaining-time syndicated programs during the Nielsen sweeps period in November of each year. As seen in Table 7.1, in the period from 1973 to 1981 each of these major paid-time syndicated programs increased in syndication while each of the three major sustaining-time syndicated programs decreased in syndication.

Table 7.1 Syndication Patterns of Major Syndicated Programs

Number of Stations on which the Programs Were Aired

 

1973

1974

1975

1976

1977

1978

1979

1990

1991

Paid-time Programs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oral Roberts

151

157

168

172

174

176

170

177

185

Rex Humbard

155

168

189

203

213

205

206

209

201

Robert Schuller

29

28

60

85

123

117

144

161

165

Sustaining-time Progs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Davey&Goliath

27

19

30

26

34

20

15

12

14

This Is the Life

87

92

88

75

55

58

53

45

41

Faith for Today

57

62

57

52

19

35

38

35

--

Source: Neilsen, "Report on Syndicated Program Audience"


Note that two of the sustaining-time programs which suffered a decrease because of the increased syndication of the paid-time religious programs were programs from recognized evangelical denominations. Theologically these denominations, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod ("This Is the Life") and the Seventh-Day Adventist Church ("Faith for Today") are very similar to the paid-time religious broadcast organizations. The primary factor leading to their decreased syndication was the method by which their programs were funded and aired.

The effect of the growth in paid-time religious programs was felt not only by other syndicated religious programs but also by network religious programs. Table 7.2 presents the average number of stations which aired the network religious programs during the 1970s. The decrease in acceptance

Table 7.2 Average Number of Stations Broadcasting Network Religious Programs, 1970-82

 

ABC

CBS

NBC

 

"Directions"

"Look Up and Live"

"Specials"

 

 

"For Our Times"

 

1970

101

93

118

1971

109

89

136

1972

105

85

107

1973

104

85

144

1974

108

94

114

1975

114

71

134

1976

99

?

125

1977

92

?

88

1978

69

?

98

1979

62

39

91

1980

65

33

73

1981

74

33

59

1982

67

33

52

Source: NCC Communication Commission Annual Reports, based on Network Research.
"Look Up and Live" after 1979 was replaced by "For Our Times"

 

of network religious programs during the 1970s occurred primarily once again because the networks found it more profitable to air those programs that paid for their air-time than those programs for which air-time had to be provided. As a consequence of the displacement of these other types of religious programs, the growth of paid-time religious programming in the 1960s and 1970s has resulted in a marked movement in religious television away from representating a range of U.S. cultures and traditions toward representing mainly the Protestant evangelical and fundamentalist traditions, particularly the independent broadcast organizations. This narrowing of the range of traditions is shown by an examination of the sources represented by the 12 leading religious syndicated programs. While no figures are available to indicate the representativeness of the total fare on religious television, an analysis of the Broadcast Institute study and Nielsen figures indicates that these 12 top syndicated programs alone account for a large proportion of the total households reached by religious programs on television.

Table 7.3 indicates that independent evangelical groups in 1981 accounted for 83.3 percent of the top of syndicated religious programs on television. In comparison, the Roman Catholic Church, the membership of which in 1979 represented 37.1 percent of the U.S. church population, produced only one major syndicated television program, the sustaining-time program "Insight. " The National Council of Churches, its affiliated it

Table 7.3 Comparative Sources for the 12 Leading Syndicated Religious Programs, 1971 - 81

 

1971

1975

1979

1981

Independent Evangelical Groups

41.7%

75.0%

83.3%

83.3%

Evangelical Denominations

25.0%

16.7%

8.3%

8.3%

Roman Catholic

16.7%

---

8.3%

8.3%

Other Protestant Denominations

8.3%

8.3%

---

---

SOURCES: Broadcast Institute, Religious Programming, p. 58; Nielsen, "Ranking of Syndicated Programs," November 1975, 1979, 1981. NOTE: "Hour of Power" is identified as an independent evangelical program, even though Robert Schuller is an ordained Reformed Church of America clergyman, because the denomination has no association with the program. Similarly, other television hosts may have associations with a particular denomination but the programs have no denominational identification or accountability.


churches accounting for 30 percent of the U.S. church population, in 1979 and 1981 had no major syndicated religious program.(2)

These figures give concrete support to the suggestion noted earlier that one of the major consequences of the growth of paid-time religious programing has been a marked narrowing in the representation of American religious life and culture on television. This consequence parallels a major characteristic of television noted in relation to general communication patterns: one of the major social effects of television lies in its cultural narrowing and its levelling effect on the presentation of cultural diversity. This appears to have been the case with religious programming also. Another effect of the growth of paid-time religious programs is the steady increase in the number of stations that now see religion primarily as a commercial venture and for which payment for air-time has become the dominant principle in the broadcasting of religion.

Since 1960, when the Federal Communications Commission changed its policy ruling on broadcasting in the public interest, there has been a steady increase in the number of stations willing to sell air-time for religious programming. The Broadcast Institute study in 1971 found that 65.7 percent of responding stations had a policy of selling time for religious broadcasts. In 1977, another survey of station managers found that 80.3 percent of television stations found the selling of air-time for religious broadcasts acceptable. There are as yet no more recent figures.(3)

This trend becomes significant in the light of other research suggesting that once a station adopts a policy of selling time for religious broadcasts, paid-time religious programming becomes the dominant type of religious programming broadcast on the station. There appears to be a dynamic within the programming policies of a station whereby once it is decided to

Table 7.4 Distribution of Religious Programs by Station Affiliation, 1971

 

Stations which

Stations which

 

Sell time for

Do not sell time

 

religious

For religious

 

programs

programs

 

Per Cent

Per Cent

Nonaffiliated Stations

72.2

27.8

Paid-time programs

58.4

24.3

Sustaining syndicated programs

22.5

40.5

Local programs

19.1

35.2

ABC Affiliated Stations

70.4

29.6

Paid-time programs

42.1

7.9

Sustaining syndicated programs

36.6

48.9

Local programs

12.8

34.8

Network programs

8.5

8.4

CBS Affiliated Stations

63.5

36.5

Paid-time programs

40.6

6.9

Sustaining syndicated programs

34.0

39.5

Local programs

12.8

25.7

Network programs

12.6

27.9

NBC Affiliated Stations

90.9

39.1

Paid-time programs

32.3

10.6

Sustaining syndicated programs

46.6

56.0

Local programs

Network programs*

21.4

33.4

 

 

SOURCE: Broadcast Institute, Religious Programming, pp. 49-52. NOTE: Those stations which stated they had a policy of not selling time for religious broadcasts still reflect a level of paid-time religious programming. The survey notes but does not explain this phenomenon.

sell air-time for religious programs, other types of religious programming are de-emphasized. Though there is no substantial research to support this affirmation, it is suggested by the overall changes that emerged from the Broadcast Institute study in 1971. Table 7.4 provides a breakdown of the types of religious programs which were broadcast on affiliated and non- affiliated stations in 1971 according to whether the stations sold time for religious broadcasts or not.

While stations which sold time for religious programs in 1971 still broadcast other types of religious programming, there is a distinct narrowing of programming to favor paid-time

religious programs. With the exception of the NBC affiliates, whose regular schedules had been disrupted during the survey week, all other stations that sold time for religious broadcasts showed a dominance of paid-time programming. Programs dependent on provided air-time had decreased as a consequence. In particular, local programming was the hardest hit by the increase in paid-time religious programs. This trend is likely to have been more accentuated since 1971 with the increase in the number of stations finding paid-time religious programs acceptable: a significant consequence of the economic motivation of the general television industry.

Has the Growth in Paid-Time Religious Programs Increased the Amount of Religion on Television?

Contrary to what paid-time broadcasters maintain, research suggests that in addition to the displacement of other types of programming, the recent growth of paid-time religious programming may have resulted in less rather than more religious programming on television. While the evidence for such a proposition remains tentative, its tentativeness calls into question the certainty with which paid-time religious broadcasters assert that their efforts in competing on the basis recognized by the television industry (i.e., financial competence) have been responsible for increasing the amount of religious programming on television.

There have been no studies yet which draw specific comparisons between the total amount of religious programming on television in different historical periods. Certainly there has been a marked growth in the amount of syndicated religious programming, but there has also been a corresponding decrease in other types of religious programming which previously filled a substantial block in station schedules.

We have noted already that the Broadcast Institute study in 1971 identified a fairly even level of religious programming across the country, indicating that station managers were not only influenced by the demand for air-time for religious programs, but also by peer example. This study found also that stations which provided only free air-time for religious programs tended to broadcast more religious programs during the week of the survey than did stations which sold air-time for programs (an average of 6.08 programs per station compared to 4.51 programs per station).(4) The reasons for this difference were not given in the study. It is possible that stations which did not accept payment for air-time for religious programs reflected a greater concern for public-service programming and therefore presented a wider representation of other programming such as network and local programs. It is possible also that once a station began to sell air-time for religious programs, it became unwilling to provide the same time free for other sustaining-time programs.

It is possible, therefore, that while there has been a large and rapid growth in paid-time religious programs, there has been an even greater corresponding decline in other types of religious programs: sustaining-time syndicated programming, local programming, and network programming, The increase since 1971 in the number of stations now selling time for religious broadcasts suggests the possibility that by removing the moral basis on which station managers have broadcast religious programs, the paid-time religious broadcasters have decreased the total presentation of religious faith on television. Audience figures presented in detail in the next chapter suggest that these syndicated programs have displaced higher-rating network programs, which may also result in a smaller audience for religious programming on television.

Arbitron figures suggest that in 1981 and 1982 there was a further marked increase in the number of syndicated religious programs over 1980 and even over the previous high points of 1976. Given the saturation of broadcast time which appears to have been reached, it is possible that these increases are accounted for by the relatively low marginal increases for production and distribution of these programs through the cable market. Because of the lack of comprehensive information about the effects of cable development on the total television industry, it is difficult to tell what effects these new programs will have on religious broadcasting in general.

Have Paid-Time Religious Programs Broken Out of the Religious Ghetto?

One of the justifications the paid-time religious broadcasters have given for their monopolizing of the airwaves, their displacement of other religious programs on television, and their commercializing of religion on television is that through such an approach they have been able to overcome the barriers that have restricted religious broadcasters who have been dependent on the goodwill of stations and networks. A review of the research, however, suggests that this justification does not stand up to close empirical analysis.

A large majority of religious programs have traditionally been aired and continue to be aired on Sundays, particularly in the "religious-ghetto" hours of early Sunday morning. It takes only a cursory survey of a local television guide to become aware of this fact. The Broadcast Institute study in 1971 found that 82 percent of religious broadcast time was on Sundays, with only 5.5 percent on Saturdays and 12.5 percent on weekdays.(5)

There appear to be three main reasons for the concentration of religious programs on Sundays: (1) Sunday is the traditional day of Christian worship and therefore seemed most appropriate for Christian broadcasts; (2) Christian broadcasts on the networks were originally conceived as alternatives for those, such as shut-ins, who could not attend regular services at a church;(6) (3) Sunday morning was the period of lowest audience for broadcasters and therefore was the least commercially damaging for stations in fulfilling their FCC obligations by providing free air-time for religious broadcasts. This low-audience period also made time less expensive for paid-time religious broadcasters to purchase.

The perennial problem faced by religious broadcasters is that the size of the potential audience on Sunday mornings limits the audience potential for their broadcasts. Research on the "Frontiers of Faith" series, for example, found that in 1961 only 10 percent of the sets were in use at the hour the programs were broadcast. More recently, George Comstock has noted that on Sunday mornings in 1976 the potential national audience averaged only 13 million adults, compared to 70 million in prime-time.(7)

This limited opportunity to reach a large audience has stimulated religious broadcasters, like other programmers, to seek ways by which to gain access to time periods that have a greater potential audience.(8) Paid-time religious programs, by accumulating the financial resources to pay for their air-time, were conceived as one possible way of securing more favorable air-time for religious broadcasts.

Despite the large amounts of money invested in paid-time religious programs and the purchase of air-time for these programs, the available research suggests that with only a few exceptions paid-time religious programs have not succeeded in breaking out of the religious ghetto period. In fact the inverse appears to be true: the growth of paid-time religious programs appears to have resulted in a greater concentration of religious programs on Sundays in general and Sunday mornings in particular. The primary source of data on this issue again comes from the Broadcast Institute study of 1971. The study found that in 1971, 88.9 percent of all paid- time religious programs were broadcast on Sundays, compared to 77.3 percent of sustaining syndicated programs and 73.5 percent of local religious programs. Furthermore, in 1971, 70 percent of all paid-time religious programs appeared between the hours of 8:00 a.m. and noon on Sundays, compared to 46 percent of syndicated programs aired on sustaining-time.(9)

These figures, while only tentative, surest that paid-time religious programs are more concentrated in the religious-ghetto hours of Sunday morning because broadcasters who purchase time for their programs actively seek out the Sunday morning time-slot. There may be several reasons for this phenomenon. One is that air-time is generally cheaper to purchase in the low-audience period of Sunday morning. Another is that by broad- casting on Sunday mornings, the paid-time religious broadcaster is more likely to be seen by those for whom Sunday morning is a recognized worship period, the sympathetic viewer whose viewing and support is essential for paid-time programs. Still another reason is that television stations would prefer the consistently low-rating paid-time religious programs to remain in that period. For example, when questioned in 1968 about their placement of religious programs, stations' owners gave very low priority to "the desires of the program's sponsor" when scheduling programs. (10)

On the other hand, the mainline programs, particularly those produced in association with the networks, have been able to maintain a more favor- able audience period. The CBS series, "For Our Times," airs late on Sunday morning in the favorable period following "Sunday Morning." Some denominational groups such as the United Methodist Church ("Six American Families") and the Episcopal Church ("The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe") have participated in the production of specials aired on prime-time.

There are two exceptions to this restriction on paid-time religious broadcasters. One is tor those paid-time religious broadcasters who are able to produce occasional specials which are broadcast during or near prime-time, particularly on the independent UHF stations. Oral Roberts and Billy Graham are two of the paid-time religious broadcasters who have been able to purchase desirable air-time for their occasional specials.

The other exception to this proposition exists where a religious broadcaster or group owns a station or network of stations. These stations tend to be less rigorously competitive than other commercial stations because they are able to compensate for lost audience and advertising revenue by direct viewer contributions. Religious ownership of stations would not have been a major factor in 1971 at the time of the Broadcast Institute's study, but it may be a more significant factor in recent years because of the growth in the number of religious television stations across the country. There has been no research as yet to indicate the extent to which stations using a religious format present more religious programming outside the Sunday period than other stations. Increasingly, however, these stations are facing the economic pressures of the strongly competitive television industry. For example, WXNE-25 in Boston, a CBN-owned station, has decreased the amount of religious programming over the past two years and increased general programming designed to attract greater commercial sponsorship and income. Competition in the industry is bound to reduce the amount of time made available on weekdays to traditionally low-rating religious programs, even on religious stations.

There are several other syndication characteristics in religious programing which indicate that though the commercial emphasis of paid-time religious programs was designed to help them buy their way out of the ghetto, it may have forced them more deeply into it. For example, religious television programs are aired more frequently m those regions of the country which are already high in average church attendance. This pattern is apparent even in evangelical programs which are supposedly aimed at the unchurched and unconvinced. In 1971 the highest "average airings per station" of religious programs were found to be in a sequence of regions in the south-east, east-central, mid-central, and north-west regions of the country. This area roughly parallels that found to be highest in average church attendance in the nation.(11)

The reasons for this tendency are self-apparent. Broadcasters recognize that it is easier to gain an interested and sympathetic audience for religious programs in those regions and among those groups who are already interested in religion and for whom religious practice is an important element in their lives. This factor, however, catches "evangelical"" programs in a curious paradox. Evangelical programs derive their raison d'etre from their intent to spread the gospel to those who are beyond the current reach of the church, yet their syndication patterns reflect the practice of aiming for those areas of the country already high in church attendance and religious interest. The chief reason for this appears again to be financial: to continue to exist, paid-time evangelical programs must continually develop a supportive audience. Support is unlikely to come from antagonists, even though they may ostensibly be the target of the program. Therefore, the paid-time religious broadcasters are forced into the paradox of broadcasting a program for outsiders primarily to insiders in order to ensure continuing financial support: further evidence of the power of television's demands to shape the message of the program. This is not true, however, for the larger paid-time religious broadcasters. Five of the top six paid-time evangelical programs achieve better than 90 percent coverage of the nation's television house-holds. But their audiences demonstrate the same trends as in the syndication patterns of all programs. (12)

The pressure that economic considerations exert on religious broadcasters once the latter accept the principle of purchasing time for programs is seen in another characteristic of religious program syndication. Once a station which operates on a "religious" format opens in an area, there is a tendency for religious programs in that area to appear on that station rather than for the new station to supplement existing programming on other stations.

While the research in this area is still only suggestive and probably does not apply to the high-demand markets, it corresponds to what has been noted in relation to the lack of growth in overall religious programming as a consequence of paid-time programming and other syndication characteristics for religious programming. Robinson in 1964 found no significant differences in the percentage of listeners and non-listeners to religious radio broadcasts in a city with a religious radio station and a similar city without a religious radio station.(13) Stuart Johnson, in a study of the distribution patterns of evangelical radio programs, found that when a station with a "religious" format opens in an area, there is a tendency for religious programs in the area to begin to appear on these stations. (14) Though such studies have not been completed for television, similar characteristics between the financing of religious radio and television programs and between the syndication patterns of paid-time religious radio and television programs indicate that similar trends may be found for religious television stations.

It appears that while paid-time religious television programs have achieved a measure of financial independence from networks and stations, their financial dependence on their audience exerts a comparable influence. It forces them to be aired in places and at times where the audience is more likely to be supportive of and sympathetic to their program. It has created the anomaly where programs considered to be "evangelical" in content appear more frequently in areas already high in religious interest, commitment, and activity: on Sunday mornings, in geographical areas of already high church attendance, and on stations recognized as being "religious" in content and format.

Research suggests that, far from being a justification for their monopoly of religious programming on American television, the claim made by paid- time religious broadcasters that they have been able to overcome many of the traditional barriers faced by religious broadcasters and improve the presentation of religious faith on television is largely unfounded. The adoption of purchasing of air-time and audience solicitation as the basis for religious programming on television does not necessarily result in the breaking out of the religious ghetto, but has mainly resulted in religion's becoming more firmly ensconced in it.

 

Notes

  1. Broadcast Institute, "Religious Programming," pp. 49-52.

2. Constant H. Jacquet, Jr., ed., Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, 1980, Nashville: Abingdon, 1980, pp. 231-33.

3. Broadcast Institute, "Religious Programming," p. 52; "Some True Beliefs about Religious Programming," P. D. Cue, April 1977, p. 12.

4. Broadcast Institute, "Religious Programming," pp. 49-52.

5. Ibid, pp. 5-6.

6. Ralph M. Jennings, "Policies and Practices of Selected National Religious Bodies as Related to Broadcasting in the Public Interest," Ph. D. dissertation, New York University, 1968, p. 117.

7. Broadcast and Film Commission, "Frontiers of Faith -- Report of Research," New York, 1966 (Mimeographed); George Comstock, "The Impact of Television," p. 17.

8. See for example, Ronn Spargur, "Can Churches Break the Prime-Time Barrier?" Christianity Today, January 16, 1970, pp. 3-4.

9. Broadcast Institute, "Religious Programming"

10. A. William Bluem, Religious Television Programs: A Study of Relevance, New York: Hastings House, 1969, pp. 25-26.

11. Broadcast Institute, "Religious Programming," p. 48; Dean R. Hoge and David Roozen, Understanding Church Growth, pp. 47-48.

12. Hadden and Swann, Prime-Time Preachers, pp. 60-61.

13. Haddon W. Robinson, "A Study of the Audience for Religious Radio and Television Broadcasts in Seven Cities throughout the U.S.," Ph. D. dissertation, University of Illinois, 1964, p. 130. 14. Stuart Johnson, "Contemporary Communications Theory and the Distribution Patterns of Evangelical Radio Programs," Ph. D. dissertation, Northwestern University, 1978.

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