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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 13: The Future of Current Trends

Central to an understanding of what will be the future of religious television in America is the fact noted in the research on audience sizes: that the audiences for paid-time religious programs as a whole reached a plateau around the year 1977. This fact has important implications for religious television.

First, this fact served to demystify evangelical and fundamentalist television programming. Prior to this, paid-time religious programming had been growing without interruption not only from the early 1970s but also from the beginning of television itself. The fears that emerged during the 1980 national elections were understandable: Was paid-time religious programming the correct model for electronic communication, destined to become the new form of Christianity in the modern age? And was paid-time religious programming on the way to becoming a major force in American society, to the point of replacing established institutions and transforming the nature of religious belief from its traditional diverse personal and corporate, mystical and conceptual, practical and inward expressions to an almost totally Individualized, consumer commodity?

The plateau reached in 1977 and the demographic characteristics of the audience attained at this point provide a different picture and a different perspective: that paid-time religious programming on television is not a universal model of religious faith for the future but is primarily a specialized programming service for a specialized audience. In 1977, it appears that that segment of the total television audience to a large extent was at saturation point. In that year, the broadcasters had largely reached the type of audience they were going to reach with their current contents and formats. The very specific nature of their content had for the most part excluded other viewing groups. While one may reasonably expect some movement within the total picture it is unlikely that the overall size and characteristics of the paid-time religious program audience will vary significantly. Recent increases in the level of audience sizes of 1977 may be considered variations rather than significant increases.

To understand fully the implications of the characteristic audience of paid-time religious programs, one must consider the historical context of the changes that have taken place in religious broadcasting over the past 15 years. Paid-time religious programming has justified its dominance of the religious television field in recent years by suggesting that with its independent financial resources gained through audience cultivation and support it has been able to overcome the limitations experienced by mainline broadcasters as they worked with the local stations and networks on a public service basis. By strong audience cultivation and solicitation, paid-time religious broadcasters claimed that they have been able to buy their way out of the religious ghetto and exert an influence never before possible in televised religion.

Recent trends in the syndication and audience demographics of paid-time programming suggest that the evangelical and fundamentalist strategy in relation to television has also failed. While the evangelical and fundamentalist broadcasters have been successful in raising money, in building large organizations and support services, in utilizing new technologies, and in providing sophisticated religious programming for evangelical viewers, they have not demonstrated any greater capacity or ability to get their message across to the larger television population.

In the process they may have done considerable damage to the wider movement of religious broadcasting. They have created a situation of injustice in the representation of religious faith on the media of social communication through endorsing lack of representation of the range of religious faith. Their willingness to pay for air-time in competition with religious groups has set a precedent for the television industry and has given the television industry the means for exploitation of differences between religious groups for the industry's own economic advantage. They have reinforced and contributed substantially to the commercialization and consumerization of religious faith.

Some paid-time religious broadcasters now recognize these limitations and see the overcoming of them as the challenge of this new decade for evangelicals. Tom Bisset, an evangelical broadcaster, suggested in an article recently that the challenge of the future for evangelical broadcasting included reaching a greater number of non-evangelicals, speaking prophetically to current social issues, and upgrading program content.(1) Ironically, evangelical broadcasters in the 1950s criticized mainline religious broad- casting for its attempts to do these things and presented themselves and their approach as the answer. What is not readily admitted by evangelicals is that if these qualities were not present in evangelical broadcasting in its zenith, it is unlikely that they will be developed in its wane. What is also not realistically acknowledged is that the current paid-time religious broadcasters have acquired their current audiences by doing as Ben Armstrong has intimated, namely, giving people what they want. It is unlikely that, in the face of declining audiences and increased pressure from an increasing number of other paid-time religious broadcasters seeking the same audience, that broadcasters will begin to change to a less popular form of programming.

Part of the persistent problem has been the paid-time religious broadcasters' unwillingness to take seriously the limitations of television as a means of religious communication. This naive delusion is continued in the renewed expectations being thrust upon cable television as the new mission field, without recognizing also that the same limitations apply. The paid-time religious broadcasters have been so enamored of television's potential that, like lovesick adolescents, they have been blind to its faults. This blindness again reflects the particular emphases of their theological and ethical outlook.

In the light of these limitations, it is interesting to note the recent movements of some of the mainline churches. The United Methodist Church has been attempting for several years to raise funds to finance extensive television programming aimed at its own specific audiences. The Southern Baptist Convention has announced also its intention to purchase its own network of television stations to attempt to recapture some of its own constituents' loyalty. The Roman Catholic Church has begun its own programming network as well.

These efforts appear designed to break into the monopoly held by the independent evangelical organizations, and hold possibilities for restoring some representativeness to religious programming on television. None of the activities, though, has indicated anything of a new strategy to deal with the implications of television programming in general or to counter the demonstrated limitations of religious television communication. They have fallen well into television's mold by acquiescing to television's moral bases; air-time will be given or sold to those who succeed most in meeting tele- vision's criteria for attractiveness, competitiveness, and economic ability. The distinctive challenge religious faith could have made to television's func- tioning within American society -- the challenge for commercial television to give representation to socially powerless groups as well as the powerful, and to decentralize television's decision-making processes has been laid aside by churches in their clamor to protect their own interests and to survive by television's unquestioned rules of economic competitiveness.

The saturation characteristic of paid-time broadcasting of religion has had a second major implication for religious television as a whole. The paid-time broadcasters will now be faced with the need to meet ever-increasing costs and heavy financial commitments with a declining -- or at best level -- base of financial support. This pressure is greatest for those who are solely dependent on audience support for their existence. With the added pressure on major religious broadcasters now being brought by saturation characteristics and a constant flow of new charismatic figures, there is pressure to find a new thrust. Whether this is possible depends on several unpredictable circumstances.

Much of the growth of evangelical programs in the past was due to the coincidence of its strongly authoritative and traditional message and the confusion felt by many in the wake of the social turmoil of the 1960s. It remains to be seen whether these broadcasters' message will be perceived by many as an adequate answer to some of the problems facing American society as it nears the end of a century: the persistent problems of economics, inflation and unemployment; the growing shortages of energy, water, and space; the changing identity of America in international relations; and the rising threat of nuclear holocaust. In the absence of adequate political answers, or if the religious broadcasters can again affiliate themselves with a vital political movement, they may regain some of the influence that appears to have been lost in the wake of the 1980 elections.

Much of the influence in those elections, however, was derived from the momentum which the broadcasters projected: evangelicalism was seen as a movement that had experienced no setbacks, which was continually expanding in outreach and influence, and which projected an image of continuing in this way until its goals had been achieved. It was this image that aroused emotions, reaction, and to a large extent support. Much of that momentum, though, has now been lost. It is possible that a new momentum may be found through the conception of a new type of broadcasting which captures the public imagination as Oral Roberts did in 1970, or through the emergence of new personalities. In this regard it is interesting to note that many of the original major broadcasters are getting on in years: Oral Roberts, Rex Humbard, Robert Schuller, and Billy Graham will soon have to pass on to others the enterprises which have been built largely on their own personal charisma. Very rarely does a second generation of a charismatic movement retain the vitality of the first. Though each of these major broadcasters appears to have been cultivating one of his male offspring for this purpose, it remains to be seen whether these men can adequately fill their fathers' shoes or even give a new impetus to their fathers' respective foundations.

Much of the influence which the paid-time broadcasters wielded in the past was also due to the novelty of their enterprises and the mystique surrounding their rapid rise. As this novelty wears off, and as the mystique is demystified by social analysis and research, this influence may be further diminished.

Much of the future influence of the paid-time religious broadcasters may also be modified by the opportunities which they are given to exert it. The hold mainline broadcasters had on religious programming in the 1950s and early 1960s was taken out of their hands through the growing commercialization of religious air-time. While the current paid-time religious broadcasters retain the means to continue to purchase air-time, the television industry will determine whether the same amount of air-time will remain available. With the rapid changes taking place in electronic technology and the increasing deregulation of the broadcasting industry, it is difficult to predict how the future of broadcast television will develop.

At this crossroads in their development, the paid-time religious broadcasters appear to be faced with several possible options. One is to maintain the present level of religious content in their programs and to tolerate the inevitable drop in audience and development because of the increasing fragmentation of the religious market. This option appears to be consistent with the evangelical concern for lack of compromise in content -- "Woe is me if I preach not the gospel!"

The further segmentation of the market appears to be an increasing possibility. With the mainline bodies beginning to develop their own programming in an attempt to regain the financial support of their own constituents, and the rapidly increasing number of smaller paid-time religious broadcasters making their inroads through the cheaper medium of cable, the already highly segmented audience for religious television is likely to become even more segmented and the battle for the loyalty of supportive viewers even more frantic.

The effects of this decrease in audience for some of the broadcasters could be made more significant because of their theological positions. Because audience loyalty to these programs has been built so much on images of growth and success as indicators of God's direct blessing, cutbacks could have theological as well as psychological effects, producing a further loss of support from loyal viewers. Few people want to back a losing horse, psychologically or theologically. Oral Robert's recent vision of a 900-foot Jesus standing beside his beleagured City of Faith complex could be evidence of the tremendous pressure on broadcasters to maintain an image of divine approval in the presence of considerable and apparent setbacks. This need for evidence of theological approval may result in a constant change of scene within religious broadcasting. Like fashion trends, religious broadcasting may demonstrate the characteristics of continual movements of passing the mantle from the old to ever emerging new charismatic figures.

It is possible, therefore, that some of the paid-time religious broadcasters may show signs of becoming more "established," consolidating basic identities and service functions in order to maintain their audiences similar to an extended congregation, withdrawing their programs from areas that are no longer profitable, and developing as extended independent church organizations in line with their particular theological emphases.

Another option is for audience-supported broadcasters to try to develop alternate bases of revenue in an effort to stabilize their vacillating financial base. Those broadcasters who have previously invested excess income in revenue-producing activities such as their own stations or other industries appear to be in a healthier position than others who have invested in liabilities such as buildings or dependent schools. Unless the broadcaster has already substantially developed such activities, however, it may be too late to consider them an option because of already decreasing reserves and income.

A third option the current paid-time religious broadcasters may choose is to attempt to expand their audience base and thus broaden their range of supporters. One way of doing this is to expand international activities, and there are indications that some broadcasters are pursuing this avenue more aggressively. It is unlikely, though, that the overseas market will be as lucrative or supportive as the American market has been. Another way to expand one's audience base is to offer a less specific religious content that would appeal to a broader group of Christians or even non-Christians and to promote the cause in less specifically religious terms in order to attract more general financial support. There are some indications that some of the paid-time religious broadcasters are beginning to do this. The Christian Broadcasting Network, for example, has recently expanded the format of the "700 Club" to include among other features a regular segment on home decorating and the decor of luxury hotels and vacation spots. One could observe on occasion the interesting phenomenon of the "700 Club" host carefully restraining an overzealous religious guest in order to maintain the new, less religious format. CBN has also been decreasing the amount of religious programming on its Boston station, even on Sundays, in order to build a larger general audience and thus increase advertising revenue. This is apparently a network-wide strategy to develop an alternate source of income to support the basic religious programming of the network.

While the managerial dynamics behind these changes can be appreciated, the implications for religious programming are profound. One of the persistent criticisms of mainline religious programs made in the past by the evangelicals was that the mainline programs had compromised the gospel message and lacked distinctive Christian content. One of the basic tenets in the

formation of National Religious Broadcasters was to protect the right of evangelical broadcasters to preach doctrinal sermons on the air. The evangelicals now appear to have been forced into the same compromise as they perceived the mainline broadcasters had done many years before. However, whereas for the mainline broadcasters their content was a result of theological intent in line with their perception of the appropriate use of television, the evangelicals have been forced into a similar situation almost solely for economic reasons, a factor illustrating again the awesome levelling and censoring power of the commercial television industry.

This problem illuminates again the particular deficiency of the evangelical strategy toward mass communication. While their strength has been in their enthusiasm for preaching and in their technological enterprise, they have been deficient in sound theological reflection on the nature of technology. Any deficiencies or limitations, they consider, are to be overcome by a more appropriate or extended application of further technology: a stance identified by Frederick Ferre as "technolatry," the belief that "every apparent evil brought on by technique is to be countered by yet greater faith in technique." (2) The inherent limitations now being experienced, however, indicate that the upsurge in evangelical broadcasting in the 1970s has not resolved but simply postponed the inevitable confrontation between traditional Christian faith and the technologies of communication.



1. Tom Bisset, "Religious Broadcasting Comes of Age," Christianity Today, September 4, 1981, pp. 33-35. 2. Frederick Ferre, Shaping the Future, New York: Harper and Row, 1976, p. 43.

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