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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 14: A Strategy for the Religious Use of Television


Television must be recognized as a significant form of social communication within American society and one that exerts a major influence on the lives of individuals and groups. As Comstock and his associates note: "Television has introduced a fifth and artificial season to the four natural ones around which people have always organized their lives. . . It differs from the natural seasons by remaining with us in some guise throughout the year."(1) Television has been documented as having influenced the way in which people perceive social groups and trends, the nature of life and reality, and the way in which people organize and live their lives. If the church is meant to be concerned about what things influence poeple's thought and behavior, it must be actively concerned with television.

A review of the history of religious uses of television suggests that religious television at present is at a crossroads in its development. The evangelical and fundamentalist strategy of building programming on direct audience support and purchasing air-time for religious programming for the purpose of evangelism has been shown to have not succeeded. The paid- time religious programs' audience sizes have levelled off with only a small minority of Americans viewing; their syndication patterns and audience characteristics indicate that they have not been effective in reaching to a great extent outsiders to the Christian faith nor in achieving their theological objectives; and they face mounting financial pressures with a possible decreasing base of support. The actions of some mainline groups in beginning development of their own television ministries pose an added competitive element.

Changes within the television industry also suggest a crossroads point for religious television. The deregulation of the television industry carries implications which could affect religious television. The rapidly changing medium of cable television is creating new opportunities and dangers and posing a challenge to the established understanding of broadcast television.

These changes suggest that the present time might be an appropriate one for the churches to develop an approach to communication by television which is both realistic and effective, one which takes seriously both theological intentions of such communication and empirical insights. If there is to be any learning from the past experiences of religious broadcasters, however, future actions must be directed by a well-thought-out strategy rather than mere opportunism or impulse. The religious broadcaster must not only have a clear idea of what he wants to achieve but also have a clear idea of what is achievable through this particular medium. Future planning for religious uses of television should take seriously those insights provided by empirical research both into general television use and effects and into specifically religious television use and effect.

A proposal for elements of such a strategy is presented below. The details within these elements will no doubt be elaborated according to the particular theological and practical emphases of each denomination or tradition, though firm consideration of each element is considered necessary if religious television is to take seriously the realities of television communication and the lessons of the past.

1. The religious broadcaster must articulate the goals of any mass communication effort, articulating also how the demands of the medium are to be incorporated and how the limitations of the medium are to be compensated.

Much of the problem posed by paid-time religious broadcasters has been due to their reticence to recognize that television is limited in its capacities to communicate the full depth of the Christian message and that television imposes demands on any message communicated by it, demands which shape that message. Future uses of television must be closely controlled and specified so that those demands and limitations do not detract from the integrity of the Christian faith.

The objectives of the religious television program need to be spoiled out first in terms of what audience it hopes to target. Research indicates that at present, with only a few exceptions, such definition does not take place in program development. Is a program being aimed at the unchurched, the fringe-churched, or the well-churched? Is a program aimed at children, youth, young families, middle-aged persons, or older persons? Is a program designed for those of lower education or higher education, specific employment status or the unemployed?

There is a need to be realistic in this area. The research indicates that the dominant audience of religious programs on American television is people who are already religiously interested and church attenders. The more specific the religious content of a program, the more specific this characteristic of the audience becomes. The tenacity of this characteristic has strong roots in the selective nature of American television viewing and the dominant functions that television fulfills in American society. The research indicates that even within this general variable of religious

interest, further discrimination is possible: not all religiously interested people are viewers of religious television programs. Religious programs on American television have traditionally been viewed by older rather than younger people; females rather than males; and the less-educated rather than the more-educated. These particular characteristics also have deep roots in the traditional uses made of television by the American population.

While it is possible to reach a greater unchurched audience by modifying the religious content of programs, the objectives of such programming must be suitably modified also.

Once the audience of a program is defined, the objectives of the program in relation to that audience need to be specified. Are the purposes of the program simply to affirm the status of that person or group in their present situation or to extend them toward a desired status? Is the purpose to present a particular denominational image? Is it to advertise a certain local church? Is it to stimulate counseling follow-up opportunities? Is it simply to maintain a presence for the denomination on television? Is it to raise questions designed to stimulate thought on specific religious issues? Is it to raise money for a particular or general purpose?

Not only does the definition of the specific objectives of a program provide clarification of the best means by which to achieve the objectives, but it provides an externalization of the demands which the television process will impose on that particular communication. This definition opens the possibility for the religious communicator to control the communication rather than letting the television industry do so. It is an indictment on the paid-time religious broadcasters, for example, that while they maintain their stated aims of evangelism and raise substantial amounts of money from viewers for that purpose, the content, syndication, and audiences of their programs are contrary to a genuine evangelical situation.

The research indicates that the major effect of religious television on audience attitudes toward religion is likely to be one of reinforcement of existing attitudes or the channelling of existing attitudes into closely related areas. Some attitude change is possible and likely through the viewing of religious programs on television. However, the extent of this change is significantly modified by a wide range of social and personal variables such as the functions that are being served for the individual by the attitudes in question; the satisfaction the individual derives from existing attitudes; the strength of existing defense mechanisms and group pressures surrounding those attitudes; patterns of reinforcement for similar attitudes in the past; other alternatives available to the viewer; and the current psychological state of the viewer. These variables act to protect the viewer from demanding changes in attitude and behavior.

It is perhaps not surprising to find that the dominant functions served by current religious programs for the majority of their audiences appear to be personal inspiration, companionship, support, and reinforcement of evangelical beliefs and aspirations. Given the specific characteristics of current paid-time religious programs, determined to a large extent by their need to elicit financial support from viewers, they attract people who are already familiar with and in agreement with the theological and organizational goals of the program.

The research casts doubt on the validity of the goal of evangelism in the use of television. Evangelism in this regard is defined as establishing contact with those outside the Christian faith, bringing them to a realization of the relevance of the Christian faith for their lives, and establishing them in a process of continuing growth in faith and service within a Christian community. Though television does provide some contact with those who are otherwise religiously uninterested or uncommitted, because of the random- ness of television viewing in general or the use of religious television to satisfy other than religious needs, research indicates that religious programs consistently reach only a small and segmented portion of this population. There are also strong pressures on the religious programmer which shape program syndication and content in ways that mitigate against genuine efforts to establish contact with and address relevantly the situation of the religiously unconvinced.

Further, while television in some situations may stimulate an immediate radical change in attitude, emotions, or behavior, alone it lacks most of the capacities required to maintain the durability of that change or to extend it into other areas of a viewer's behavior. The evidence indicates that even where an unchurched person may have a significant experience of religious faith while viewing television, rarely is that experience extended into an ongoing relationship with a supportive and stimulating Christian interactive community within which other dimensions of the faith experience may be explored and appropriated.

A review of the research suggests that the most effective uses of television in relation to those outside the normal reach of the Christian faith lie within the areas of imparting information about religious issues or organizations, the suggestion of religious questions for consideration by the viewer as applicable to his or her life, and the maintenance of a positive image in relation to general or specific religious issues or organizations. Each of these reflects a preparatory rather than a consummatory role in relation to the mass communication of religious faith. The Christian faith remains an essentially social or interpersonal as well as an individual experience. As television distances people from each other and tends toward the privatization of experience, its most appropriate uses in religious communication should be in preparing the way for this subsequent interpersonal interaction.

When the preparatory emphasis in religious mass communication is retained, there is also a greater chance of remaining open-ended and thus controlling the dictatorship of the medium. When a consummatory role is sought from religious television, such as in seeking a faith commitment from viewers, the medium exerts strong pressures on how the matter is to be "closed," and essential elements of the Christian faith which cannot be communicated en masse by television are necessarily excluded. The Christian faith loses its sovereignty and is forced into a position of subservience to the limitations of the mass-communication process and structures.

Once the target audience and objectives have been defined, the method by which the two are to be connected must also be defined. What type of program format is desired and what are the implications for that format? Is air-time suitable for the purpose of reaching the target audience available? What are the advantages and limitations of the specific method chosen to achieve the goals? Does the method meet the requirements of theological integrity, empirical validity, and technical competence?

When this process has been worked through, it may be determined that television communication is not adequate to the objectives being sought or the particular population group being targeted, and an alternative communication strategy may be adopted. Such freedom is more possible where the television communication is only one option or aspect of a wider communication strategy.

This raises the issue covered by the following strategic element, that of seeing the television ministry within the total context of the wider church.

2. The religious use of television must restore emphasis on its role as a service function to the church, with an articulated strategy indicating how its various activities and objectives are related to the general functions of the church.

This element within an overall strategy has both empirical, theological, and practical foundations. Empirically it has been demonstrated that changes in deeply entrenched attitudes and behavior, as are implied in religious conversion and growth, need the cathexis of the personal presence of one who is significant to the person concerned. While lightly held attitudes may be molded by the information and attitudes presented on religious television, significant changes for an individual are generally dependent on the stimulus and reinforcement of another significant individual. Research on religious television and other mass communication of religious faith reinforces this finding. The link between a faith experience gained in front of a television set and subsequent involvement within a local church or Christian group is usually provided by the bridge of personal relationship. Initial changes in attitudes and behavior will tend to regress to the preexisting position unless they are reinforced in this way by rewarding events or group pressures. These findings suggest that if the purpose of religious programs on television is to produce change in the direction of acceptance of the Christian faith, religious broadcasters should take every opportunity possible to relate viewers, and particularly respondents to programs, to interpersonal and interactive Christian groups. The failure of most current broadcasters to do this has tended to minimize the lasting effect they have on the furtherance of the mission of the church.

Theologically, the message and activities of religious broadcasting are seen as inadequate and incomplete expressions of the Christian message. They lack essential qualities recognized in theological definitions of the church and hence are more properly understood as agencies of the church fulfilling specialist functions. The programs should be in constant liaison with parent churches and under the discipline of these churches. The temptation of religious television programs and organizations is to act and promote themselves as self-sufficient religious entities. This is frequently the case where a broadcast organization has no other constituency except for the viewing audience, or where the viewing audience is the major constituent group. It becomes a major temptation also where the broadcaster is dependent on this constituency of the audience for financial support. The local church has remained the model for the embodiment of the message of the Christian faith since its inception. The lack of liaison between religious broad-casters and local churches both through program content and counseling referral suggests a loss of the service identity and relationship by most current religious broadcasters.

Practically, the resources of the local churches offer valuable support and service opportunities that cannot be provided by the religious broad- casters in their highly centralized and generally impersonal structures. Local churches offer continuity of relationship and support for viewers in need; personal compassion; individualized teaching and stimulation; corporate worship opportunities; and personal discipline and challenge within a supportive group. In the light of this great potential for extension of initial contacts made by broadcasters, it is damaging to the mission of the church that current broadcasters have made so little effort to develop this potential.

3. The church needs to establish a watchdog agency which would conduct continuous research and debate to ensure that the message and practice of religious programs remains congruous with established Christian thought.

Television is not simply a neutral tool of technology available for use by anybody in the way they choose. There are strong pressures within the medium which shape any message communicated by it. These pressures are a combination of several things: the nature of the television technology; the social and economic organization of the television industry; and the dominant social uses made of the medium by individuals and social groups. The combination of these factors has resulted in the historical development of strong common elements in most general television programming.

An analysis of current religious programming on American television reveals the influence of this shaping effect on religious programming also: particular religious traditions are presented to the exclusion of others; there are apparent similarities between the content of many religious programs and general television programming; and there are similarities in religious program formats and content even in programs from a range of different theological traditions and experience.

Television is not a unique situation. Each cultural context in which the Christian faith is expressed plays some part in determining the nature of the expression. Yet any new expression of the gospel must be continually evaluated to determine the extent to which it remains congruous with the gospel's essential message. This process of apologetic and dogmatic has formed the dynamic of the history of Christian thought. The adaptation of the gospel to television is no different: there needs to be a clear and impartial analysis of the message and practices of those programs and organizations that call themselves Christian in order to determine how they stand in relation to the historic tenets of the Christian faith. Where persistent aberrations do occur, they need to be confronted clearly.

Such challenges to religious programs would be most effective if they came either from churches within the same traditions as the broadcaster or from the viewer's own denomination. Where significant challenge comes from those who stand within the same traditions as the broadcaster, the likelihood of theological prejudice is minimized and the broadcaster is more likely to be confronted with the appropriateness of the challenge. Where criticism comes from the viewer's own denomination, the basis of common concern is maximized and the viewer is encouraged to view religious programs critically in order to discern that which is dissonant with other aspects of their faith.

Included in this strategic element is the need for ongoing research on the extent to which goals established for religious uses of television are being achieved. In the past, the tendency has been to undertake little evaluation of the effectiveness of religious broadcasting. If broadcasters are genuinely concerned with achieving certain goals, a continual process of evaluation and redirection will be necessary. Some areas of immediate research interest should be: To what extent does the content of Christian programs reflect the shaping influence of the television medium? What is the spectrum of effects for Christian television programs and what are the relative frequencies of occurrence of each effect? What functions do Christian television programs serve for the different segments of their audiences and in what way do these programs fulfill these functions in comparison with the local church? What are the characteristic patterns of Christian television organizations' counseling activities, and how do these relate to other counseling opportunities available to viewers? What may be the long-term effects of current Christian television programs?

4. Religious television programmers need to resolve the issue of program financing.

It has been noted that the major discriminating variable for identifying different types of religious programs is the manner in which they are funded. Because television is a capital-intensive industry, the matter of where the money is to come from is one of central importance, for it has been demonstrated that the source of the finances for religious programming plays a ma)or part in shaping the nature of the program.  

The most desirable situation is one in which neither the television station nor the network nor the audience is the primary source of funding. Freedom from dependence on each of these removes a significant pressure in the determination of the nature of programming. Such a situation, though, may be too idealistic for application. In whatever financial situation, however, it is essential that the programmer identify and articulate the demands which are made on the programmer by the source of finance and decide whether these demands are consistent with the theological goals. Failure to do so usually results in indiscriminate asquiescence to prevailing forces, with a consequent modification of one's message.

5. Religious programming on television should exist as only a part of a recognized broader ministry within the television field.

It is possible for a religious group to become too enamored of television programming because of its visibility and ignore other equally important areas of the religious response to television. The church must concern itself with media education. Christ's concern for individuals enslaved by the products of their sinful condition should be motivation enough for Christians to concern themselves with people today who are increasingly demonstrating the signs of

electronic narcosis, with consequent effects of isolation, alienation, fear, abnegation of responsibility, and loss of joy. The answer does not lie in transferring their narcosis from nonreligious to religious programs; it lies in liberation from dependence on mediated experience and escapist material. As one of the few remaining personal interactive communities within society, the church has a responsibility and unique opportunity to embody the redemptive love of Christ.

In line with this, Christians should develop a strong critique of television content in general in order to counter the dehumanizing and humanly destructive aspects of television programming. While some attention has been drawn in recent years to the Christian critique of sex and violence in television programming, the critique must also include other dehumanizing aspects such as consumerism, limited access for such groups as minorities and older people, and the continuing commercial exploitation of children and youth. The effectiveness of this critique is substantially weakened when Christian programs, in their effort to be seen as relevant and sophisticated, adopt the same images of glamour and success.

A critique should also focus on the relative absence of sensible and informed religious faith from general programming. Although slightly less than half of the American population are church attenders, rarely in general television programming is church attendance portrayed as a desirable attribute; rarely are religious people or representatives presented in other than negatively stereotyped portrayals; and rarely is the religious perspective presented favorably. Much more effective than all the religious programs presented in "ghetto hours" may be the frequent portrayal of an attractive, sensible, and compassionate religious person in general television drama. Religious programmers should also seek other opportunities to increase the presence of religious persons on television programming, such as on news programs and talk shows. Given the dominant functions of television in status conferral and image creation, religious uses of television may more effectively be achieved through secular programming than through religious programming.

Religious broadcasters should also be aware of the importance of working in television as advocates for those who are otherwise powerless. The Christian approach to television will be deficient if all that is attempted and achieved is the furtherance of its own particular interests. If

Christian programming is to bear the mark of integrity it must be supported also by an active program of action for equity and justice on behalf of those who lack the social and economic power to act on their own behalf.

This study has suggested that the Christian use of television needs to be significantly demythologized in relation to its ability to contribute to the ongoing mission of the church, and restored to a more realistic appreciation of what may be achieved through programming. In 1979 television researcher George Comstock, in assessing the impact and achievements of the educational television series "Sesame Street" observed that, "We simply do not know what we thought we did, but the lesson appears to be that too much can be expected from a mass medium even when, by its own terms, it is performing superbly." (2) Religious media practitioners have frequently been hypnotized by the potential of television and lost sight of the particular part which it may play within the total mission and communication activity of the church. It is hoped that through this study a more realistic understanding of the part to be played by television communication within the total life of the. church may have been attained.

It has been indicated that there is also the need for significant changes within the present structure of religious television, both in terms of integrity of message and practice, in representativeness of a diversity of religious traditions and viewpoints, and in the relation of communication efforts to the wider work of the church. Realistically, it must be noted that there are powerful and vested interests which militate against such changes. Within a broader perspective, George Comstock has noted the pressures which resist change even when that change is perceived by many to be necessary. His comments are apt also for religious television.

The system is likely to continue much as it is for reasons of sociology and politics. A society does not dismantle its major institutions in the absence of public displeasure and usually that displeasure must reach the level of fury for such transformations to occur. . . . Furthermore, the present system has created in the broadcasters which benefit from it a very powerful set of vested interests opposed to change.(3)

We have seen, however, that internal and external changes may have placed religious broadcasting at a crossroads at which constructive change may be timely. It is the opinion of this writer that reasonable and constructive change is more likely to occur, and to be more effective in its occurrence, if analysis, debate, and action are based not merely on opinion and speculation but on researched and informed insight. It is hoped that through this work a basis may be laid for a more accurate understanding of the effects and effectiveness of the religious use of television and a more informed consideration of its future directions. The sustaining theological motive for this effort is reflected by H, Richard Niebuhr in his discussion of the historic debate on the relationship of faith and culture:

It is helpful to recall that the repeated struggles of Christians with this problem have yielded no single Christian answer, but only a series of typical answers which together, for faith, represent phases of the strategy of the militant church in the world. . . . The belief which lies back of this effort, however, is the conviction that Christ as living Lord is answering the question in the totality of history and life in a fashion which transcends the wisdom of all his interpreters yet employs their partial insights and their necessary conflicts.(4)

 

Notes

1. Comstock et al., Television and Human Behavior, p. 1.

2. George Comstock, "A Critical Look at Television and Learning: A Review of Sesame Street Revisited," NCCT Forum, Fall 1979, pp. 37-38.

3. George Comstock, "The Role of Social and Behavioral Science in Policy-making for Television," Journal of Social Issues 32, 4, 1976, pp. 174-75.

4. H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, New York: Harper & Row, 1951, p. 2.

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