Chapter 8: The Size of the Religious Television Audience

Religious Television: The American Experience
by Peter Horsfield

Chapter 8: The Size of the Religious Television Audience

Images of success have always been important to the fundamentalist and evangelical traditions. Success in one's endeavors, indicated by followers, finances, or miraculous occurrences, is frequently understood and promoted as an indication that God is blessing one's enterprise. Under this theological and practical pressure and under the influence of religious fervor and anticipation, the facts on which such success are based can often become distorted, producing the numerically descriptive phrase, "evangelastically speaking."

When certain evangelical preachers moved into the public medium of television, this same emphasis on success came with them. It reflected also a practical need to justify themselves socially after having lived for decades on the periphery of American culture. This need has created the interesting paradox already noted: while in their messages the paid-time religious preachers strongly criticize and even condemn secular society, in the staging and promotion of their programs they use criteria and celebrities from this same society to demonstrate their validity.

One of the dominant expressions of evangelistic success within the broadcasting field is audience size, and the paid-time religious broadcasters in particular lean heavily on this indicator. Much of the media attention attracted by religious broadcasters in the 1980 elections was caused by the popularly held belief that the broadcasters were being watched by a major portion of the American public. A consideration of impartial audience figures indicates that actual audience sizes for a religious broadcasting are much more modest than has been generally believed. In fact, when one considers the consistent exaggeration which took place in the light of audience surveys available at the time, one wonders whether such overstatement was purely accidental. It reflects both the "success-God's blessing" attitude as well as an opportunistic strategy by broadcasters to increase their own influence and promote their own cause in the presence of general public gullibility and naivety.

The recent media attention has also created questions about the historical trends in the followings of religious broadcasters. It is these questions that are to be considered in this chapter, in view of the available research.

The most commonly used figures for estimating audience sizes for television programs are those provided by the large survey companies, Nielsen and Arbitron. These two companies conduct continuous research on a carefully calculated, statistically representative basis into audiences of most broadcast programs on a local, regional, and national level. These audience figures are widely used by broadcasters and advertisers for the determination of a program's popularity and subsequent advertising rates. While there has been occasional criticism of the limitations of the surveys in measuring public reaction to programs, the surveys' reliability and validity in measuring audience sizes is generally accepted. Both survey companies include syndicated religious programs in their regular audience research and many of the large religious organizations subscribe to one or both of these services as an aid in the syndication and marketing of their programs.

How Large Are the Audiences of Religious Television Programs?

The research figures indicate that religious television programs are consistently viewed by only a small percentage of the American population. The most substantial information available is on syndicated programs, that is, by Nielsen definition, those programs that appear in five or more markets across the country. These programs now represent the large majority of religious programs on television. Nielsen survey figures show that in 1981 there were only five syndicated religious programs that had a national rating of one or better. This means that only five religious programs attracted more than one percent of the possible national viewing audience per average telecast during the four-week survey. As shown in Table 8.1, these programs were: Oral Roberts, Hour of Power, Rex Humbard, Insight, and Jimmy Swaggart. These low ratings are not simply the result of limited distribution of these programs. As can be seen in column (5), the major broadcasters have been able to syndicate their programs into most of the television markets in the country, providing in most cases better than 90 per cent coverage of the nation's television households.

Some programs have much more limited syndication but are as popular as the larger programs in the markets in which they are broadcast. The Roman

TABLE 8.1 Syndication and Ratings of Major Religious Programs, November 1981













Oral Roberts





Hourof Power





Rex Humbard










Jimmy Swaggart





Day of Discovery





Old Time Gospel Hour





Gospel Singing Jubilee





Ken Copeland





SOURCE: Nielsen, "Report on Syndicated Program Audience."

Catholic sustaining-time program "Insight," for example, has a smaller syndication than the larger programs: 59 stations for 51 percent coverage of the country. But in the markets where it is seen, or Designated Market Areas (column 3), it draws a greater percentage of viewers than most of the other programs. Similarly the smaller program "Gospel Singing Jubilee" is syndicated over 33 stations, but in those markets where it does appear it has a rating of 4.2, greater than any other religious program.

Religious programs are low in the overall rating of syndicated programs in the country. Of 339 syndicated programs ranked by Nielsen in November 1980 according to DMA ratings, the highest rating religious program, "Insight," was only 174th on the list. The next, "Hour of Power," was 223rd. In terms of actual audience numbers, in November 1980 only two of the programs had audiences of over two million. Another four had audiences of between one and two million. (See Table 8.2.)

These figures certainly belie the claims made by some of the paid-time religious broadcasters during the pre-election period of 1980. The figures are nowhere near the 20-million mark claimed by Jerry Falwell for his "Old Time Gospel Hour"; the 20 million claimed by Jim Bakker of "PTL Club"; the 60-million potential audience claimed by James Robison or the ten million homes which "are reached and helped each week by our TV program."(1) While such extravagant claims may be seen by some as unfortunate overstatements stimulated by the enthusiasm of the preachers and the controversial mood at the time, others see such exaggerations as deliberate deception by the broadcasters, designed to increase their influence

TABLE 8.2 Sizes of Audiences for Syndicated Religious Programs, November 1980


Audience (Persons)


Oral Roberts


Hour of Power


Rex Humbard


Jimmy Swaggart


Day of Discovery


Old Time Gospel Hour




PTL Club


700 Club


SOURCE: Derived from Nielsen, "Report on Syndicated Program Audience."

disproportionately and to further their own cause. Such overstatements have done little to allay fears about the dependability of the broadcasters in using any power they may acquire and in acting as responsible representatives in the use of the public airwaves.

There are, of course, many variables which affect a program's popularity as measured by audience size; finding the right combination of these variables is one of the arts of the broadcast programming industry. Given the present uses made of television in the United States, much of a program's audience is drawn, not from people who intentionally watch television to see a particular program at a particular time, but from people who have committed themselves to watching something at that particular time. (2) It follows, therefore, that if a program can be placed in a time-slot with a greater audience potential, its chances of gaining a larger audience even by accident is greatly increased.

Many past and present religious programs are of comparable quality to other general television programs. Many of them, for example, have won significant awards for quality and production. For reasons already noted, however, most religious programs have aired on Sunday mornings when the potential audience is lowest. Network religious programs are frequently aired in more favorable time-slots than the paid-time religious programs and have usually drawn comparable or larger audiences than even the most popular of the paid-time religious programs. The ABC network program "Directions" in February 1980 and 1982 had an audience of 596,000 and 616,000, respectively, which places it on a par with the major paid-time programs "PTL Club" and "700 Club." In February 1970, the NBC special "Tell It Like It Is" had an audience share of 13 with a viewing audience of almost five million. Though their audience dropped in the late 1970s, in 1981 the NBC one-hour specials still had an average audience per program of 1,674,000.3 The weekly audience for the three network religious programs in mid-1982 was still close to three million, a fact which is frequently overlooked because of their lack of flamboyance, and the controversy that has surrounded the paid-time religious programs.

When religious programs have appeared in prime-time either as an occasional series or as specials they have drawn a much larger audience than regular religious programs. The outstanding example was Bishop Fulton Sheen's series, "Life is Worth Living," which, in the 1950s, drew a sufficiently large audience to enable it to compete and retain commercial sponsorship in prime-time for several years. A study of the program audience in New Haven in 1952 found that Sheen's series was maintaining an audience share of greater than 30 percent, a substantial share for any program, let alone a religious one.(4) Similarly, Oral Roberts' Thanksgiving Special, which was syndicated in prime-time in 1970 reportedly reached over 27 million viewers.(5)

One of the frustrations felt by religious broadcasters has been the difficulty in finding both the finances and the opportunity to sustain a prime-time religious series. The American television industry does not believe that the American public wants such a series as it did when Fulton Sheen was approached in 1950. Unless the industry's attitude changes, it is unlikely that any religious broadcaster will be able to break out of the religious-ghetto slot on a sustained basis.

Trends in Religious Program Audience

The research indicates that after a decade of steady growth, audience sizes for most major paid-time religious programs reached a plateau in 1977 and have been fluctuating since then. Table 8.3 presents the audience figures for the ma)or syndicated programs for the past seven years. This period follows an earlier period of rapid growth in both the number and size of syndicated religious programs. A change occurred in these programs around the years 1977-78. Seven of the 10 major programs listed reached the peak of their growth in those years and since then have been either fluctuating below

TABLE 8.3 Audience Sizes for Leading Syndicated Religious Programs 1975-1981

Total Audience (Persons) in 000's










Oral Roberts








Hour of Power








Rex Humbard








Jimmy Swaggart








Day of Discovery








SOURCE: Derived from Nielsen, "Report on Syndicated Program Audience." NOTE: The figures for 1975 do not include Teens and Children viewers, which are included in the figures for 1976-81.

those levels or declining. With two of the others, "Hour of Power" and "James Robison," that characteristic appears to have been postponed till 1980.

This change in the patterns of growth for the major syndicated programs is reflected also in the patterns for combined audience both for the top 10 programs and for all syndicated programs, as shown in Table 8.4. Again, the growth in the combined audience for syndicated religious programs appears to have reached a peak in 1977 and has been fluctuating

TABLE 8.4 Audience Sizes for Syndicated Programs









Number of Syndicated Programs








Combined Viewers for Top 10 Programs (000's)








Combined Viewers for All Programs (000's)








Average Viewers per Program (000's)








SOURCE: These author's computations are derived from Nielsen, "Report on Syndicated Pro- gram Audience." NOTE: The figures for 1975 do not include Teens and Children viewers, which are included in the figures for 1976-1981. Combined audience figures are "gross" totals, i.e., may include duplications between program audiences.

since then. Though there was an upturn in combined audience in 1980 and 1981, the total still remains below the peak of 22.3 million for 1977. Recent Arbitron figures for February 1982 suggest that this swing may have returned the combined audience to the level of 1977, and that there has been a continued growth in the number of syndicated programs, placing a greater competitive pressure on the larger programs.

A longer historical period will determine whether these trends will continue. From the present perspective, however, the audience patterns for the past decade are indicative of growth to the point of market saturation (i.e., it appears that in 1977 the paid-time religious broadcasters reached the peak of their growth with the audience segment they can reach with their present program formats and contents). While there has been some restoration toward the peak of 1977 in recent years, and some movement of audience with the emergence of new programs, the overall picture indicates a marked levelling off of the rapid growth of the early 1970s.

One interesting observation to be gained from these figures is that the paid-time religious programs had reached the peak of their influence, numerically at least, almost three years before most public attention was given to them in the election year of 1980. In spite of the amount of public attention focused on them around the time of the election, the figures for November 1980 show no marked difference in the audience of their programs. It may have been this realization among the paid-time broadcasters which caused them to exaggerate the audience figures given to supporters and the news media.

TABLE 8.5 Average Stations, Ratings, and Audience Sizes for NBC One-Hour Religious Specials


Average Number of

Average Rating per

Average Audience




Per Program (000's)


















































SOURCE: NCC Communication Commission Reports, based on Nielsen and NBC research. NOTE: The drop in number of stations in 1977 is attributed primarily to substitution of these programs with paid-time religious programs by network affiliates.

This saturation characteristic is of considerable importance when we consider the future impact of such broadcasters. It removes much of the aura from the paid-time broadcasters as a universally accepted and influential social force and suggests instead that the phenonemon of paid-time religious broadcasting is demographically much more localized. This characteristic becomes clearer when one considers the demographic specifics of the audience of these programs.

The increases in the audience for the paid-time religious programs in the early 1970s initially affected locally produced religious programs. Their displacement of network programs on affiliate stations began to be felt around 1976-77 as can be seen in NBC religious specials (see Table 8.5), Before this decline, many of these network programs were regularly attracting a larger audience than most of the paid-time religious programs. The figures illustrate the drop in acceptance of network programs by affiliates beginning in 1976-77, and the effect which this has had on audience sizes for these programs.

How Large Is the Total Audience of Religious Television Programs?

It is difficult to calculate accurately the total number of people who regularly or occasionally watch religious programs on American television, because of the confusion in some of the available data. In clarifying these data, however, it is useful to distinguish between the audiences for syndicated religious programs and the audiences for the total slate of religious programming. Substantial information about the audiences of syndicated programs is provided by the Nielsen figures. These figures indicate that the combined audience for all syndicated religious programs in November 1981, for example, was 21,751,000. While this is a useful guide for calculation, there are some limitations in its accuracy as an absolute measure of the number of individual viewers of syndicated programs.

On the one hand, there are factors which suggest that this figure is too low as an estimate of the total audience for syndicated programs. The Nielsen figures represent the average quarter-hour audience for each program. It is possible that some viewers tune out in one quarter-hour, to be replaced by different viewers in the next quarter-hour. The average audience figures given by Nielsen therefore may be lower than the total number of people who see a particular syndicated religious program during the time of its broadcast. Some authorities suggest that there is about two- thirds more "total audience" for a given program than there is "average audience" at any given quarter hour. If this is accepted as a valid attribute, the total audience of syndicated programs increases to roughly 36 million people.

On the other hand, in the figure for the combined audience for all programs there is considerable duplication of viewers. Research by the Christian Broadcasting Network indicates that most of their viewers regularly watch other religious programs as well. The extent of this "other viewing" is quite high. CBN found that, depending on the other program, from 44 per cent to 69 per cent of their "700 Club" members are in the audience of the other programs. In some cases they found that some of their members viewed other programs as much as 25 or more times per month. (6) Assuming that there is a similar viewing pattern among viewers of other programs, this duplication could drop the total number of individuals who watch syndicated programs by as much as 50 percent, or down to as low as 15 million. The number of regular viewers would most likely be even smaller.

The further inadequacy of the Nielsen figures lies in the fact that they do not measure the audience for cable programs. The audience of cable programs in the United States is still a relatively unknown factor, and with an increase in the number of religious syndicators moving into cable the claim is made that a large number of additional viewers are attracted by cable religious programs. However, while the cable audience may add some viewers to this total number, it is unlikely that it would increase the overall size of the syndicated program audience substantially. By 1981 fewer than 30 percent of the television households in the United States were cable connected. Even if the addition of cable doubled a household's viewing of religious programming, cable would add only an additional million viewers to the total number. Given the increased diversity, selectivity, and competitiveness which cable brings in the choice of programs, it is unlikely that the movement of syndicated programming into cable will bring about a radical increase in the audience of religious programs. It is more likely to segment ever further the present specialized audience among a larger range of religious programs.

While the picture is far from precise, what is apparent is that the audience claimed by paid-time religious programs is far smaller than has generally been thought. It is unlikely that the regular weekly audience for paid- time religious programs exceeds 20 million people. A more realistic estimate is between 10 and 15 million individual viewers, many of whom watch several different programs each week to produce a higher combined audience figure. The figure of 15 million was the estimate given by Ben Armstrong in private correspondence with the author for the total audience of paid-time religious programs.

To attempt to estimate the total audience for all religious programs is even more difficult. In addition to the audiences for syndicated religious programs, the audience for all religious programs also includes the audiences for other programs such as local religious programs (which increasingly are turning to cable), network religious programs, religious specials, and those programs broadcast outside the regular sweeps period. Some network programs such as "Directions" have average audiences beyond the half-million mark, while some specials can attract an audience greater than one- and-a-half million viewers.

Some general community surveys have established approximate figures. A Gallup Poll in November 1978 found that 24 percent of a representative U.S. adult sample normally spent at least one hour each week watching religious shows on television, a number equal to approximately 36 million adults. An additional 5 percent or 7.5 million adults, indicated that they watched for less than one hour each week.(7) A similar poll conducted in 1980 for the American Research Corporation in Irvine, California, and published in a report titled "Profile of the Christian Marketplace," found that as many as 40 million adults watch some religious programs on a reasonably regular basis. (8)

It is apparent that much more research is needed before the size of the total audience of religious programs and its breakdown into categories of programs can be accurately evaluated. Certainly the picture is sufficiently clear to call into question the figures of over 100 million which have occasionally been quoted, and to assert that not all viewers of religious programs are viewers of the paid-time programs. The picture is also sufficiently ambiguous to question the certainty with which some broadcasters and commentators assert the extent of their outreach and influence.

In establishing the size of the audience for religious programs, one must always distinguish between occasional viewers and regular viewers. There may be a substantial number of viewers who watch religious programs on an occasional basis. This applies particularly to religious "specials," which are frequently seasonal in nature and have the added attraction of extrava- ganzas and of appearing in more favorable audience periods. The regular and supportive audience of religious programs is much smaller.


1. William Martin, "The Birth of a Media Myth," pp. 9-16.

2. Comstock et al.. Television and Human Behavior, p. 172.

3. ABC audience research and Nielsen Research quoted in personal correspondence with W. Fore of the National Council of Churches Communication Commission.

4. Parker et al., Television-Radio Audience, p. 210.

5. Ellens, Models of Religious Broadcasting, p. 87.

6. Market Research Group, National CBN Partner.

7. Gallup, "Evangelical Christianity," p. 43.

8. Quoted in Martin, "Birth of a Media Myth," p. 10.