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.


(ENTIRE BOOK) A comprehensive study of religious television. History of its early development. Who views religious TV, why they view, and how the experience affects both viewers and the local church.


  • Preface

    The author sets the stage for his examination of religious television in America. The issues involved and questions to be answered.

  • Chapter 1: The Emergence of Religious Television

    Religion on television has been around since the inception of television, just as it was with early radio. The history of the first twenty years, including Bishop Sheen. The rapid expansion from 1960 and the shift from network donated time to purchased time.

  • Chapter 2: The Making of the Monopoly

    Four main players in the growth of religious television are examined: the FCC, the television industry, the viewing public, and the religious broadcasters, including their use of sophisticated computer technology to “answer” mail and solicit funds.

  • Chapter 3: The Electronic Evangelists

    Analysis of specific television evangelists including Oral Roberts, Jerry Falwell, Robert Schuller, Pat Robertson and CBN, all of whom had humble beginnings. Horsfield reviews their charisma, drive, planning, and in particular their marketing techniques.

  • Chapter 4: Religious Programs and Television Culture

    Television’s social functions. TV has exerted a strong censoring effect on the portrayal of religion. The author considers the dangers of TV’s tendencies toward over simplification, instant gratification, and sensationalism, and concludes that when religious buys into the TV culture, it runs the risk of distorting not only life, but also religious faith.

  • Chapter 5: The Struggle within the Churches

    The author examines the debate in the church over the growth of paid-time religious programs which has centered on several major issues, including the nature of the church, its mission, evangelism, pastoral care and counseling, and the social and political impact, and also the communication aspects: one way versus interactive communication. He concludes with some theological perspectives on the issues.

  • Chapter 6: Research and Religious Television

    The absence of factual information about religious television led to speculation and rumors which were proved false through verification. The author reviews the considerable research on religious TV.

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

    Horsfield documents the rapid growth of paid-time religious programming during the 1960’s and 1970’s.

  • Chapter 8: The Size of the Religious Television Audience

    A major of TV success has been audience size, and this is especially true among paid-time religious broadcasters. However, actual audience size has been more modest than reported by most TV evangelists.

  • Chapter 9: Characteristics of the Religious Audience

    Key questions about television audiences are examined. Who watches religious television programs? Are the programs viewed by people who are otherwise nonreligious or unchurched? Why do people watch these programs?

  • Chapter 10: Religious Television and Attitude Change

    The initial purpose of religious television has been to change people to a particular religious view. Some people are changed, but who? Do they already favor religion and perhaps a particular religious belief? Is their faith strengthened?

  • Chapter 11: Religious Television and the Local Church

    The local church, its members and particularly its leaders, may view religious television as in conflict with, and damaging to, their traditional functions. Is this so? The author looks at what is revealed by the research.

  • Chapter 12: Religious Television and American Culture

    A major concern at one time was the political influence that religious programs have in the society. Research has shown that this influence is not very large, certainly not as large as that attributed to it by the news media. Horsfield looks in particular at Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority.

  • Chapter 13: The Future of Current Trends

    The auidience for paid-time religious programming reached a plateau in 1977, and has not changed significantly since. Religious television is thus not a universal model for religious faith. It is more of a specialized programming for a specialized audience.

  • Chapter 14: A Strategy for the Religious Use of Television

    Television is a significant form of social communication. The author suggests several guidelines that should govern the church’s involvement with television.