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The gospel according to television

Sunday, July 15, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

When you turn on the television and zap to a mainstream broadcast or cable network today, chances are pretty good you won't encounter religious programming. Or even talk of religion.

Religious shows air as paid programming on Sunday mornings, but network-sponsored religious programming all but dried up years ago.

Stacy Innerst, Post-Gazette

Aside from CBS's feel-good drama "Touched By an Angel" and more recently the NBC summer sitcom "Kristin," religion rarely makes an appearance in prime time. Even in the lives of multidimensional, supposedly realistic characters on drama series, acknowledgment of religious beliefs is rare. That's why when President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) argued with God on the season finale of "The West Wing," it became newsworthy.

Yet religion was once a part of mainstream network programming and continues to thrive today in the splintered cable television universe. This is the story of how and why televised religious programs went from a place of prominence to a niche ghetto.

Martin Sheen argued with God to much acclaim on "The West Wing" in May. But it was another Sheen, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, who hosted a weekly religious talk show called "Life Is Worth Living" in the 1950s. Sheen even won an Emmy award ("Most Outstanding Personality") in 1953.

Sheen's program aired in prime time, first on the DuMont network and later on ABC. At one point in its run, the series played opposite Milton Berle's "Texaco Star Theatre."

Quentin Schultze, a professor of communication at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., said Sheen's show was the single most important Catholic program in American history.

"Sheen's program helped legitimize Catholicism for many Protestants who had an inaccurate notion of what the Roman faith was all about," Schultze said. "His chatty style and irenic spirit made him phenomenally popular."

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Bill Fore, executive director of the Broadcasting and Film Commission of the National Council of Churches from 1964 to 1989, said Sheen automatically got a third of the audience in the 1950s because there were only three networks, but his program was never copied on a similar scale.

"He was a great performer and a good teacher," Fore said. "Even back in the '60s when I first came to the National Council of Churches, people would say, 'Why can't we have a Protestant Bishop Sheen?' And my answer was, you'll never see a Catholic Bishop Sheen again, let alone a Protestant one. It was just a moment in time. He was a great performer, and television was desperate for product and they put him on. That disappeared. Times change."

Evangelicals at the forefront

The foundation of all religious broadcasting was laid in the 1920s and 1930s with radio. Various denominations were buying local radio stations, much to the consternation of commercial broadcasters. The radio spectrum (AM only at the time) was limited, and the government didn't do much to regulate who got a license and who didn't. Potential advertisers were also concerned about not having enough mainstream, secular stations where they could buy commercial time.

Evangelical churches were at the forefront of broadcasting efforts.

"It got to the point where one out of 12 stations was religious, and most of them were evangelical groups," Schultze said. "They were more vigorous about wanting to use technology for evangelism."

Fore said some of the "more conservative, fundamentalist preachers were the spiritual descendants of snake oil salesmen, and, as a result, the radio networks shied away from them."

The forerunner to the Federal Communications Commission decided in 1927 it had to limit radio licenses, granting them to stations that served the "public interest, convenience and necessity." The FCC said commercial broadcasters still had to serve

certain specialized audiences within the complement of their programming. Religious broadcasting fell under this "public service requirement," and commercial stations were willing to give them time "as the price of doing business," Fore said. It wasn't a high price, either, as religious programs were slotted for times that weren't all that lucrative, particularly on Sundays.

In the 1930s, radio network executives, led by David Sarnoff of NBC, agreed to give religious broadcasters free time on commercial networks if they'd get out of the business.

David Marc, a visiting professor at Syracuse University with the Center for the Study of Popular Television, said the combination of these moves took away the reason for many of the religious stations to exist. Now, religious broadcasters could continue to offer programming without incurring the huge costs of running stations.

"A radio station without commercials is a losing proposition," Marc said. "They were no longer burdened by this."

For commercial stations, it was in their interest to offer free time to religious groups as justification for a license. But it was tough to cater to everyone.

"Stations had to somehow provide some religious programming, and the easiest way to do that without offending audiences was to have the mainstream, mainline churches control some of the time on the stations and let those groups, through the local chapter of the National Council of Churches, decide what to air," Schultze said.

The National Council of Churches is an organization devoted to Christian unity, whose members include mainline Protestant denominations, historically black denominations and Eastern Orthodox churches. Eventually the NCC helped create the Interfaith Broadcasting Commission, which also includes the Southern Baptist Convention, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the United States Catholic Conference. The IBC became the primary contact for the networks in producing religious programs.

"So the mainline churches were getting free time," Schultze said. "Evangelical groups, which previously controlled almost all of religious radio, had to compete in the marketplace and began working with stations to buy time."

While mainline churches shunned commercialism, others embraced it.

"The evangelicals never had a problem mixing advertising and religion, whether for themselves or selling time," Marc said. "It was the high-minded, well-educated Ivy League-types whose attitude toward advertising was that this was low-life stuff. The traditionalists, as opposed to the neo-conservatives and fundamentalists, thought it was odious to go on the air asking for money, selling partner gifts."

This is where religious broadcasting splintered along fault lines created by differences in ideology and politics. Mainline churches, viewed by the networks as a safe bet that appealed to a wide swath of viewers, took one path through the IBC, accepting free air time from stations and, later, networks. Independent Evangelical ministries, often fundamentalist, Pentecostal or charismatic, were seen as catering to a smaller audience and were not given free air time. They began buying time instead.

This practice, which began with radio, continued into the television age but didn't really saturate Sunday morning television until the '70s.

Marc said the networks also had concerns over the content of programming from evangelicals. IBC programs had broad appeal, espousing Judeo-Christian values with a theological bent that did not attempt to convert viewers. Evangelical programs were more likely to focus on converting those watching, which made the networks nervous. Executives feared some viewers would be offended.

The IBC approach depended on the cooperation of the networks. Evangelical broadcasters had much freer control of their futures by buying time and soliciting donations to pay for it.

"Evangelicals learned how to play the markets, and the mainline groups did not," Schultze said. "So years later, when the FCC relaxed the public-service requirements in this growing electronic universe and deregulation starts and stations realize they don't need to give free time [to mainline churches] anymore, the mainline churches were left out in the cold. They didn't know how to operate in the market."

Different paths

Syracuse's David Marc has amassed 30 interviews for an oral history of religious broadcasters in America, speaking to people as varied as Jim Bakker and Pamela Ilott, vice president of CBS's cultural and religious affairs department for three decades beginning in the 1950s.

He said religion got pushed aside when networks discovered the value of Sunday afternoon programming (football came to the forefront on CBS in the 1950s) and later Sunday morning programs (political discussion shows and paid religious broadcasts). The time allotted to religious programs began to shrink.

In the heyday of network-produced religious programming, a variety of faiths were represented, including Judaism. Catholicism also got its due, although Schultze said much of that programming was done on a local level.

Shows such as CBS's "Lamp Unto My Feet" thrived in those golden years. "Lamp" ran from 1948 until 1979, airing Sunday mornings on CBS. In a 2000 interview with Marc, Ilott said she understood the power of television but initially had trouble getting various religious groups to make good use of the medium.

"Up till then, all they'd really wanted to do was get services, or sort of Sunday school [on the air]," she said. "They were doing little moral plays on television with pretty crummy scripts."

Ilott steered CBS's religious programming away from drama and in the direction of documentaries, which coincided with Fore's NCC programming style.

Sometimes, the programs were specifically Christian, including visits to churches whose denominations were members of the IBC. Just as often, Fore said, the programs were "much more existentially oriented," raising questions about moral and ethical issues relating to poverty, justice and the like.

Religious programs by evangelicals, Fore said, were more about preaching and converting.

"They were completely different, and it stemmed from theological differences over what God is," he said. "The fundamentalists were then and are still convinced they had the truth with a capital 'T.' And once you start with that premise, it just naturally follows that your job is to get people to accept this truth using whatever means you can."

Fore, an ordained United Methodist minister, spent a good part of his tenure with NCC trying to expose what he thought were money-making schemes by so-called "televangelists."

"I think by and large these people sold out to the requirements of television to please an audience and sell an audience, and the Christian gospel comes up missing," Fore said. "You're sick? Give money to me, I represent God, and you'll get what you want. That has nothing to do with what the Bible says about God."

Fore's personal beliefs reflected the NCC policy not to ask viewers to send money to support religious programming.

"As soon as you start asking for money and get some, then you want to know where it came from and how you can get more," he said. "We felt that was a slippery slope."

Pioneer Pat Robertson

Others saw religion on TV differently.

Marc interviewed Pat Robertson, who saw television as part of God's plan.

"Robertson was very fast to make the point that God told us to preach the Gospel to everyone on Earth, and now there's a way to do that" with television, Marc said.

In his interview with Marc, Robertson spoke of pioneering interactive television with "The 700 Club."

"What we were saying could be received by the viewers," Robertson said in a February 2000 interview. "They, in turn, could use telephones to call back in and communicate with us, especially in relation to spiritual responses or to questions or to prayer requests. ... It's an extraordinary outreach. ... I don't know of anything more effective right now."

In Marc's interview, Robertson described his decision to buy a TV station in Portsmouth, Va., in 1960 as "a supernatural leading of God." But it was Robertson's vision of the future that led Marc to call Robertson a television technology pioneer.

"He's equal to Ted Turner," Marc said, "but it shows the prejudice of academicians against Christian evangelists that Robertson doesn't get mentioned in textbooks that are supposed to be about the building of the industry."

Even when he owned just one station, Robertson named it the Christian Broadcasting Network.

"There is no question that I had what I felt from the Lord [was] a big dream," he said.

Before the advent of cable, Robertson bought time for CBN on stations across the country. He purchased a block of time on a Turner-owned station in Charlotte, N.C., that became the first non-owned affiliate for CBN.

"We would take four hours of tape that we were producing in our headquarters, and we would send them by freight to stations such as Ted Turner's," Robertson said, describing his method of distribution in the days before routine transmission via satellite.

As cable became more widespread, Robertson was able to realize his dream of branching out from a single station to a network of stations to a cable-carried national network.

"Ours was the first satellite-delivered basic cable network in America," Robertson told Marc. "It was six hours a day times four. We had a six-hour block, and we ran it four times."

Robertson's CBN ultimately aired under the Family Channel name, until he sold the network and it became Fox Family Channel, which continues to broadcast "The 700 Club" daily.

Robertson's innovations weren't merely technical. With "The 700 Club," Robertson, with the help of Jim Bakker, created the first religious program in a talk-show format. Bakker also helped Paul Crouch, founder of cable's Trinity Broadcasting Network, to launch a daily talk show before Bakker moved on to his own ill-fated "PTL Club."

Schultze recalled Robertson even attempted to launch a Christian soap opera on CBN in the early '80s called "Another Life."

"They took the soap format hook, line and sinker, but dropped in Christian characters, evangelical characters, and it didn't work so well," Schultze said. "You'd have somebody upset about something, and they'd say, 'Let's go pray about it,' which doesn't fit the world view of soap operas, which is survival of the fittest."

Oleen Eagle, president of Wall-based Cornerstone TeleVision WPCB-Channel 40, said the recent "reality" trend that puts real people on television reminds her of what Christian broadcasters have offered from the beginning.

"Most of the Christian programming we do is live, and although it is not sensationalism, we're certainly talking about changing peoples' lives," she said. "It's a form of reality."

From paid to cable

Religious broadcasters willing to pay for air time or request donations gained prominence through the 20th century, while mainline denominations saw their platform erode. As deregulation of the television industry began in the '70s and increased in the '80s, stations more readily began to allow Oral Roberts- and Jimmy Swaggert-style TV preachers to buy time, replacing programs from Catholics, Protestants and Jews, who weren't paying for time.

Syndicated paid programs muscled out other religious programs on local stations in the '70s, and something similar happened on cable. Schultze said cable operators were more interested in networks that would cut the best deal than they were in offering a diversity of channels that included religious networks. Only Robertson's CBN and, later, Bakker's Inspiration Network and Crouch's Trinity Broadcasting Network were cable mainstays alongside Mother Angelica's Eternal World Television Network.

Despite the NCC's initial reluctance to get involved in commercial broadcasting, it ultimately helped build a coalition to launch Vision Interfaith Satellite Network in 1988. In the early '90s, it joined with the American Christian Television System, launched by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1984, to form VISN/ACTS.

"ACTS was created in the wake of the 'PTL' thing," said Chip Turner, vice president of marketing for FamilyNet, a broadcasting and cable network created in association with the Southern Baptist Convention. "There was a feeling religious television had gotten a very black eye, and one of the key factors in ACTS was there was no fund-raising for programs or the network. It would be advertiser-supported and supplemented in other ways, but they would not ask for money. VISN had a similar idea. Both were mainline denominational rather than charismatic. That's nothing against charismatics; it was just a different idea."

VISN/ACTS begat the Faith and Values Channel, then Odyssey Network, which airs interfaith programs that must adhere to the guiding principle of "no on-air fund-raising, no proselytizing and no maligning of other faiths." Odyssey will be renamed Hallmark Channel next month and will continue to carry some interfaith programming.

On local stations, Sunday-morning paid religious programming stumbled with the scandals that enveloped Bakker and Swaggert in the late '80s. Cornerstone's Eagle said their transgressions were harmful to all religious broadcasters.

"They coined the phrase 'televangelist' in that era, and I think it has stereotyped a lot of people as far as Christian television goes," she said. "Everybody got put into the mold of televangelist, and it's taken on a negative connotation, meaning a lack of integrity."

Eagle, who defined Channel 40's purpose as "touching people's lives with the Gospel," said she and other station executives could foresee the scandal that toppled Bakker. They pulled his program from their air more than a year before it erupted.

"What they were saying on the air didn't match what they were communicating to us on an individual basis," Eagle said.

It was not an easy decision because Bakker was paying for time on Channel 40.

"I think the Lord was protecting us and brought that to our attention. It was up to us to make the decision," Eagle said. "It was a decision of integrity, to do what was right and not to do what was going to give us the money that was needed."

The scandals of the '80s didn't just affect religious broadcasters; they also made commercial TV station executives more wary of religious paid programming.

"Once the scandals hit, there was a lot of concern on the part of local broadcast operators ... and donations to most of the TV ministries were down," Schultze said. "The networks took that opportunity to start pitching some of the Sunday morning [political] programs more vigorously. Religious broadcasts on commercial stations in the United States dropped off precipitously, and it never really has fully recovered. In shear quantity, it's much less now."

On direct broadcast satellite services, religious broadcasting has become more diversified. DISH network offers the Sky Angel package of 18 Christian TV networks, including Cornerstone TeleVision, a TBN SuperChannel, a reconstituted version of The Inspiration Network and Gospel Music Television.

Cornerstone's Eagle said the variety of networks available is the biggest change in the religious broadcasting landscape since WPCB was founded in 1979.

"Over a period of time, each one has come into what their focus is," she said, citing networks devoted to Christian programming for children, gospel music, sacred music and contemporary Christian music. "They've gotten into specialty broadcasting."

Today, the IBC continues to produce programs for ABC and NBC (the IBC also consults on religious programs produced by CBS). The networks feed those programs to affiliates, but it's up to affiliates to air them. NCC director of communication Pat Pattillo acknowledged these programs air on fewer stations than they once did, but "a surprisingly large number do carry them."

PBS has "Religion & Ethics Newsweekly" (9:30 a.m. Saturdays, WQED/WQEX), its half-hour newsmagazine that covers national and international events in the world of religion, spirituality and ethics.

And there are occasional specials in prime time, including a controversial Peter Jennings documentary on Jesus that aired last year.

"Television is becoming a niche medium and mainline religious broadcasting is becoming even more of a niche phenomenon than it was before," Schultze said. "Television is moving toward a smorgasbord delivery system. The audience decides what it wants to watch when it wants to watch it."

Religious programming may not be as prominent as it once was, but it has become more diverse. That mirrors what's happened throughout the television industry, with networks devoted to smaller and smaller niches cropping up.

"To me it is very significant, because of the demonstration that there is an audience out there even if it's a niche audience, that now the networks and other mainstream media have really started to make an effort to cover religion in a way they did not for many years," Marc said.

In the era of Walter Cronkite, the only time a church was on the air was when a church was damaged during the civil rights struggles, Marc said. "NPR is dominated by secular humanists, but now it has a religion editor."

But results are mixed. A study released last year by the Center for the Media and Public Affairs showed an increase in religion coverage in the past three decades. Another study showed that the media's coverage of religion offers little understanding of religious beliefs and practices.

As networks struggle to keep their audience in prime time, religion is now seen as a possible untapped frontier for appealing to viewers pulled in various directions. Just look at Judeo-Christian inspired, family-friendly Pax TV, whose ratings have grown slowly but steadily from 962,000 average viewers in prime time when it premiered in 1998 to 1.3 million in the current season.

"If you're looking to fill that niche, you better do something about it because they're not going to disappear," Marc said. "It shows that this is something that does, in fact, play in Peoria."

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com . Post questions to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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