Christian Media

How Christian TV Got This Way

The emergence of "paid time" broadcasting...

A reader asked an interesting question the other day:

“Why is it that Christian TV shows do not use secular advertising? I mean you wouldn’t want a Beer commercial airing on your broadcast but what would be wrong with commercials from companies that we purchase from? Some would be car dealers, soft drinks, personal hygiene, etc. What are your thoughts on this subject? Mine personally are we could get our programming in more stations if we did more advertising other than our own.”   – 
Ron Rhone

For more than a century, Christians have been taking the words and teachings of Christ to the world via what can be called a mass media. In many ways the history of the mass media – in America in particular – has also been the history of the Christian media. Just as the secular world began with the power and fascination of motion pictures, so did the church. At the turn of the century, Christians were some of the most prolific producers of movies in the country, and one of the first full length motion pictures was about the massive passion play in Oberramagau, Germany.

The next step was radio. According to the book, Air of Salvation, the National Religious Broadcasters 1994 landmark history of Christian media, by Mark Ward Sr., just months after the first secular radio broadcast (November 2, 1920) came the broadcast of a Sunday vespers service at Calvary Chapel in Pittsburgh, PA (January 2, 1921).

During the last thirty years, religious media has changed dramatically, and I’ve been privileged to be part of that change. When I began as a student in the 1970s, working on prime time TV specials for Oral Roberts, Christian television was surging in popularity. At that time, Oral Roberts was creating network quality prime time programs with popular special guests like Dionne Warwick, Robert Goulet, and Johnny Cash. Roberts had been on television since 1955 when he literally invented “paid-time broadcasting” with “The Abundant Life Program” on NBC, and now in the late 70’s, he was easily the most popular regular, national broadcaster in Christian television.

He never asked for money, focused on family entertainment with an inspired message, and during those days of only three major networks, reached a staggeringly large audience. Peggy George, media buyer at the time for Oral Roberts Ministries, recalls that ratings varied according to the season and the special, but averaged 25 to 40 million viewers. Ms. George remembers, “This was a time before significant cable penetration and with very few religious stations, which we rarely used because of their low audience figures. I remember that our Sunday morning programs reached 4 million at the peak, running mostly at 9 or 9:30 a.m., and we were consistently the top-rated religious program against other ministers like Rex Humbard, Robert Schuller, Jimmy Swaggart, and Jim Bakker.”

It was another era, indeed.

In those days, the Oral Roberts Ministry purchased the first three RCA cameras off the production line. They represented the cutting edge video technology of the time. The first camera was named the “Evelyn II” in honor of Roberts’ wife. At the time, we pioneered the recording of all cameras and then synching them to edit, called “ISO” recording. This revolutionized the way multi-camera television was directed and edited.

Since Oral couldn’t be scripted and was totally spontaneous, recording the program on a single videotape machine was a real risk. You never knew what to expect with Oral, so we developed a system (revolutionary at the time) that allowed us to record (or ISO) every camera on the set. It was complicated and difficult to work out – especially with up to six cameras, but today it is standard on every multi-camera television program.

On a much smaller scale, local Christian broadcasting was beginning across the country, as people like Pat Robertson in Virginia, Claude Bowers in Florida, Blackie Gonzales in New Mexico, Russ Bixler in Pittsburgh, and Paul Crouch in California began buying TV stations in local markets and creating programming.

On all levels, it was a remarkable time. There was little controversy within religious media in those early days. Budgets with national programs were large enough to produce just about anything, and the impact was enormous.

When Oral Roberts went to NBC with “The Abundant Life Program” in 1954, they brought in the usual suspects to advertise and sponsor the show. But in those days, advertisers had a great deal of influence over the programs they sponsored. If it was Holiday Inn, Bayer, or anyone else, they could approve the script, crew, subject matter, and more.

Obviously, that bothered Oral. If he was going to preach the gospel, he didn’t want Bayer, Alcoa, or another company to tell him what he could and couldn’t do.

So he cancelled the contract and went back to Tulsa.

But then he thought, “If Bayer or Holiday Inn can purchase that airtime, why can’t I?” So he went back to NBC with the idea, and they said it had never been done before – but why not?

That’s the day when “Paid Time Broadcasting” was born.

It was a brilliant move, and allowed Christian television to grow on a national scale. Oral went out and raised the money – and then began offering books and other products on TV to pay for the time.

But the world has changed. Cable television splintered the three major broadcast networks into multiple channels. As I write this, our cable company in Los Angeles offers 500 channels, and even the most remote places in America can access multiple channels through various cable or satellite providers.

In the late 60’s advertisers began to say, “I don’t care what you put on the air, just deliver me a lot of eyeballs.”

So advertisers moved away from influencing content, to simply sponsoring it. That was when Christian broadcasters should have gone back to Madison Avenue advertisers and said, “Bring on the Bayer, Holiday Inns, and other sponsors, and we’ll allow them to sponsor our shows.” But by then, the splintering of the channels had begun, and advertisers felt there wasn’t a big enough audience to justify their sponsorship of Christian TV. So now we’re stuck in the “paid time” model that essentially hasn’t changed since 1954.

In spite of that splintering of the industry, today there are multiple networks devoted solely to Christian programming on the radio, television, and now the Internet. Nearly any hour of the day or night, one can tune in a religious program on some form of media anywhere in the United States, and most places in the world. Cross-country drivers can hear gospel music and teaching on their car radios. Teaching, preaching, even Christian entertainment programming can be found in nearly every market of the western world.

And a related revolution is also now in evidence. All across the Internet one can find Christian content, from news and commentary aimed at believers, to Christian-oriented blogs, chat rooms, and short films. As a “preacher’s kid”, who grew up in the church, I witnessed these changes first-hand. As a media professional and television producer for more than a quarter century, both in the secular and Christian media, I have been involved as Christian media has refined its approach, and raised the level of quality, producing more effective and successful programming with each passing year. I was recently interviewed by an Australian television network about how increased production quality has impacted Christian broadcasting.

However, I also know that we are in a time of reappraisal, a period when we must take a new and critical look at the electronic, evangelistic tool that we have created.

It seems only a few years ago Christian preachers and teachers were encouraging creative young people to take a “new” approach and move into the media, where they could reach multitudes in numbers that the Apostles could only dream of. But, that time was nearly half a century ago. So, while we have to continue to encourage Christians to use the media to spread the Gospel, we must also make sure we haven’t become complacent, and sloppy with the media tools we have. We must be certain that we haven’t fallen into old habits that take the sting out of our revolutionary outreach.

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11 Comments

  1. Great point. Its my suspicion that christian ministries might be concerned that secular advertisers would potentially own or somehow restrict them if they were to get into financial arrangements with them. I don't think this has to be the case though. Maybe if one ministry did it, others would follow. I'm sure they could use the money. From what I can gather, the audience numbers should be attractive to secular advertisers. In fact I've seen advertising targeted at more minority groups than christians.

  2. An interesting case in point is the recent issues with Veggie Tales on NBC. If a network chooses to "censor" content to appease advertisers, what influence might advertisers have on programming? I suspect the fear of inappropriate or controversial advertisements is a large factor as well.

  3. I worked many years at a church in the TV ministry, and now recently working for TBN (please don’t hold it against me). It has always been a challenge to fund projects, especially if you want to spend money on creativity. My desire has always been to produce a program that could compete in the secular market, and we are starting to see that in the entertainment field with some of the recent movies that has been made. However in TV, I think it is much more difficult, because we do have the current system of paid programming. I think Joel Osteen could probable get some corporate sponsors, but he would probable need another department to run that part of the ministry. And would it still be non-profit? I do believe things are changing at TBN with Paul Jr. in regards to creativity, but i doubt funding will change.

    The majority of TV that my family and I watch is commercial free, mostly DVD and some PBS as well as TBN. I don’t even pay for TV; I use a wireless system called an antenna. We don’t like our kids to watch regular TV because of all the commercials; it just gives them the “I want”. In fact about the only commercial TV I watch is NASCAR, but I record it so I can skip past the all the commercials, and any fan would say there are way to many. But I do realize without them, I wouldn’t be able to watch my races. I will admit I do watch the Superbowl for it’s commercial, and just FF past the game. Of course there are other programs that I do watch, but it just comes from channel surfing. And I do tune in to other program now and then that do get my attention.

    When I think of some of the commercials on Christian radio, I am not sure that I would want to see a 60 sec TV version. Would we really get better results or would viewers turn us off when the commercials came on!

    One area that seams to not get much attention when we talk about “fixing Christian TV” is do we want to take away the avenue of God’s people being able to sow into ministries to help spread the good news of Jesus Christ.
    Christian TV is no different than the local church. Taking up tithes and offerings to help cover the expenses of the church as well as to help it grow and reach more people. Some churches use that income to air broadcast on Christian TV.
    Should we start putting billboards in our churches advertising the local Ford dealership? I don’t know, maybe some already are?

    Like Phil has said many times, whoever finds a new way of funding our projects, that is when we will really start seeing an impact.

    Paul B.

  4. There are many ways to fund raise, and/or monetize media products if we are but willing to consider unconventional solutions to chronic problems.

    For example, in the early 1980’s I worked at a Salem Media owned radio station (WNYM, 1330 AM, New York) which did a number of unconventional things:

    1) It time-shared its transmission frequency with another station. For half the day the owners of WPOW transmitted on 1330 AM. The rest of the day the owners of WNYM transmitted. As a result Salem Media lowered their cost of entry into the expensive New York City market and shared certain operating costs (antenna, etc.) with another entity.

    2) During the WNYM hours, they transmitted Christian AND foreign language secular programming. Selling “paid broadcast time” to foreign language producers helped subsidize Christian (English) programming.

    3) They sold advertising.

    Eventually WNYM purchased WPOWs rights giving Salem full control of the programming 24 hours per day. They then wound up selling WNYM for many times its purchase price allowing Salem the financial resources and liquidity to purchase a few other stations (WMCA 570 AM, WWDJ 970 AM) to have full-time Christian content on better frequencies within the NYC market.

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