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.