Could a wholesome television show with evangelical undertones—but without the hard-sell gospel—lure viewers away from “General Hospital” or “60 Minutes”? Pat Robertson and his Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) intend to find out, with programs designed to attract non-Christian as well as Christian viewers from all walks of life.

Posing a prime-time threat to ABC, CBS, and NBC is little more than a distant hope, but CBN’S momentum is unmistakable, attracting widespread notice in broadcast trade publications. By this month CBN will have nudged its way into the industry’s Nielsen ratings by gaining nationwide access to nearly 14 million households able to receive cable television programs.

Their foray into the marketplace began last year with a clean break away from traditional Christian television fare. Like other religious broadcast entities, CBN found itself preaching primarily to the already-converted, and drawing just 2 or 3 percent of the total television viewing audience. Michael Little, executive producer of “The 700 Club,” said the shift to a secular appeal began when CBN strategists asked themselves, “What impact are we really making in response to the Great Commission?”

The answer appeared to be “not much,” so CBN began replacing pulpits and King James English with Johnny Carson-style sofas and soap-opera vernacular. Its anchor show, “The 700 Club,” assumed an upbeat, magazine format, complete with news spots from Washington, D.C. Other programs resemble familiar TV Guide lineups, with a top-quality soap opera, early morning news and chatter, a miniseries on pornography, Wall Street analyses, and entertainment for children.

Behind the “big three” networks, CBN is still a distant second in size to Ted Turner’s Cable News Network, based in Atlanta. From plush colonial headquarters in Virginia Beach, Virginia, CBN beams its offerings via satellite to 2,700 cable affiliates. A subsidiary, CBN Continental, consists of television stations owned and operated in Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, and Portsmouth, Virginia, where Robertson first went on the air 20 years ago. Altogether, CBN broadcasts have the ability to reach a potential 85 percent of American households.

By presenting a smorgasbord of shows with the whole family in mind, CBN is bucking a trend toward “narrow-casting”—a term for cable broadcasters and networks that opt for a single specialty such as all-news, all-sports, or R-rated movies, CBN’S leap of faith is a high-risk venture, and it has never succeeded before.

Article continues below

But, as Robertson sees it, the time is right. “In some areas, as much as 30 percent of the total viewing audience is now watching cable or independent TV stations,” he says. “That means the economics are such as never before. We can really rival the major networks.” The proliferation of home videocassettes, videodiscs, Home Box Office movies, and locally operated low-power stations increasingly challenges “big three” dominance.

CBN’S splashiest attempt to communicate a Christian alternative is “Another Life,” a soap opera that attracts 100,000 viewers in New York City alone, according to Arbitron, an industry rating service.

The daily half-hour drama stars a happy, intact Christian family whose members pray their way through difficulties. In early November, “Another Life” featured a miraculous healing, “leaving no doubt about where we stand,” said a CBN employee.

The show’s producer, Lynwood King, has worked with other soaps such as “One Life to Live” and “Ryan’s Hope.” He said Christian characters on network shows are usually one-dimensional portrayals, thrown in for sensational value. “As a Christian, I feel the time is indeed ripe for what this show has to say. We are really striving to show a Christian famiy—how they cope with problems they run up against.”

Production for the soap proceeds on a round-the-clock schedule, with professional actors and detailed sets. Some scenes, such as protagonist Lori Davidson’s wedding, are filmed on location—a rarity even for other network soaps because of the expense.

In its other programming as well, CBN spares no expense for talent and technology. As a result, the budget continues to be a major inhibiting factor in fulfilling Robertson’s dream of a “fourth network.” Leasing satellite transponder time, essential for nationwide cable distribution, costs $115,000 each month, and that figure rises steadily. A sophisticated computerized lighting system in the four production studios carried a price tag of more than $1 million.

To alleviate some of the financial pressure, CBN is selling commercial air time to sponsors that include Richardson Vicks (makers of Vicks Nyquil and Oil of Olay), General Mills, and Kraft. Religious broadcasters who previously received free air time were charged fees of $2,800 per half-hour, causing many of them to cancel and look elsewhere for an outlet.

Article continues below

That has had repercussions among CBN fans who miss pulpit pounding and Bible reading. CBN Satellite Network director Tom Rogeberg said, “A large group of people are wondering if we have forsaken our mission. We have not; we’ve just refined it.”

Robertson defines that mission as a “long-range aerial bombardment” approach to evangelism, and he points to statistics that show phenomenal increases in the number of viewers. “Our male audience for ‘The 700 Club,’ after we made the shift to a more news-oriented format, went up 77 percent,” he said. “The thing that I’m thrilled about is that young married couples are watching the program; this is a key target audience.” Robertson estimates that 2.5 million viewers tune in weekly.

In the world of Christian television, reaching more viewers is what the Great Commission is all about. “Last year we had 75,000 people accept the Lord,” Robertson said. “In the last two weeks of October, we had close to 4,000 decisions for Christ”—measured by call-ins to 10,000 “700 Club” counselors in 83 cities. “The evangelism is actually heightened, but the presentation is much more subtle.”

Calling himself “an evangelical who believes in the gifts of the Holy Spirit,” Robertson described his philosophy of evangelism: “I believe that Jesus Christ is part of everything that we do in our lives. We want to show the full-orbed life through the perspective of Jesus Christ. You have to deal with people as they are and not as you would like them to be, because the world is not a giant church service.”

On “The 700 Club,” Robertson radiates the combined demeanor of a Mister Rogers and a Mike Wallace as he banters with cohost Ben Kinchlow. Recent guests have included Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, columnist Robert Novak, cosmetic mogul Mary Kay Ash, baseball star Hank Aaron, Walter F. Mondale, a vice-president of Gulf Oil Corporation, and a Wycliffe Bible translator.

An ordained Southern Baptist minister with a law degree from Yale, Robertson believes in advocacy journalism, or espousing a position while presenting the facts. But at the same time, he has quietly distanced himself from movements and personalities of the New Right, including Ed McAteer’s Roundtable and the Moral Majority.

Article continues below

Less controversial is “USam,” with a “Good Morning, America” format and former Miss America Terry Meeuwsen as anchorperson. “Bears and Blankets,” a program aimed at one-to four-year-olds, was developed by students and faculty at CBN University, adjacent to the network. Other shows, purchased from independent producers, include “American Trail” (patterned after Charles Kuralt’s “On the Road”), “This Week on Wall Street,” National Geographic specials, country music with Barry McGuire, and “Romper Room.” Movies produced by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s Worldwide Pictures and reruns of old comedy serials round out the lineup.

The challenge before CBN is to develop a mix of programs appealing to a diversity of viewers without diluting the salt of the gospel message. While they are not on the verge of sacrificing spiritual truth at the altar of Nielsen ratings, the pressure of competition is on the rise.

For now, the drama at CBN is just beginning to unfold. Will wholesome programs appeal to non-Christians? Will commercial sponsors support Christian television? Will Lori find happiness as a newlywed? Stay tuned.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.