Producing a religious television program is one thing; getting it into a viewer’s home is another.
Most producers of religious television programs buy air time from among the country’s approximately 1,200 stations. The cost of this time varies from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars an hour, according to the size and nature of the stations’ markets, and the time of day the program airs.
To cover this and other costs, television ministries rely on viewer contributions. However, some ministries, as well as nonreligious organizations, make money by selling their programs to cable networks such as the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) and USA Cable. These networks in turn profit by selling program packages to some 10,000 cable systems throughout the country, though the main source of the secular cable networks’ income is program advertising. The cable systems generate income by selling cable service to local subscribers.
When cable first came on the scene, the primary reason people subscribed was to improve reception. But cable television has captured a large and growing audience from traditional, broadcast television, and has thus become its fierce competitor.
However, only a semiregulated monopoly exists among cable systems themselves; if viewers are displeased by the programming offered on one system, they cannot switch to another. Because of the tremendous expense of installing cable, it is never profitable for a community to have more than one system. Local government leaders decide which system that will be. The selection process has been tainted by corruption in some cities, including alleged payoffs to politicians by the cable systems.
Some in religious broadcasting maintain that cable systems’ power to determine programming works against religious programs. “The cable operators, who are generally not church-minded, tithe-minded people, see all the fund raising as preying on elderly widows,” said Jim Bell, affiliate director of cable marketing for the Inspirational Network (formerly PTL).
Jerry Rose, president of the National Religious Broadcasters and operator of a major Christian television station in Chicago, said a recent court decision against what is known as the “must carry” rule has also hurt religious television. Cable systems were once required by law to carry all broadcast signals within a 35-mile radius. But the law was deemed unconstitutional. Rose added, “The scandals have given [cable operators] a better excuse to take us off.”
However, Paul Virts, director of marketing for CBN, is hesitant to point a finger at cable operators. “It’s never been proven that discrimination against religious broadcasters is widespread,” said Virts. “I think part of the fault lies with [religious broadcasters]. By and large we have not produced a product that is attractive to a large audience. You look at the ratings [for religious programming], and they stink.”
Nevertheless, Bell maintains that too many cable operators are obsessed with the financial bottom line. “We realize the audience for religious programming is small,” he said, “but it is loyal. It’s a segment of the community that cannot be ignored. We try to convince cable system operators that they need a 24-hour-a-day religious network to round out their programming. But we’re finding operators who are taking off one religious network and not replacing it with another.”
No Glitter for Lester
News of moral and financial scandal sometimes overshadows the fact that most of those associated with religious broadcasting are clean. Lester Sumrall is not among the best-known names in televangelism. But during 56 years of ministry as a missionary and in broadcasting, his record of moral and financial integrity has been exemplary.
Sumrall, who pastors a local church in South Bend, Indiana, began in religious radio in 1968, and purchased a large television station in Indianapolis in 1972. The 76-year-old evangelist is the founder and chairman of the Lester Sumrall Evangelistic Association (LeSEA, Inc.), which owns six television stations, including one in Honolulu. Sumrall’s own weekly, hour-long show, “LeSEA Alive,” is carried by ministry-owned stations and the Inspirational Network. CHRISTIANITY TODAY discussed with Sumrall the recent problems of television evangelists.
Are the fund-raising appeals by television ministries appropriate?
Frequently not. The purpose of Christian television is to lift people up, not to beg for money and then build tall buildings with it. The Lord has led us not to get on there every day and take up money. We’ve never called out a distress signal or said we were going out of business. We have a week-long telethon where we simply explain what God is doing and how people can help. It disturbs me that people see crisis appeals on other programs carried by my television stations.
As someone who has control over what goes on the air, what do you do about objectionable programming?
We try to influence people behind the scenes, and I think that helps. Sometimes when we confront people, they say, “We’re paying for this time.” And that’s what it comes down to. I don’t believe in being too harsh on people I disagree with. I don’t want to be a part of bringing someone down. If you leave people alone, God will judge them. So ultimately, the ethical ministries will succeed while the others will fade away. Where we have had major concerns, we’ve refused air time to people and have been sued for it.
What steps have you taken to avoid scandal?
That’s very simple. As missionaries most of our adult lives, my wife and I lived frugally; we raised our boys frugally. I have never received a salary from the church, television—anything. Twice a year my church gives me a love offering. I’ve had opportunities to be a millionnaire, and I’ve turned them down. I don’t want a big car and a six-figure income. I figure if you get all you’re worth here, you don’t get anything in heaven.
How does this relate to avoiding moral failure?
There are three enemies of the soul: the world, the flesh, and the Devil. Jesus said, “Love not the world nor the things that are of the world.” When a man begins to love the things of this world—big homes, expensive cars, lots of gold—the world opens the door to the flesh, and the Devil latches on. You can’t separate the world and the flesh. If those who have failed had not been greedy for the things of the world, there would not have been any moral problems.
What is your view of the prosperity theology preached by some televangelists?
You’ve got to define prosperity. As for money, you can’t feed the poor and spread the gospel without it. But the key is spending it on others and not on ourselves. I have friends with a lot of money who don’t love the world.
Some have noted that a television camera changes people for the worse.
That may be true for people who’ve never done anything else. They take themselves too seriously. I was a missionary. A church I started in the Philippines with nobody now has 13,000 members. To me, being on television is nothing.
Does the fundamental nature of television ministry make moral failure virtually inevitable?
Absolutely not. There are far more good examples than bad, examples of Christian gentlemen who’ve not tried to lay their hands on the money that comes in. I’ve met countless people who’ve said they were saved because of Christian television. Unlike some, I don’t think the market is too crowded. There is room for more. The only requirement is that people be sincere and honest and know they’ll have to meet God one day.
NORTH AMERICAN SCENE
Robertson’s Fingers Slapped
In a joint agreement between the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and the campaign committee of former presidential candidate Pat Robertson, the FEC has fined Robertson $25,000 for violations of federal campaign laws.
According to the agreement, Robertson became a candidate in 1986 when he announced at a rally broadcast live by satellite that he was seeking three million signatures in support of his candidacy. Robertson thus broke campaign laws by campaigning and raising funds after that rally, but before he formally registered as a candidate in September 1987.
According to federal campaign laws, a candidate is someone who has raised or spent more than $5,000 seeking a party nomination. “The context and content of the September 17, 1986, broadcast, and of the related direct mail program, went beyond the testing of the feasibility of a campaign,” wrote Lawrence Noble, general counsel of the FEC.
Is there solid evidence that abortion has ill effects on women’s mental or physical health? No, says U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who was asked last year to look into the matter.
In a report issued last month, Koop said there are numerous anecdotes on both sides of this segment of the abortion debate. But he said there is no scientific basis on which to draw any conclusions. The surgeon general implied there were people within the Reagan administration who “truly believed that such a report could be put together readily,” who felt it was a “foregone conclusion” that abortion had negative effects on women’s health. Koop acknowledged that some physical problems can result from abortion, but added that the problems occur also in women who do not have abortions.
Baptists Take Centrist Stage
Some two dozen Southern Baptists from around the country met recently in Dallas to form what they are calling a “centrist coalition” within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). The coalition was named Baptists Committed to the Southern Baptist Convention.
According to former SBC first vice-president Winfred Moore, who convened the gathering, the group supports “the restoration of [the SBC], not its destruction.” Moore said historic Southern Baptist principles, including the priesthood of the believer and the autonomy of the local church, must be preserved if the convention is to survive.
James Slatton, pastor of River Road Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia, and chairman of the two-day session, said the coalition “stands as an alternative between the political right wing on one hand and just checking out of denominational participation on the other.”
Slatton called biblical inerrantists who have taken control of the SBC over the last decade “sincere” and “zealous.” But he said they have damaged unity and trust within the SBC. He said the new organization will focus on issues, not candidates for church office.
Where Our Trust Lies
Organized religion and the military finished one and two, respectively, in the latest Gallup survey (1988) on the most trusted institutions. While 59 percent of the respondents either had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the church, 58 percent expressed confidence in the military.
Although confidence in religion still ranks high, it has been on a downward slide in the 15 years since the Gallup organization began conducting the yearly poll. In the 1988 survey, clergy finished behind pharmacists in the category of honesty and ethical standards. And who was ranked least trustworthy of the 25 occupations surveyed? Car salesmen.
PEOPLE AND EVENTS
Elected: Northern Virginia Episcopal pastor John W. Howe to the post of bishop of the Diocese of Central Florida. Howe, considered a leader in the charismatic renewal movement of the Episcopal Church, is expected to be an active advocate for the renewal movement within the church hierarchy.
Returned: To CBN University, David W. Clark, who will be dean of the College of Communication and the Arts, the post in which he served from 1977 to 1981. Clark served as the CBN network’s director of research from 1981 to 1987, when he left to serve as the federal bankruptcy trustee for Heritage, USA.
Died: On December 29,
Walter Carlson, chief announcer and news director for WMBI Radio in Chicago from 1942–83, at age 70 of cancer.
J. Vernon McGee, 85, on December 1, longtime radio Bible teacher and host of the popular program, “Through the Bible.” McGee invited listeners to climb aboard the “Bible bus,” of which he was the driver.
Formed: Discovery House Publishers, a new publishing company associated with the Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Radio Bible Class. It will publish full-length books and related products for the evangelical community worldwide.
Changed: The address of former President Ronald Reagan’s new home in Los Angeles, from 666 St. Cloud Drive to 668 St. Cloud Drive.
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