Television: The Birth of a Media Myth

Someone seems to have miscounted in checking the roll at the electronic church

“STARTING IN THE predawn hours of Oeach Sunday morning, the largest religious gathering in America takes place, drawing almost 130 million people to their radio and television sets.” So began Ben Armstrong’s book, The Electric Church (1979). So also began a major media myth. Perhaps because Armstrong is a minister, a good man, and the executive director of the National Religious Broadcasters, most people who have written about or commented publicly on the phenomenon of electronic evangelism seem to have taken Armstrong at some version of his word. His estimate of the size of the weekly audience for broadcast religion has been repeated uncritically by people who should have known better. Similarly impressive figures on specific television evangelists—Jerry Falwell is a prime example —have been accepted as truth and, depending on one’s point of view, allowed to stir either unrealistic alarm or false hope.

In an August, 1980, series on the “electronic church,” the New York Times quoted Armstrong’s figure of 130 million without challenging it, though the Times did note that some estimates for individual ministers, including Falwell, appeared to be inflated. Earlier in the year (January 21, 1980), the Times had credited four television ministers with a total audience of 47 million. The Wall Street Journal said on July 11, 1980, that “every week television evangelists like Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell reach an estimated 128 million viewers.” U.S. News & World Report referred in its September 15, 1980, issue to “TV gospel shows beamed to 50 million viewers each week by evangelists such as Falwell, Robertson and [James] Robison.” In a December 8, 1979, story, United Press International estimated that “about 115 million persons listen to at least one religious radio show and about 40 million watch at least one religious TV show each week.” An article in the October 6, 1980, edition of New York magazine not only set the membership of the electronic church at 130 million but also asserted that “contributions to teleministries may be measured in the billions”—a figure far above the $500 million that newspapers and magazines usually attribute to the fund-raising enterprise of all radio and television ministries combined. The same article credited Rex Humbard with “playing to an audience of 100 million worldwide.”

Since early last year, most media attention to the electronic church has focused on Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority. Though few reporters claimed to know any Falwell supporters personally, they were sure the woods and towns and cities were full of them. In a strident article about the New Right, Penthouse set the audience for evangelical television at between 40 and 60 million, and Playboy reported that “each week as many as 30,000,000 Americans tuned in to Jerry Falwell’s Old-Time Gospel Hour.” Jimmy Breslin whittled Falwell’s audience down to 25 million; the Today show and Bill Moyers gave him only 20 million; and Joseph Sullivan and Anthony Lewis, of the New York Times, various reporters at Newsweek, and the Knight-Ridder newspapers seemed finally to settle on 18 million as the appropriate estimate. On occasion, however, the Times has noted that Falwell’s actual audience might be as small as 6 million.

Such estimates appall main-line church leaders, who are already anxious over the willingness of television stations to broadcast paid evangelical programs instead of providing free time for programs produced by more liberal religious bodies. One of the most persistent critics of electronic evangelism has been William Fore, head of communications for the National Council of Churches. Despite his extensive acquaintance with religious broadcasting, Fore wrote in TV Guide (July 19-25, 1980) that “some 47 per cent of Americans see at least one religious program a week on TV.” Another influential main-liner, James M. Wall, editor of The Christian Century, wrote in the October 22, 1980, issue of that publication that “these fundamentalist television preachers now reach over 100 million persons each week.” (Wall’s editorial, ironically, was based on Richard Hofstadter’s essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”)

Some TV ministers avoid such claims, but others have given new meaning to the phrase “evangelistically speaking”—an insider’s reference to the tendency of some preachers to count arms and legs instead of heads. Jim Bakker, for example, has claimed that his PTL Club, a television talk show, has an audience of 20 million, even though fretful PTL associates declared to the Charlotte, North Carolina, Observer that the figure was “a total fabrication.” Rex Humbard’s press materials once claimed that his program was seen by “up to 100 million”; his current promotional literature makes the more modest claim of 1.4 million. Jerry Falwell’s Faith Aflame magazine has estimated his audience at 15 million, although Falwell admits he really does not know how many people watch and hear him. Publicists for James Robison claim that his television show has a potential audience of 50 to 60 million people, though they fail to note that fewer than a million actually tune in. In a recent fund-raising letter, Robison stated, “Over ten million homes are reached and helped each week by our TV program.” Other evangelists make even more extravagant claims. Early this year, Frances Swaggart asked supporters of the ministry of her husband, Jimmy, to send money to buy TV equipment that would “reach approximately 300 million people with God’s love in 1981.” But no electronic preacher outstrips Bert Clendennen, who has often told his radio listeners that his program reaches “one out of every two people on the face of this earth.”

CLAIMS SUCH AS these would be understandable if we had recourse to nothing more substantial than faith, hope, and guesswork. Fortunately, we can do better. In the course of a decade of research on the electronic church, I have examined a substantial number of audience surveys, some conducted by academics, some by the Harris and Gallup organizations, and some by private market-research companies. I have also looked closely at several years of audience data published by Arbitron and Nielsen, the two major rating services for broadcast media. The results are remarkably uniform, and the conclusion to which they point is that the audience estimates cited above, however much they may differ from one another, have one feature in common: they are all absurd.

Several polls have indicated that between 45 and 50 percent of adult Americans listen to some type of religious radio program at least once a year, but the regular audience is much smaller. A 1978 survey, conducted by the Gallup organization and published in a series of articles in the evangelical journal Christianity Today in 1980, found that only 5 percent (7.75 million) claim to listen as much as three hours a week. Another Gallup poll, conducted in 1980 for the American Research Corporation, of Irvine, California, and published in a report titled “Profile of the Christian Marketplace,” showed that only 15.5 percent (24 million) said they had tuned in on a radio preacher during the previous thirty days. Similar findings obtain for religious television. Perhaps as many as 40 million adults watch some religious programs on a reasonably regular basis, and 12 percent (18 million) say they watch two or more hours per week. Many of these, of course, watch denominational programs and local church services instead of or in addition to the programs of the nationally syndicated ministries listed in the table accompanying this piece. But since these national ministries have generated most of the interest in the electronic church and its audience, I shall focus specifically on them.

Both Arbitron and A. C. Nielsen provide extensive information about each of approximately sixty syndicated religious programs—taped or filmed series available for telecast by individual stations. Like all survey data, their figures are estimates, based on samples and sampling procedures that, as the rating services freely acknowledge, are subject to minor error. Further, the total audience for the electronic ministries is somewhat larger than indicated, since the ratings reflect average audiences— not all viewers who ever watch a given program or viewers who watch periodic prime-time specials produced by some of the ministries. Also, no audience figures are supplied if fewer than one percent of the television households in a given market were tuned to the program in question, with the result that a small number of viewers are not counted. Finally, the rating-service estimates do not include figures for audiences viewing the programs over some cable systems. Though several electronic preachers make much of their cable outlets, claims of enormous audiences for cablecast religious programs should be regarded with great skepticism. Only 16 million American homes were receiving cable television in mid-1980. Available data on cable audiences indicate that most subscribers use cable primarily to improve reception of programs on VHF and UHF stations, and to receive entertainment and sports programs available only on cable.

As the table makes clear, the weekly audience for syndicated television preachers is small, with only Oral Roberts and Robert Schuller attracting viewers in as many as 2 percent of the households in the areas in which their programs are broadcast. Fewer than 10 million households containing television sets were tuned during November of 1980 to one of the top ten programs produced by independent (nondenominational) ministries. Even this figure may be high, since it assumes no overlap between audiences—an assumption no one familiar with the electronic church would make. The stars of the movement appear on the same programs, speak at the same rallies, and, increasingly, cooperate in various ventures, with clear confidence that they are appealing to the same people. Fundraising organizations sell mailing lists of people known to contribute to more than one ministry. And the Gallup/ Christianity Today poll revealed that about half the “Orthodox Christians” who watch religious television watch at least two hours a week, indicating that they watch more than one program.

Examination of Sunday-morning viewing patterns, in a random sample of market areas surveyed by Nielsen, provides good circumstantial evidence of audience overlap. In city after city, regardless of the numbers involved, religious programs typically draw quite small audiences between 7:00 and 8:00 A.M., then pick up sharply for two or three hours, after which most syndicated preachers abandon the field to Meet the Press, Face the Nation, and various local shows. This pattern suggests that many viewers of religious television get up at about 8:00 A.M., turn the set on, and watch whatever appears until it is time to leave for church. To be sure, they discriminate among programs—Oral Roberts and Robert Schuller almost always outpoint the Kroeze Brothers’ Crusade and the R. A. West Revival— but they are favorably disposed toward religious programming, and are likely to watch whatever is on. Demographically, this audience is predominantly female, over fifty, workingand lower-class, and, true to stereotype, likely to live in rural areas, towns, and small cities in the South and Midwest. It is also composed almost entirely of believers, most of whom are members of conservative Protestant churches.

If the hypothesis of multiple-program viewing is valid, and 1 have no doubt it is, the average weekly audience for the top ten programs is considerably smaller than the 13,767,000 cumulative viewers ascribed to them by the Nielsen service. A figure of 7 to 10 million seems fair. Perhaps two to three times that many watch the programs on an occasional basis, an estimate that squares with a Harris Poll survey placing the audience for television preachers at approximately 23 million.

Whatever the true size of the total audience for the leading television preachers, that audience does not appear to be growing. On the contrary, it seems to have reached its peak and begun to shrink. Last November, nine of the ten most popular television ministries were reaching fewer households than in February of the same year. Losses suffered by these nine ranged from Jerry Falwell’s minimal 2.3 percent decline, during a period of enormous publicity, to declines of 21 percent for Rex Humbard and Oral Roberts. In the case of the top six ministries, all had recorded larger household totals prior to 1980; thus, these figures are not an aberration but part of a continuing decline. Oral Roberts, for example, has lost more than 40 percent, of the audience he had in February of 1977. The average number of viewer-households per station has also declined in the case of each of the ten ministries.

These findings have several implications, but three are particularly noteworthy. First, they make clear that the impact—political or otherwise—of television ministries such as Jerry Falwell’s and James Robison’s is based more on organization, dedication, and diligence than on overwhelming numbers. Second, though the electronic ministers have been able to raise astonishing sums of money from their generous and committed followers (at least four television ministries have acknowledged annual incomes in excess of $50 million), the money pool appears to be finite and fund-raisers may already have approached its limits. This could prove especially significant to ministries committed to courses of action that presuppose continued growth. Jim Bakker’s PTL Club had to scale down an ambitious building program to avoid financial chaos; Oral Roberts’s City of Faith medical complex in Tulsa appeared to be in fiscal danger before the evangelist reported his vision of a 900foot Jesus who gave the enterprise His blessing, which stimulated a flow of cash gifts; and one hears rumors that other organizations have overbought and overbuilt without taking sufficient thought for the morrow, and that this has forced them into ever more desperate appeals for funds.

Finally, because the audience for evangelical broadcasts is not only modest but composed largely of active church members, and since, according to a Gallup survey, fewer than 5 percent of the 61 million Americans not affiliated with any church could recall ever having watched a television preacher other than Oral Roberts (12 percent) or Billy Graham (11 percent), the usefulness of the broadcasts as tools of evangelism—the primary justification used to raise money—must be seriously questioned. This is not to say, however, that the electronic church is dying, or that it brings no benefits to the evangelical community. Religious broadcasts doubtless strengthen and deepen the faith of listeners by providing them with instruction, exhortation, inspiration, hope, encouragement, entertainment, example, and opportunity for service. They also serve a symbolic function of considerable importance. As evangelicals notice that virtually all the religion on radio and television is their kind of religion, that the secular media are fascinated by it, and that liberal Christians are panicked by it, their confidence is buoyed, and their hearts cheered. They realize that they are no longer a beleaguered, backwater minority but a significant and thriving part of mainstream American Christianity. And that may well assure the electronic church a congregation that is sufficient to keep the cards and letters coming.


Ministry Stations Rating (% of viewer households in coverage area) Total Audience Total Households % Change in Total Households since February, 1980
Oral Roberts 177 2.1 2,351,000 1,553,000 -21.6
Robert Schuller 161 2.0 2,130,000 1,427,000 -3.6
Rex Humbard 209 1.8 2,079,000 1,308,000 -21.0
Jimmy Swaggart 207 1.5 1,789,000 1,148,000 -10.0
Jerry Falwell 244 1.35 1,440,000 986,000 -2.3
Dayof Discovery 180 1.3 1,267,000 879,000 -14.1
PTLClub 193 1.3 1,050,000 776,000 -11.9
700Club 123 .9 705,000 569,000 -4.7
James Robison 69 1.2 575,000 383,000 +7.3
Ken Copeland 69 .7 381,000 277,000 -14.4
13,767,000 9,306,000

SOURCE: A. C. Nielsen Company, Report on Syndicated Programs for February and November, 1980. Used with permission. Arbitron data are similar, but tend consistently to report slightly smaller audiences than Nielsen.

William Martin