Televangelist Report Card
Predictions that the scandals in the late 1980s involving Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart would be the death knell for television ministries have proven wrong. Though the number of viewers and contributions have dropped by almost three-fourths compared to televangelism's peak in the early '80s, dozens of TV ministries from that decade remain on the air today. Even Bakker, during his frequent appearances on Larry King Live and Dallas preacher James Robison's program, shares his plans to return to religious television.
Twenty years ago, under the direction of my graduate professors at the University of Minnesota, I began monitoring how televangelists used their airtime. Seven studies later, I remain fascinated by the virtues and perils of merging ministry and television.
To get a handle on the current state of televangelism, I monitored 150 broadcasts of 22 different television ministries from September to November of 2000. Ministries were selected based on ratings, reputation, and availability via national cable outlets. Whites hosted about 90 percent of the ministries I monitored, and males about 80 percent.
Program segments were categorized and timed by theme in four ways: fundraising (which involves requests for money), promotion (the marketing of free ministry-related items such as gospel tracts or telephone help lines), politics (commentary specifically on the two hot topics of the month, the presidential election, and the peace process in the Middle East), and ministry (including music, prayer, preaching, and testimonies).
Two common criticisms of televangelists are that "they're always asking for money," or "they're always talking about conservative politics." Here is what I discovered about how the televangelists actually use their time.
Whether it's NBC, PBS, or the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), television broadcasting requires huge amounts of money. What I found, though, was that ministries actually do better than commercial TV in direct commercial appeals—using only 7 minutes an hour for fundraising while the broadcast networks use over 15 minutes an hour for ads.
The programs from my 2000 study used an average 11 percent of their airtime to ask for money, 8 percent in promotions, 4 percent to talk politics, and 77 percent in ministry. The "commercial" portions of religious broadcasts (combining fundraising and promotion) averaged 19 percent, compared to network television using 28 percent of its prime-time programming for advertising and promotional announcements (according to a 2000 study by the American Association of Advertising Agencies).
Fundraising appeals covered a wide range of styles. Some ministries, like Paul Crouch's Praise the Lord and Charles Stanley's In Touch, had separate segments offering an item in exchange for a contribution. Others, such as James Robison's Life Today, used larger segments of airtime to raise money for the poor by showing the hosts traveling to a needy part of the world. Some hosts made direct financial appeals to the camera, such as Jerry Falwell (plugging his correspondence school), Robert Tilton (asking followers to "make a vow" for $1,000 so they will be blessed), or Swaggart ("We've given you something. … and now I need your help").
The amount of time used to ask for money also varies dramatically. Some, such as Billy Graham or Catholic TV personality Mother Angelica, barely mentioned the subject. Others, like Falwell, spent more time asking for contributions than ministering to viewers. Oral and Richard Roberts used one-fourth of their telecasts to raise money, while Mart De Haan never asked for a penny on Radio Bible Class's TV show, Day of Discovery.