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ARTICLE: Robertson R Us, Part 2

When evangelicals look in the mirror, do we see the host of The 700 Club staring back?
1996This article is part of CT's digital archives. Subscribers have access to all current and past issues, dating back to 1956.

Programming changed, too. In 1981 the network, which had always broadcast a high percentage of "family-oriented" material, eliminated all weekly religious broadcasts except the 700 Club. Reruns of popular shows such as Gunsmoke took their place. By 1982, CBN had enough advertising revenues to make a profit. By 1987, it could begin charging cable networks for its broadcasts. Eventually, the cable operation made so much money it endangered the tax-exempt status of CBN and was spun off as International Family Entertainment, a separate corporation, which owns the Family Channel with a contractual commitment to broadcast the 700 Club daily. (In the process of this transition, Robertson personally made millions of dollars, much of which he has donated to his various ministries.)

The secularization of programming dismayed many Robertson followers. In reality, it reflected Robertson's original concern for reaching the irreligious. Several published critiques had severely questioned the audience claims of religious television. CBN took them seriously. "What impact are we really making in response to the Great Commission?" was the question raised, according to Michael Little. They were ready for radical change in order to reach the lost.

It's a great story, how Robertson took a defunct TV station and by faith created the thing we call "religious television." It's also a retelling, with different technology, of the story told again and again in evangelical history. In the 1820s, Charles Finney rewrote the rules of revivals, with extraordinary results. Billy Sunday, D. L. Moody, Billy Graham did the same in their own ways. Still, you are left with a nagging doubt: What does it amount to? Certainly it comes to less than Robertson dreamed ...

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