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A Blessing Or A Curse?

10/14/2005 8:00 PM Eastern

Mention the word “televangelist” to John Roos and prepare to get an earful. “It’s such a terrible term,” says the senior vice president of marketing at religious cable programmer INSP: The Inspiration Network. “It’s a stereotype. It sounds like some kind of weird disease or weird person.”

Roos says excessive media coverage of isolated past scandals and general lack of understanding among those who don’t watch “ministry programs” have created vast misconceptions.

“There are people who have made mistakes over the years,” he says. “But there’s a perception of people out there just raising money for themselves. I assure you that this is not a way to make money. They didn’t go to business school and say, 'I’d like to make money, so I’ll go into religious programming.’ You’d have to have a screw loose.”

As religious networks expand their reach and increase viewership, they are cognizant of public and media perceptions surrounding what many would consider televangelistic programming — which generally features charismatic ministers who “pass the plate,” seeking viewer contributions.

But religious programmers say the days of major scandals and endless “preaching-from-the-pulpit” style shows are over, as formats change with the times. In addition, more shows have abandoned hard-sell tactics in favor of focused fundraising.

Still, televangelism and its ability to raise money likely will continue to be the bedrock of religious cable programming. The reason is simple economics: Religious programmers generally don’t receive any license revenues from cable operators. In fact, many pay for carriage.

What’s more, advertisers are skittish about sponsoring programming that, by its very nature, could offend potential buyers of opposing faiths or beliefs. Religious networks also aren’t anxious to sell ads for fear that corporations might try to influence content.

What’s left? Asking for donations from viewers, of course. “The model in churches is to pass the plate,” notes Roos. “There’s nothing wrong with that.” With that conviction, INSP is not opposed to running televangelist shows.

Some religious networks typically sell air time to individual ministries, which raise money from viewers in order to pay for the time slot. Other religious outlets produce much of their own content, reserving only a portion of air time for third-party ministries.

Trinity Broadcasting Corp., for example, devotes about 50% of its schedule to ministries that buy time. But the network limits them to only three minutes per hour to raise money or sell merchandise such as books and audio products. “We don’t make a profit off of the air time,” says Bob Higley, TBN vice president of cable and satellite relations. “It’s not a major part of TBN’s revenues.”

Yet, TBN has attracted criticism — perhaps because it’s the largest and one of the most successful religious networks. With almost 6,500 cable affiliates and access to nearly 65 million cable homes, TBN takes in between $180 million and $200 million per year, of which $120 million to $140 million comes directly from viewer donations. The rest comes from the sale of air time to third-party ministries.

But TBN’s methods have drawn fire. The network, which solicits donations in twice-annual telethons, often evokes the “prosperity gospel,” which holds that God rewards people financially when they contribute to the church.

“The prosperity gospel tends to be a lightning rod here,” admits TBN vice president of administration Paul Crouch Jr., son of TBN’s iconic founder Paul Crouch. “But it’s not the focus of this ministry.”

Still, Crouch says TBN has no plans to back down. “If we responded and reacted to criticism, TBN wouldn’t exist.” Besides, he says TBN would carry advertising or infomercials if its only concern were making money. “TBN was created for ministry, not to be the home shopping network,” he says.

Still, some religious networks shun televangelism altogether, either out of principle or because it doesn’t fit the target demographic or their mission.

ALTERNATIVE APPROACH

The Worship Network, which was showing mostly nature shots interspersed with music and scripture in five-hour blocks on Pax TV, launched a 24-hour digital cable network on July 1. The channel won’t run any televangelistic content.

“We have just taken a firm stand that we don’t do that,” says Bruce Koblish, president of The Worship Network. “We take a different approach.”

Worship supports itself with advertising for “religious products” and by asking for donations “without becoming an infomercial network,” says Koblish. “We’ve chosen not to become a singularly, personality-driven network.”

In addition, religious programmers have begun branching out beyond the traditional televangelism model, which tends to skew heavily toward elderly and female demographics. Increasingly, they’re reaching out to younger audiences.

TBN in 2002 launched JCTV, which features music videos, reality shows, extreme sports and other fare targeted to the 13-to-25 demographic.

“We’re upping the ante in terms of quality and variety,” says Crouch. “Televangelism and Bible-thumping will reach a certain crowd, but it’s just a sliver of the audience.”

SEEKING YOUNGER VIEWERS

Another channel aiming for younger viewers is God TV, a Washington, D.C.-based programmer with carriage in England. It expects to launch on DirecTV Inc.’s satellite platform in 2006, with digital-cable carriage to follow. The channel’s target demographic is 13- to 39-year-olds.

“We’re going to have very few televangelists or paid programs,” says Tom Snethen, God TV vice president of affiliate relations. “The reason we’re doing that is that we’re going to target younger viewers. That programming does not connect with that age group.”

Not only that, but new religious networks are looking to provide something different. “It would be a disservice if God TV just offered more of the same,” he says. “There is a repetition factor with some of these paid ministries.”

Paid ministries, while popular with many viewers, also fuel televangelism opponents. One critic, The Secular Coalition of America, filed a May 2004 complaint with the Federal Communications Commission arguing that DirecTV improperly granted television channel capacity reserved by law for “educational or informational” programming to televangelists. The FCC rejected the complaint.

“I don’t think there is any doubt that televangelist [content] is among the worst programming on television,” says David Niose, the attorney who filed the SCA complaint. “It spreads falsehoods. It encourages lack of free thought.”

But even networks without televangelism say the medium sometimes gets a bad rap.

“I think the vast majority of those who are on other channels who might be defined as televangelists are good and holy people who are trying to do the right thing and convert people and bring people to salvation,” says Michael Warsaw, president of Eternal Word Television Network. The Catholic network doesn’t carry televangelist shows from outside sources. “I don’t think you can paint with one broad brush and say that all televangelists or people who preach through television ministries are good or bad.”

Religious networks also get little credit for their philanthropic efforts, including relief work related to the Asian tsunami disaster and hurricanes Katrina and Rita. “When money comes into us, we spit it right back out,” says Crouch.

DISASTER RELIEF

TBN spokesman Colby May says the network has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and services to the Gulf Coast following the hurricanes (including use of a helicopter). It also donated about $600,000 for tsunami relief and continues to send supplies, food and medical care to impoverished Haiti.

INSP has raised some $20 million for Hurricane Katrina relief, says Roos. “Look at the good things we do.”

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