Religious broadcasting, once thought of solely in terms of Sunday-morning services and video preachers spouting the gospel, has shifted its approach dramatically to one of talk and game shows, upbeat music hours and popular comedy reruns in order to spread its message.
And now television evangelism, in search of a way to broaden its audience and attract new advertisers, has reached out yet again and invaded the sometimes sordid, always accessible world of sports.
Praise the Lord and pass the ball.
The Christian Broadcasting Network, which operates the nation's third-largest cable network (behind ESPN and Ted Turner's WTBS), will be originating two sports series in the coming months -- the Prudential/Bache Securities Grand Champions Tennis Tour and the Grand Prix Horse Jumping Classics.
So it isn't Wimbledon or the Kentucky Derby, and you're not likely to see the NBA playoffs on CBN anytime soon (perhaps a blessing in disguise), but the seniors tennis and horse-jumping shows indicate the industry's new direction of mass appeal.
"Moving into sports is further enhancing our 'family entertainment' appeal. We want to broaden our audience base," said Timothy Robertson, son of the network's president, M.G. (Pat) Robertson, and the man who oversees the cable operation. "We really think horse jumping is a very, very hot sport. It's a fast-growing sport. We like tennis because it's a family-type of thing. We highlight the doubles because most people play doubles."
The elder Robertson founded the Virginia Beach-based CBN in 1960, and three years later, he began hosting "The 700 Club," a fast-paced, evangelical talk show seen daily nationwide (and locally on WDCA-TV-20). CBN was the first TV station in the nation to devote more than half its air time to religious programs.
CBN Cable began in 1977. It now reaches more than 28 million homes on 5,300 cable systems. In 1980, CBN Cable shifted its emphasis from primarily inspirational programming to more broad-based, uplifting entertainment. Today, less than one-third of its programming is inspirational/religious.
CBN stresses wholesome shows such as "Blondie," "Burns and Allen" and "The Jack Benny Show." And its old westerns, like "Wagon Train," are extremely popular. According to spokesman Earl Weirich, CBN Cable's lineup of westerns on Saturday afternoons draws higher ratings among men than any sports cable network.
Like many noncommercial public television stations, CBN decided it had to diversify its approach to justify its existence.
"Let's face it, less than 2 percent of people in the country were watching inspirational networks. We weren't going anywhere," Timothy Robertson said. "You have to have impact. There was a real backlash against the networks. You saw an awful lot of (sex) or violence on television. The only thing you saw against that was 'Little House on the Prairie.'
"There's a changing mood in the country toward family-oriented, traditional values. We're trying to project a positive image. Not every show has to have a message. We think there is some value in entertaining people without offending them . . . Our big challenge right now is the creation of original programming."
Part of that challenge has moved CBN Cable to sports. The tennis, hosted by ex-player Barry McKay, will air irregularly on Sundays from 7 to 9 p.m. starting May 5. The horse jumping, hosted by Bob Wolff, will air on Saturdays from 10 to 11 p.m. for 10 weeks starting July 6.
In the 1982-83 season, CBN tried some college basketball, airing 17 games ranging from the Pacific-10 to the Metro Conference. "But we got drowned," Robertson said. "Everybody has college basketball. If something isn't a major event, then we're not interested in it unless it has a unique quality that appeals to our audience."
Robertson is looking at other sports for the near future, including youth soccer. But the network that bans advertisements promoting alcohol, tobacco, contraceptive products and X-rated movies is not about to throw its hat into, say, the boxing ring.
Pray TV ain't ready for Leon Spinks.
"I'm not too crazy about boxing," said Robertson, whose father was a Golden Gloves fighter. "I don't think I'd want to have it on the air."
Correction: In Sunday's column, NBC sportscaster Bob Costas was chided for hosting the sports music video show. He did not; Bill Macatee did.