SAVANNAH, Ga. — Far more Americans watch religious television programs than most analysts previously thought, according to a study released here Friday by the A. C. Nielsen Co., the TV ratings firm.
The landmark study is the first national ratings measurement of religious broadcasting in America, Nielsen said.
The survey, commissioned by the Christian Broadcasting Network of Virginia Beach, Va., found that 61 million people--representing more than 40% of the nation's households with television sets--watched one or more of the top 10 syndicated religious broadcasts during the survey month, February of 1985.
The Nielsen report, issued at a time when religious TV personalities such as Pat Robertson are preparing for possible campaigns for political office, gives a new index of the potency of the "electronic church" and the forum it provides TV preachers.
Robertson's "700 Club" show on the Christian Broadcasting Network topped the Nielsen ratings with a projected monthly viewing audience of 28.7 million. Robertson, founder of CBN, has raised the possibility of running for President in 1988.
The survey was released at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, an international body of 1,400 scholars interested in the cross-cultural exchange of ideas and studies in the field of religion.
Jeffrey K. Hadden, a University of Virginia sociologist and president of the society, called the Nielsen study "an important step forward in audience measurement technology."
"The methodology is impressive, but more importantly, the numbers are big--really big--big enough to warrant talk of political ambitions," Hadden said. "The pace at which religious broadcasters have moved to define the public agenda is astounding. . . . The underlying conservative mood of American culture owes much of its sustaining, driving focus to the electronic evangelists."
In 1980, Hadden examined the Arbitron ratings for syndicated religious programs and estimated a total of 20.5 million viewers. Other estimates of total national religious TV audiences have ranged from a low of 7.2 million viewers a week to a high of 60 million adult viewers, based on the finding of a 1984 Gallup survey.
Metered Sets Sampled
The new Nielsen ratings are the first for religious programming to be based on a nationwide sample of metered TV sets, including cable users. Computer trackings in 1,700 households, including 900 with cable TV, were monitored, Nielsen spokesman William Behanna said. Household "diary" listings by selected viewers were also used, showing who watched and for how long.
The study found that 21% of all U.S. households tuned in on one or more of the top 10 religious programs for at least six minutes each week; that doubled to 40.2% when the time period was the entire month of February.
Following the "700 Club," which attracted the largest weekly audience, were "Jimmy Swaggart," Robert Schuller's "Hour of Power" and the "Jim Bakker Show."
According to Nielsen, "700 Club" attracts the largest percentage of women (59%), while "Jimmy Swaggart" attracts the most men (57%). Jerry Falwell's "Old Time Gospel Hour," aired on Sunday evenings, draws the highest percentage of children: 30% of its viewers are between the ages of 2 and 11, the survey found.
Dramatic Growth Explained
David W. Clark, CBN's vice president of marketing, said at a press conference here that the new ratings "help to explain the dramatic growth of some of the national television ministries."
He added that many of the programs touch on subjects such as marriage, education, news, politics and public policy, psychology, medicine, and "others considered to be outside the narrow program category thought of by many as 'religious broadcasting.' "
Although it may be difficult to prove that religious TV influences what viewers think, Clark said, "it is clear these programs are setting an agenda of what viewers will think about."