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Top Ratings for Schuller, 'World Tomorrow' : Two TV Ministries Rise Above Bible Belt

April 01, 1989|JOHN DART | Times Religion Writer

After the 1987-88 televangelist scandals, it was no surprise that the Rev. Robert Schuller's weekly "Hour of Power" emerged atop the religious programming heap.

The glass on the Crystal Cathedral was barely smudged during the "holy wars" period, but every preacher's moral and financial integrity was scrutinized.

As a result, the Garden Grove pastor dropped from a high of 2 million viewers in 1986 to about 1.3 million, and he sounded the alarm for emergency donations last Christmastime. Schuller apparently bounced back, while several Bible Belt shepherds saw their living room flocks continue to shrivel.

As Schuller marks the showing Sunday of his 1,000th consecutive telecast (a celebrity-laden program with Mother Teresa, the Rev. Billy Graham, President Bush and four ex-presidents) he enjoys the widest viewing audience of any syndicated religious show.

But quietly edging upward to share part of the spiritual TV summit with Schuller is "The World Tomorrow"--a half-hour program on current issues produced by the little-known Worldwide Church of God, headquartered in Pasadena.

Schuller ranks first in number of viewers--some 1.63 million nationally, compared to 1.37 million for the second-place "The World Tomorrow," according to Arbitron, a company that tracks syndicated TV religious viewing four times a year. Those figures, from last November, came from diaries kept in selected households.

But "The World Tomorrow" ranks first in the number of households that turn on that program, according to Arbitron. The advantage in household numbers apparently comes from the fact that the Pasadena-produced program is aired on 232 U.S. stations--70 more than "Hour of Power."

In the most recent tabulation, taken in February and released Thursday by Arbitron in New York City, Schuller was closing the gap in the household figures behind "The World Tomorrow." "World Tomorrow" was switched on in 1,387,000 homes, a gain of 56,000 since November, while Schuller's program was watched in 1,368,000 homes, an increase of 73,000.

Although Schuller and the big-name evangelists have been analyzed extensively, most published studies of religious television have paid little notice to "The World Tomorrow," although it had climbed to fourth place in viewing audience size by November, 1986.

Resembling a religious "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour," the program has four alternating hosts who weave videotaped interviews and news footage in with commentary on subjects ranging from the AIDS crisis, environmental problems and divorce to "last days" prophecies.

The answers, the program advises, are found in the Bible--a claim that sounds like a standard, conservative Protestant approach. A close listener would detect distinctive interpretations in the non-trinitarian church founded by the late Herbert W. Armstrong.

The church observes a Saturday Sabbath and many Jewish holy days, but not, for instance, Christmas or Easter, because those holidays arose out of post-biblical traditions. Members are expected to contribute more than 10% of their incomes and to stay out of political life.

The Arbitron figures do not give the full picture of religious television viewing because cable programs are not monitored. It is unknown whether some evangelists would rank higher if it were possible to add cable watching. At any rate, Schuller and "World Tomorrow" are also on some cable systems, so their numbers would climb as well.

The success of two top-rated programs outside the "fundamentalist preacher" genre is seen by some observers as promising for religious television, regardless of how limited that audience is. Religious-programming audiences are substantially smaller than those of the lowest-rated network shows, industry officials say.

Televangelists Jimmy Swaggart of Baton Rouge, La., and Oral Roberts of Tulsa, Okla., have suffered the most slippage in recent times. Both were viewed in fewer households in February than last November.

Swaggart, reported to have had a liaison with a prostitute, confessed publicly to unspecified sins in February, 1988, and subsequently was defrocked by his denomination, the Assemblies of God.

Roberts announced this week that he must have $11 million by May 6 or face financial collapse. The faith healer and university president attributed a decline in donations to scandals in other ministries. "I have never been a part of those scandals," he said.

Roberts never seemed to recover, however, from the furor and ridicule that erupted in early 1987, when he said that God would take his life unless he raised $8 million to provide scholarships to medical school students at his college by April 1 that year.

Commenting on the realignments in ranking, Stewart M. Hoover, author of "Mass Media Religion," said in an interview:

"There is no substitute for being in the game a long time and not ruffling feathers."

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