III. Relation of Different Media to Religion: (2) Broadcasting and Cinema

By Soukup, Paul A. | Communication Research Trends, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

III. Relation of Different Media to Religion: (2) Broadcasting and Cinema


Soukup, Paul A., Communication Research Trends


A. Broadcasting and Entertainment

Religious groups have used the broadcast media almost from their beginning for evangelization, teaching, and worship. At the same time these media, as well as the cinema, have found in religion a fruitful topic for their own programming. The research on this interaction encompasses reports on religious broadcasting; descriptions of religious uses of television, radio, and popular music; and a religious interpretation or critique of content in radio, television, and cinema. A great deal of this research addresses these media in the United States: the nature of its commercial broadcasting system, the early requirements that holders of broadcast licenses provide free services to religious groups, the development of well-known "televangelists," and a continuing wide-spread interest in religion in American culture all help to account for the extent of research on U.S.-based media and religion.

Overviews

For a general introduction, Erickson's Religious Radio and Television in the United States, 1921-1991 (1992) provides both a brief historical overview and a detailed look at key individuals, programs, and series. Arranged alphabetically, this reference work gives biographical sketches and program summaries. Ward (1994) presents an extended narrative history of evangelical broadcasting, more or less in chronological order, telling the stories of people and stations. He includes an appendix with biographical sketches of such important figures as Ben Armstrong, Paul Freed, Charles Fuller, Billy Graham, and Pat Robertson. Though good as a guide to evangelical broadcasting, he does not treat religious broadcasters from other traditions.

Television

Bobby Alexander examines televangelism through the lens of ritual, arguing that the audience for the television evangelists use their programs to fulfill social needs through the "ritual performances" of the programs (Alexander 1994: 3). He builds his case by a careful study of four programs: Jerry Falwell's "The Old Time Gospel Hour," Pat Robertson's "The 700 Club," Jimmy Swaggert's "The Jimmy Swaggert Show," and Jim and Tammy Bakker's "The PTL Club." In each instance he holds that both the ritual participation in the programs and the characteristics of that ritual participation (ibid., pp. 65-70) connect the viewer to a deeper sense of community (ibid., pp. 85-94) in an attempt to escape a social marginalization that these conservative evangelical Christians feel in the United States (ibid., p. 42). In other words, participation in the programs "help[s] viewers legitimate or validate in their own eyes their religion, religious identity, and religious group in the face of threats and opposition by mainstream American society, which is highly secularized" (ibid., p. 4). Alexander reports data from a survey of viewers in support of his hypothesis; however, he does acknowledge that the sample was non-random and self-selected, so it may not accurately represent all viewers of religious television.

Where many studies look at reasons for viewing religious television, a few more recent ones ask how and why such viewing affects the audience. Lawrence Nadler, Jeffrey Courtright, and Marjorie Nadler (1996) test a research model to explain why people give money to televangelists. They hypothesize that relational development--the more the audience feels that they have a personal relationship with the televangelist--explains the willingness to donate (Nadler, Courtright and Nadler 1996: 48-49). A group of test subjects drawn from a student population viewed four different television evangelists and rated them according to various intimacy-based relational assessments: similarity/depth, immediacy/affection, and receptivity/ trust. The researchers found a positive correlation between the intimacy measures and the willingness to respond to financial appeals.

   The stronger an audience member perceives a
   televangelist along these relational dimensions,
   the more he/she wants to watch the televangelist's
   program. … 

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