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TV REVIEW : An Entertaining ‘Koppel Report’ Takes on TV Evangelism’s All-Stars

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“This is ‘The Koppel Report,’ ” an ABC announcer intones in his best voice-of-God impression at the opening of “The Koppel Report: The Billion Dollar Pie” (tonight at 10 on Channels 7, 3, 10, 42).

It’s an ominous beginning to Ted Koppel’s examination of the televangelism industry and how it has been affected by last year’s scandals.

Touted as the first in a series of quarterly reports anchored by Koppel, the hour quickly lays out the background and makes its main point: The over-crowded, bitterly competitive and costly TV evangelism business is in trouble because its donor base of mostly over-50 females is shrinking.

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Then Koppel, who is nearly unrecognizable in open-collared plaid shirt and no tie, communes with a grandfatherly Virginia preacher whose poor and simple spiritual ways obviously are meant to be in diametrical contrast to the notorious materialistic ways of many of America’s 1,600 TV preachers.

Then the real show begins!

Pure Koppelesque, it’s seemingly foolproof: the undisputed reigning lion of tough TV interview journalism attacking TV evangelism in a Memphis church in front of 4,000 Bible-loving Christians.

But that’s not all. On stage with Koppel are six televangelism all-stars--Jerry Falwell, James Robison, James Kennedy, E.V. Hill, John Wimber and Jack Hayford--and the satellited visage of Robert Schuller. Schuller’s image--in what becomes a bizarrely funny twist of a commonly used technology--peers out like a spirit trapped in a box from a large TV monitor placed on stage exactly where he’d be sitting if he weren’t in Hawaii.

Koppel runs the show. Barely. He’s interested in money angles, comparing all the TV evangelists to hogs at a trough. Falwell says that what’s most important is where the money goes. Pastor Hill of Los Angeles, who later unabashedly defends his driving a Lincoln, thinks too much emphasis has been placed on sex.

Despite the emphasis on sinners and their sins, everyone seems to be having fun. There are lots of laughs and even a near cry. Produced by Richard N. Kaplan, “The Koppel Report” is great as confrontational television, but ultimately it is a lot more entertaining than informative.

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