New Concept of TV Network : Crouch Uses Low-Power Stations to Expand TBN

Times Staff Writer

Imagine a new kind of television network.

Made up of hundreds of stations nationwide, this network delivers a clear signal that millions of television sets can receive without special equipment. It’s an over-the-air signal that doesn’t require increasingly costly cable service.

Televangelist Paul F. Crouch has done more than imagine such a network. He has begun to put one together.

Crouch, who from the time he learned how to operate a ham radio at the age of 15 has been a technical innovator, has built or bought at least 75 low-power television stations--at a relatively modest cost of from $50,000 to $100,000 each. This makes him the largest holder of such franchises in the country, according to John Kompas, president of Community Broadcasters Assn., a trade group.


The low-power acquisitions have coincided with a shift in emphasis at Crouch’s Tustin-based Trinity Broadcasting Network away from the costly acquisition of more full-power stations--it now owns 17--and from fighting to stay on the 580 cable systems which still carry it.

Buffeted by scandal and controversy, television evangelists have faced increasing difficulty in recent months in keeping their programs on broadcast and cable systems. Consider:

- The financial survival of Jim and Tammy Bakker’s PTL Network, now renamed the Inspiration Network, is in doubt, according to broadcast industry observers.

- WWOR of New York, one of the largest independent, satellite “superstations,” decided that selling time to religious broadcasters is not worth the aggravation and has bounced all of them, including mainline ministers such as the Rev. Robert Schuller of Garden Grove’s Crystal Cathedral.

- Even low-profile TBN has been dropped from some systems, including Cox Cable in San Diego and Rogers Cable of Huntington Beach.

- And Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, which sells advertising and is now operated for profit, has reduced religious fare to 20% of its total programming. CBN has changed its name to the Christian Family Network and is now known as FAM on the 7,000 cable systems that carry it.

“There is a squeeze generally on cable systems,” said Linda Haugsted, senior editor of Multi Channel News, a New York-based publication which monitors the field. As a result of this situation and the televangelism scandals, she said, “systems have pulled back on religious programming.”

“There’s no question that it has become a tighter environment for religious broadcasters,” said Larry Gerbrandt, senior analyst for Paul Kagan Associates, a Carmel, Calif., consulting firm.

Still another threat to television evangelists has been the emergence of the Vision Interfaith Satellite Network (VISN), a religious cable-programming service involving a coalition of 20 mainline Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Orthodox groups.

Launched Sept. 19 by Tele-Communications Inc. of Denver, the largest cable television operator in the nation, and by some other large cable systems, VISN is carrying some advertising but isn’t selling time to religious broadcasters or permitting on-air solicitations. Local churches and synagogues are able to substitute some of their own programming.

‘Respectable’ Alternative

Industry observers say that VISN provides a “respectable” and entertaining alternative to paid religious broadcasting and/or an excuse to boot such broadcasting off its systems, where competition for slots has increased.

“With the scandals of religious broadcasters in last several years, principally PTL, there was almost a groundswell of opinion in the cable industry” to put some distance between the preachers and the operators, said Gregory J. Liptak, president of Jones Intercable Inc. of Denver, whose Albuquerque, N.M., system is slowly squeezing out TBN to make room for VISN programming.

Unlike TBN, which carries no commercial advertising and pays cable operators 25 cents per subscriber per year to carry the service, VISN offers the promise that, if successful, it may be able to pay cable operators with advertising time for resale, like other commercial cable services. VISN will receive 36 cents per subscriber per year from the operators.

Cutting Back on TBN

Despite the cost differential, cable systems have been cutting back on TBN to make room for VISN, as in the instance of Jones Intercable in Albuquerque earlier this year. Although it launched a telephone and letter-writing protest campaign, TBN, together with the two other services which share the system’s single religious channel, had to reduce programming to make room for VISN’s initial offering of 5 hours per day. In February, when VISN increases to 13 hours a day, TBN and the others will be cut back further.

For Crouch, the answer is low-power TV. He has told TBN viewers that he has FCC permits for 50 additional low-power stations beyond the 75 he now operates, and he hopes to get 50 more.

“Crouch has just been going crazy with low-power stations,” said Kompas of the broadcasters association. “He builds them very cheaply. What he sees is that there are only so many frequencies available. It’s like FM radio was 15 years ago.”

Technologically, Kompas said in a telephone interview from Wisconsin, it is “absolutely” possible to use a network of low-power stations to bring TBN directly into homes across the country--without having to buy or build full-power stations with studios for millions of dollars, or to pay local cable operators for each household.

Affordability a Factor

Over-the-air distribution of programming also might prove attractive to religious broadcasters in light of studies showing that typical viewers of such broadcasting are in lower income groups--people less likely to be able to afford cable.

While these “LPTVs,” as they are known, cover much smaller areas with their signals than UHF and VHF stations, they can generate equally clear pictures, which are received on channels 1 through 13 on VHF and 14 through 65 on UHF. Because there are thousands of these low-power frequencies now available, there is far less competition for these stations than for the full-power stations, and FCC requirements for ownership and operation are considerably less rigorous.

“It’s possible,” said Quentin Schultze, professor of communication at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., that Crouch and Trinity “are setting the direction for the future of evangelical television.”