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

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.”

Schuller’s string of 1,000 consecutive telecasts goes back to his first program, in February, 1970. It is the longest-running worship service on television. Schuller said he launched “Hour of Power” at Graham’s suggestion during the latter’s 1969 crusade in Anaheim.

“The World Tomorrow,” which had been on radio since 1934, has been on television even longer than Schuller. After a brief try on TV in 1955, the commentary program began its current run in March, 1968, church officials said.

Controversy is no stranger to the Worldwide Church of God. Garner Ted Armstrong, for years the polished host of the radio and television program, was ousted from the church in a family squabble in 1978. Charges of financial irregularities led to state-imposed receivership of the church, but the case was dismissed in 1982. In the years before he died, at age 93 in 1986, the senior Armstrong had divorced his second wife after a brief marriage, then was embroiled in a libel and slander suit by her.

But the stories about the Armstrongs did not usually become national news. Even today, the church only has 92,000 members and generally worships in rented halls.

‘Internal’ Scandals

“The scandals they went through were largely internal ones,” said Hoover, who teaches in Temple University’s school of communications.

In Schuller’s case, controversy has been relatively rare and mild when it has occurred. In 1987, a former employee revealed that six years earlier, the minister had sent a fund-raising letter purportedly written during a trip to China but actually composed months before Schuller left the United States. The mailing included a simulated photograph of Schuller standing on the Great Wall, holding a Chinese translation of one of his books.

Schuller’s formula for building an audience has been consistent through the years: upbeat “possibility-thinking” sermons, music typical of the large mainline church it is, and well-known guests. The 10,000-member congregation is aligned with the Reformed Church in America.

In typical hyperbole, the 1,000th broadcast is called “an epic event” by Schuller Ministries. Besides the former presidents, Mother Teresa and Graham, the program will feature the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, Bob Hope and Marisa Wayne, youngest daughter of actor John Wayne.

Low-Profile Ministry

By contrast, the Worldwide Church of God, based at its Ambassador College campus in Pasadena, maintains a low profile except in local cultural events and certain overseas projects.

Although it shares the expectancy of evangelical Protestant churches that Jesus Christ will return soon to earth, the Worldwide Church keeps to itself, believing it is the true church of God.

The apocalyptic-tinged perspective of the television program is evident also in its monthly magazine, “The Plain Truth,” which has a free circulation of 7 million worldwide.

David Hulme, one of the “World Tomorrow” moderators and director of public affairs, attributed the program’s improved standing to a variety of reasons, including self-imposed prohibitions on political debate, asking for money and proselytizing.

“We are not focused on personality, but on a message,” Hulme said, “and if the message is relevant, then people are going to listen more.”

The “drug dilemma,” the subject of this weekend’s program, will air the views of four experts, including Dr. Robert du Pont, former head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The program on AIDS last fall included interviews with U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop in Washington and World Health Organization spokesmen in Geneva.

Over the years, the church has also been able to negotiate better contracts and for better time slots on Saturdays and Sundays, Hulme said. The program has an annual budget of more than $17 million, according to Michael A. Snyder, assistant public affairs director.

TOP TV RELIGIOUS PROGRAMS Two Southern California-based programs lead the rankings by Arbitron Co. of syndicated religious TV programs, excluding cable broadcasts, which are not monitored. The national viewing audience estimates are from last November.

MINISTER AND PROGRAM VIEWERS 1. Robert Schuller, “Hour of Power” 1,634,000 Garden Grove 2.”The World Tomorrow,” Worldwide 1,378,000 Church of God ministers, Pasadena 3.Jimmy Swaggart, weekly 1,066,000 Baton Rouge, La. 4.D. James Kennedy 1,042,000 Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. 5.”Oral Roberts and You” 579,000 Tulsa, Okla. 6.Richard DeHaan, “Day of Discovery” 487,000 Grand Rapids, Mich. 7.Kenneth Copeland, 483,000 Ft. Worth, Tex. 8.Fred Price, “Ever Increasing Faith” 417,000 Los Angeles 9.Jerry Falwell, “Old Time Gospel Hour” 415,000 Lynchburg, Va. 10. Charles Stanley, “In Touch” 412,000 Atlanta 11. James Robison, “Day of Restoration” 204,000 Dallas 12.”This Is the Life,” drama 178,000 St. Louis 13.”It is Written,” George Vandeman 168,000 Newbury Park 14. “Insight,” drama 159,000 Pacific Palisades 15. Larry Jones, 141,000 Oklahoma City