About 15 minutes into the "Hour of Power," one of television's most-watched religious broadcasts, the program cuts from the choir to a commercial. It's the host, the Rev. Robert Schuller, asking viewers to send him $30, to "keep this television ministry on the air every week."
The appeal is short and upbeat. Schuller--described on his show as "the face and voice of positive Christianity"--never loses his smile. And when he comes back for another pitch at the show's end, he says: "We do not like to ask for money . . . "
These days, that feeling may well be spreading among religious broadcasters. The time television evangelists devote to their own commercial messages--asking for money and promoting their ministries--is declining. Fading too are the long-winded, teary-eyed appeals for checks, as religious broadcasters switch to briefer, more down-to-earth requests for donations.
Many are increasingly marketing religious products--particularly books and cassette tapes--in return for donations.
The shift in behavior has been noted by a number of veteran observers of televangelists. Two months ago communications professor Stephen Winzenburg spent 175 hours watching televangelists' broadcasts.
As he does every other year, he tuned his television set to the leading "pray-TV" programs and set a stopwatch running. The results were tabulated in his biennial survey, "How TV Preachers Use Their Airtime."
The television preachers "realize the general public doesn't trust a televangelist who uses those (emotional) techniques," said Winzenburg, chairman of the communications department at Grand View College in Des Moines. "They're very sensitive to the fact that public opinion" has turned against overwrought appeals, he said.
His chief finding: Televangelists' fund raising and self-promotion have fallen to 22% of their on-air time this year, down from a high of 27% in 1988--when a series of sex and money scandals set broadcast ministries trembling from coast to coast.
Over the same period, the programs' spiritual content--sermons, hymn-singing, religious testimony--rose to 74% of on-air time, up from 65% four years ago, Winzenburg said. Discussions of national politics slid from 8% to 4% of on-air time.
"I have felt this is what was happening," said Brandt Gustavson, executive director of National Religious Broadcasters, the Manassas, Va.-based association that represents more than 600 radio and television ministries. "We are very happy with this trend."
The NRB's code of ethics recommends that broadcasters devote the majority of their time to religious matters, he said. "What is a concern is when there are programs that spend less than half of their time" on a spiritual message, Gustavson said.
Winzenburg said the latest statistics show that televangelists are back to devoting about the same amount of time raising money and promoting their ministries as they did early in the 1980s--before the scandals alienated viewers and left the evangelists financially desperate. "Most of them lost large amounts of money and lots of viewers," he said. "I think the numbers have stabilized now."
As one of the clearest examples of his findings, the professor cited Oral Roberts, the veteran televangelist who won headlines in January, 1987, by suggesting that God might call him "home" if he were unable to raise $8 million.
"He was almost at the top of the list . . . two years ago," said Winzenburg, adding that his 1990 survey found Roberts devoted 53% of his air time to soliciting donations and promoting his ministries. By contrast, Winzenburg calculated, Roberts this year spent only 17% of his time in those areas--below the average in the current survey. "I think he got smart and realized people weren't going to send him money unless he toned down," he said.
In contrast to Roberts, Winzenburg said, Dallas evangelist Robert Tilton, host of the program "Success-N-Life," ran counter to the trend. Two years ago the minister, who regularly asks viewers to make a "vow of faith" of up to $1,000, devoted 68% of his time to fund-raising and promotions. This year, after critical news-media scrutiny of his ministry, Tilton devoted 84% of his on-air time to asking for donations and promoting his ministries, by Winzenburg's calculations.
As for Schuller, an exponent of the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale's "power of positive thinking," the "Hour of Power" was 16% fund-raising and promotion this year, up slightly from previous surveys.
The Rev. Billy Graham's televised crusades were lower still, with only 2% of air time spent on fund-raising appeals and 11% on promotion of ministries, Winzenburg said.
None of the organizations surveyed responded to questions about Winzenburg's conclusions. A spokeswoman at Roberts' headquarters in Tulsa declined to comment; officials at Tilton's, Schuller's and Graham's ministries did not return calls.