Evangelist Billy Graham speaks at news conference in New York
Mike Segar  /  Reuters
Evangelist Billy Graham speaks to the media in New York on Tuesday.
Hollywood Reporter
updated 6/24/2005 6:29:20 PM ET 2005-06-24T22:29:20

When the Rev. Billy Graham steps to the podium Friday night at Flushing Meadows Corona Park in New York for his final U.S. crusade, he’ll be revisiting the place that in 1957 not only cemented his national reputation but also created a television ministry that has affected millions.

It was here that Graham’s Sunday night sermons — at Madison Square Garden that summer 48 years ago — reached a mass audience far beyond the Garden. Millions watched on ABC. And it sparked a commitment to television that has helped make him a fixture in U.S. homes and hearts for nearly half a century.

“He learned in 1957 that television had an enormous impact,” said William Martin, a sociology professor at Rice University and the author of “A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story.”

Although Graham’s programs long ago left the national network, his specials — edited versions of his crusades or spiritual movies made by the ministry’s production arm — appear in almost every TV market several times a year. The ministry’s media-buying unit, Willow Communications, purchases blocks of primetime or the slots right before it, market by market, securing the pre-emptions of network programs on the stations that air the specials.

Prime-time programming
Unlike other religious programming, Graham’s specials aren’t relegated to the weekend dustbin. Graham’s ministry always has insisted on primetime or near-primetime placement in as high-rated a station as possible — and is willing to pay well for the time.

Graham’s advisers say it’s well worth the price, which is financed via contributions to Graham’s ministry. “Primetime is when people are watching television,” Graham media consultant A. Larry Ross said. “Mr. Graham is obviously trying to reach as many people as possible with his gospel message.”

Martin noted that Graham, now 86, has been wise and efficient in his use of TV. “He was wanting to reach people who were primetime television watchers rather than those who were the devoted on Sunday morning,” he said. “There you are preaching to people who are shining their shoes (for church) or studying their Sunday school lessons.”

Amazing niche
Graham has carved out a niche in American life that hasn’t been rivaled before or since — one that’s more ecumenical than any single denomination.

“He has become America’s Protestant chaplain,” said Bill Leonard, dean of the Wake Forest University Divinity School. It has boosted Graham beyond the pale of the television preacher, who never would get the same level of primetime exposure and attention.

“Many (TV station managers) say that they have a corporate policy against religion on the air, but they’ll make an exception for Mr. Graham,” Ross said. “That speaks to the integrity of his message.”

Station managers and religious experts say it is that integrity that accounts for his appeal and allows him access to primetime.

“He’s avoided scandals, and he lives the message,” said Doug Barrow, general manager of WISE-TV, the ABC affiliate in Fort Wayne, Ind. Graham’s messages are well received in that Midwest community, Barrow said. It’s the same thing in conservative Cincinnati, where WCPO-TV vice president and general manager Bill Fee said the Graham specials “always play very well.”

The heart of the crusade
Community is at the heart of every Graham crusade, said Dana Robert, a professor at the Boston University School of Theology. He’s always invited by local churches, and the choirs and other participants always are drawn locally. Graham encourages people to find a church locally and not just in a specific denomination.

“If you’ve got an entire community supporting these crusades before they even start, you’ve got a built-in TV audience,” Robert said.

There have been few complaints about the pre-emption, many stations say.

“We have not been accused of aligning ourselves with some religious belief or support of a particular religious group,” said John Dittmeier, former general manager of WYOU-TV in Scranton, Pa., which carries the specials, and now vice president and general manager of WBRE-TV in the same city.

Said Chris Rohrs, president of the Television Bureau of Advertising: “Stations have always liked the Billy Graham specials. It’s uplifting programming that’s well produced and has a loyal audience.”

Copyright 2012 The Hollywood Reporter


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