Pat Robertson Keeps On Going and Going …

Dec 5, 2005  •  Post A Comment

During the 1951-52 television season, when Milton Berle’s variety show was a national obsession, NBC signed the comedian to an unprecedented 30-year contract. Then as today, that kind of job security was unusual in the entertainment industry.

However, there is a performer on television whose longevity surpasses even Uncle Miltie’s. He isn’t a comedian and this is no joke. Despite his increasingly bizarre on-air behavior and frequent outrageous statements, he is able to maintain a powerful daily electronic bully pulpit, reaching more than 90 million U.S. homes and viewers in some 200 other countries.

For 45 years Marion Gordon “Pat” Robertson has been a TV fixture ministering to his electronic flock while masterminding the creation of a global business empire, the Christian Broadcasting Network, primarily funded by donations from viewers. His flagship show, “The 700 Club,” seen on ABC Family Channel and other outlets worldwide, brings in millions of dollars in charitable donations and advertising revenue that has financed the creation of a worldwide business empire, made Mr. Robertson wealthy and supported his political agenda.

His daily show gives Mr. Robertson an important platform. “He has the ability to go on the air and generate calls and letters that can shut down Capitol Hill,” said Andrew Schwartzman of Media Access Project, an advocacy group in Washington. “You can’t put a dollar value on the political clout he’s got, and that is the basis of his power.”

Every other program on TV is subject to cancellation if ratings are low. Not “The 700 Club.” According to sources, while ABC Family averages about 700,000 viewers at any other time of the day, national ratings for “The 700 Club” are barely detectable and have declined over the past three years.

Much of the millions that the “700 Club” raises is plowed right back into running CBN and producing the show, to raise even more money. As long as “700” has a national TV platform, Mr. Robertson has a perpetual money machine with a rate of return that would make any businessman beam. In part, that is because a lot of funds are funneled through Operation Blessing International, which can take tax-deductible charitable donations. According to its 2004 fiscal year federal filing, Operation Blessing International had total revenues of $186.4 million, of which $91 million went to production and airing of religious radio and TV programming by CBN and affiliates.

Why doesn’t Disney/ABC Family just cancel “The 700 Club”? According to a spokesperson, it can’t. The contract, she said, “is in perpetuity.” The agreement even specifies what time of day the program must air. ABC must provide program time “at cost.” The “700 Club” can only be canceled at “the Christian network’s option.” That is how Mr. Robertson keeps on going and going.

Why doesn’t the Federal Communications Commission do something? Aside from the fact the Republican administration and Congress would be unlikely to take on Mr. Robertson, “The 700 Club” runs on cable TV, which is not regulated to the same extent as broadcast TV.

CBN first went on the air Oct. 1, 1961, on a Portsmouth, Va., TV station. By 1990 CBN had become so profitable a business that the IRS challenged its tax exemption. So Mr. Robertson formed a new entity, International Family Entertainment, as a for-profit holding company, while maintaining CBN as a charitable nonprofit. IFE went public in 1992.

His mixing of church and state, while using a nonprofit to raise millions, did bring IRS scrutiny under the Clinton administration. There was an investigation seven years ago, but it never went anywhere. A federal court last week even denied an advocacy group access to records specifiying the reasons why the IRS let CBN off.

In 1997 IFE was sold to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. for $1.9 billion, of which CBN received $136 million, Mr. Robertson $19 million and related affiliates most of the rest.

There was a published report in 2001 that Mr. Robertson turned down a Fox offer to buy out his option for hundreds of millions.

Disney acquired the Family Channel in 2001 for a very rich price of $5.3 billion. Although the multiple daily airings of “700 Club” are a constant problem for programmers, Disney seems resigned to keeping it on the air. There apparently is no corporate appetite to pay “700” a billion dollars or more to go away.

At age 75, Mr. Robertson seems to be in the twilight of his long career. His reputation has been tarnished in the recent past and his clout questioned even by other political conservatives after such questionable comments as his call for the assassination of the leader of another country and his comments that residents of a Pennsylvania town couldn’t expect help from God because they had rejected a ballot initiative he favored.

There was also controversy in September when the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, put Mr. Robertson’s Project Blessing International high on the list of charities deserving donations. That brought an outcry from other charities. Within days, OBI was no longer prominent on FEMA Web site.

That was an example both of the Rev. Robertson’s enormous political power, which got him on the list, and how quickly controversy can send even onetime supporters scattering for cover.

It would be a mistake to think Mr. Robertson is not still a potent political force. He really does have friends in high places.

But that may soon be tested. Last week CBN was among those opposing a la carte pricing of cable TV offerings, pitting it against many conservatives and the new FCC chairman. Niche broadcasters, including CBN, believe they would be hurt if they weren’t packaged with higher-rated channels.

Mr. Schwartzman believes Mr. Robertson’s penchant for outrageous statements will do him in. “He is a diminishing threat,” he said, “who is self-destructing through his own nuttiness.”

Mr. Robertson is already positioning “700” to continue even after his death. Eventually, however, Disney will have to take its medicine just as NBC did when it took Mr. Berle off the air after only six years but continued to pay him for the next 24 years. And Mr. Berle’s only offense was stealing jokes.