Turn the clock back to election year 1980. There's a new political tidal wave in America -- triggered by the volcanic activism of Christian evangelicals.

* Press reports proliferate that evangelical TV preachers are reaching many millions of viewers each week with politically laden sermons.

* Entrenched liberal politicos worry that the televangelists, through the sheer reach of their TV networks, will tilt the election outcome in favor of conservative Republicans.

* Victories of Republicans across the nation seem to confirm the effectiveness of the TV evangelists.

It all adds up to an image of rising power that few will question.

But there are doubters, among them, two probing sociologists from different parts of the country. William Martin at Rice University in Houston and Jeffrey Hadden at the University of Virginia both had hunches that the emerging image of the "televangelists" was a distorted one. Each gathered his own data. And now they find their hunches confirmed.

Americans, they concluded in separate publications, have been peddled some very misleading media myths about the extent of the TV preachers' influence.

Professor Martin says that major newspapers and magazines have been tossing around unsubstantiated estimates of the televangelists' regular weekly audiences with reckless abandon.

Press estimates that had ranged from 40 to 130 million turn out to be more accurately placed at around 7 to 10 million, according to his analysis of Harris and Gallup polls, the Nielsen and Arbitron media rating services, and other independent researchers.

A much publicized TV evangelist like the Rev. Jerry Falwell, whose aides had sometimes claimed 25 million regular weekly viewers for his religious broadcasts , turns out to have more like 1.5 to 2 million, according to Professor Hadden's analysis of national TV rating services.

"The image of the televangelists has been pure puffery," Hadden says.

"They have sent up a lot of hot air, he adds; "the media have built a balloon around them; and now they're flying high in political influence -- far higher than their actual political organization would merit."

Not unexpectedly, the conclusion is hotly contested by evangelicals. They are quite sure that data like Arbitron's and Nielsen's have not taken into account the full reach of the televangelists (not all of whom are so politically oriented).

The politicians, for their part, also appear convinced that the media image is the one to go by.

Just after he ordered Israeli jets to bomb Iraq's nuclear reactor, Prime Minister Menachem Begin was on the phone to the Rev. Mr. Falwell, briefing him about the event. When visiting the United States the week of Sept. 7, Mr. Begin again took the time to meet with the Rev. Mr. Falwell and other prominent evangelical leaders at the Blair House in Washington.

Last fall, after the sweeping Republican victories, Mr. Falwell found himself the dinner guest of Sen. Charles H. Percy, a Republican from Illinois, and Gov. Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat, of West Virginia. (Just get-acquainted meetings, the Rev. Mr. Falwell's aides say.)

And as President Reagan prepared to announce his appointment of Judge Sandra Day O'Connor to be the first woman on the Supreme Court (a nomination opposed by evangelicals who dislike her liberal record on abortion) the Rev. Mr. Falwell's phone again rang. This time President Reagan himself was on the other end to advise him of the appointment.

Of course, few of the many televangelists enjoy that kind of access to the decisionmakers -- nor do they actively seek it.

Still, as the political clout of the televangelists grows, sociologists Martin and Hadden insist that the public needs a more balanced image of the real extent of their broadcasting. Without it, they fear, representative government could be subject to distortions at the hands of minorities who control today's sophisticated imagemaking technologies.

What, then, ism the truer picture?

For Professors Martin and Hadden it looks something like this:

The televangelists' broadcast systems do have considerable reach, albeit less than has been claimed. Although their broadcasting systems could have enormous impact on the political scene, they believe that the potential has yet to be proved. And the very survival of some of these systems may be in for severe challenges in the years to come.

The potential effect comes from the televangelists' enormous investment in recent years in the most sophisticated TV technology. There is virtually no home in America into which the electronic church will not be able to send its programs in coming years, claims Dr. Hadden in his new book, "Prime Time Preachers."

Thirty-six TV stations are now airing religious programs as their full-time broadcasting fare. One new religious station has been added each month over the last year alone, according to the National Association of Religious Broadcasters (NRB). Many pick up programs syndicated by the Christian Broadcasting Company, the PTL Broadcasting Network, and the Trinity Broadcasting Network.

In addition, although there are great uncertainties about future prospects, huge new investments in TV broadcasting could well boost the televangelists' political base even more.

Religious broadcasters have been shelling out, and taking in, over a billion dollars a year, according to the NRB.

The Christian Broadcasting Network, which produces the "700 Club," has sunk an estimated $50 million into its sophisticated broadcasting studios and communications college.

The televangelists are also preparing a host of slick new programs for syndication to be sent by satellite to cable TV systems.

The CBN, for instance, has gone to a splashy magazine format and developed "Christian soap operas" and news programs with coverage that is heavily weighted toward the conservative perspective, according to a recent Cable News Network report on televangelism by Jim Clancy.

The Rev. James Robison, the fiery Texas preacher, told the Cable News Network that he even hopes to air spots with a gospel message during the evening news programs of the national networks.

Not least, the televangelists have emerged as the chief competitors in the race for prime air time allotted to religious programs by local TV stations.

In recent months the costs for that time have been soaring -- up to $10,000 in a city like New York. And only the televangelists seem able and willing to buy at such high prices.

According to Dr. Hadden, hundreds of commercial TV stations are already sold out of their religious broadcast time on Sunday morning -- largely to the televangelists. And Sunday evening times are fast becoming as lucrative as the morning times for those willing to sell to the religious syndicators.

The Rev. Mr. Falwell told the Cable News Network that he spends $13 million a year just to buy the time for his program to appear on stations across the country.

For Professor Hadden, it could all add up in the long run to giving the TV evangelists potential political advantages far beyond what the numbers of their followers alone might indicate.

"The factors that have revolutionized politics in America -- broadcasting, direct mail, political consultants, and public opinion polling -- are available to all," Dr. Hadden says.

"But the televangelists will have additional things going for them. They have these great hunks of media time available.And when a guy like Jerry Falwell steps forward and chooses to become a publicly visible figure, you're seeing a man who's had almost as many years of exposure in front of a television camera as Walter Cronkite did.

"Wed that kind of savvy of the Religious Right with the savvy of the technologists of the secular New Right, and you've got quite a tough combination."

Still it is yet far from certain whether all the investment will really have such political impact.

Many televangelists have not been nearly as politically active as the Rev. Mr. Falwell, the 700 Club's Pat Robertson, or the Rev. Mr. Robison.

Many of the religious broadcasters have also been experiencing sharp declines in viewers and in stations carrying their programs.

Evangelists Oral Roberts, Jim Bakker, and others have found themselves in such a bind for funds that they have lost, or been forced to drop, dozens of their stations over the past year, according to Dr. Hadden.

Some of these severe financial problems appear to have resulted from the televangelists building on the expectation of continual growth of viewers and contributions, an expectation that hasn't panned out, according to Professor Martin, who published his findings in a recent Atlantic Monthly and has spent the last decade preparing a new book on televangelism.

"Gallup and Harris polls indicate that about 20 to 25 million people have watched these programs at least occasionally, with 7 to 10 million watching regularly on any given Sunday," he says.

"That total audience has not changed in the last five years. I think people may be reaching a saturation point with the religious broadcasting."

The televangelists' political activism could also be offset by new media campaigns designed to counter their influence.

Since producer Norman Lear launched his organization "People for the American Way" (PAW) last year, it has been placing TV spots on networks around the country aimed at encouraging pluralism and tolerance of diversity of opinion. The aim is to counteract what it considers the threat from religious broadcasters who imply that anyone who does not go along with its own opposition to abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment, and other issues is somehow immoral, un-Christian, or un-American.

Drawing on the Federal Communications Commission's "Fairness Doctrine," PAW co-founder Robert Alley persuaded two stations in Richmond, Va., to give him air time to respond to political views presented by evangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

In the months ahead PAW intends to continue to monitor broadcasting of what it considers the "radical religious right," and to file additional Fairness Doctrine complaints across the country.

What these challenges will ultimately mean for the televangelists' controversial media image is still anybody's guess. But for now, it does seem clear that the controversy over that image and its future has only just begun.

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