To skeptics, the Jim Bakker adultery scandal may confirm their view of television preachers as humbugs. But to analysts of the mushrooming electronic church business, the scandal is advertising it to legions of potential viewers, contributors, and converts.
Even though a moral lapse and evangelical rivalries are at the center of attention, the magazine cover stories and network news reports tend to confer brand-name legitimacy to the televangelists' product, say analysts who have studied Christian audiences.
``In a sense, the whole electronic ministry is going to be strengthened by this,'' says Anson Shupe, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Arlington.
``In one week, you have put these people in the mainstream,'' says Razelle Frankl, author of the book ``Televangelism: The Marketing of Popular Religion.''
The electronic church was already headed in that direction, pushing to expand its audiences beyond the stable corps of traditional Christian television viewers.
In the 1960s, most American television markets carried an average of 2 hours of Christian broadcasts a week. Now 221 Christian television stations and 60 syndicated programs compete in a loosely estimated $2 billion-a-year industry. Jimmy Swaggart's 1,500 employees make him the largest private employer in Baton Rouge, La. He claims to broadcast to 124 countries.
Within the increasingly crowded Christian broadcasting field, the Bakker scandal has created a corporate merger of sorts. But the import of Mr. Bakker's handing his PTL empire over to Jerry Falwell is uncertain.
For Mr. Falwell, it clearly expands prestige and influence. He may also want to contain the scandal's damage to protect the entire electronic church, of which he is a highly visible leader. For Bakker, it keeps the PTL operation afloat and may allow for his return.
Less clear is whether Bakker left PTL in debt. The Bakkers have long used tearful pleas for donations to save PTL from financial crisis. According to Falwell, the PTL ministry took in $129 million last year, including about $43 million in donations from PTL Club members. With assets estimated at $100 million, it is reportedly seeking a $50 million bank loan to cover projects.
Christian broadcasting is an unusual industry, slippery to pinpoint. What the public knows about the finances of the media ministries is only what the evangelists choose to say. Between syndicated shows on the airwaves and cable stations, even the reach of the evangelists' viewership is difficult to gauge.
The greatest risk is to the credibility of TV ministers' fund-raising efforts. Here, the questions are not over Bakker's moral lapse, but whether he used PTL donations as part of the $265,000 agreement he made to keep the lapse secret. Another television evangelist, Oral Roberts, was widely derided in recent months after announcing that God would ``call [him] home'' if an $8 million fund-raising goal was not met.
But the audience of the electronic church views these things more charitably than the general public: The overwhelming reaction to scandal has been to close ranks behind PTL.
The stable, loyal heart of the Christian-TV audience is somewhat older, poorer, and more rural than other television watchers. It is a regular churchgoing audience that wants religion in all aspects of its lives, according to George Gerbner of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communications.
The audience numbers around 13.5 million, he says, citing a 1985 study he made with the Gallup Organization, and the numbers have remained stable for 30 years.
But as Christian broadcasters have flooded into the market, the new competitors have worked to expand the audience. Some, like Rex Humbard, have folded their tents. Others have faded, like Oral Roberts, whose viewers and revenues have dropped by nearly half in the 1980s. A number of television ministries have formed specifically for black, Hispanic, or teen-age audiences.
Pat Robertson and the Bakkers have succeeded by expanding their audience into the affluent, better educated segments of society.
The major ministries have lost viewers since 1980, according to Arbitron ratings. But the ratings do not count cable viewers, where the Christian broadcasters have been turning. Ben Armstrong, director of National Religious Broadcasters, says that gains on cable have made up for losses over the airwaves.