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Digital Religion and Media Economics: Concentration and Convergence in the Electronic Church

In: Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture
Author: Mark Ward Sr.1
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  • 1 University of Houston-Victoria, Texas, UNITED STATES, WardM@uhv.edu
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The economics that push every medium toward market concentration have historically done likewise to every religious medium. “Online religion” is now, in its turn, colonized by an “electronic church” industry that, due to media deregulation, is dominated by religious media conglomerates—through whom North Americans are most likely to engage in digital religion. The largest conglomerate alone generates 110 million computer sessions and 79 million mobile sessions per month. This study reviews the economics of media concentration and applications to religious media, surveys the digital footprint of the institutional electronic church, and advocates integration of media practices into Digital Religion Studies.

Abstract

The economics that push every medium toward market concentration have historically done likewise to every religious medium. “Online religion” is now, in its turn, colonized by an “electronic church” industry that, due to media deregulation, is dominated by religious media conglomerates—through whom North Americans are most likely to engage in digital religion. The largest conglomerate alone generates 110 million computer sessions and 79 million mobile sessions per month. This study reviews the economics of media concentration and applications to religious media, surveys the digital footprint of the institutional electronic church, and advocates integration of media practices into Digital Religion Studies.

On June 14, 2016, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld a 2015 Federal Communications Commission (fcc) rulemaking that requires “net neutrality.” The agency action, which barred broadband providers from creating internet “fast lanes” for media streaming services that pay for preferential download speeds, was cheered by consumer advocates. They feared fast lanes would favor media conglomerates that could afford the fees, putting at a competitive disadvantage smaller streaming services and startups whose subscribers would experience slower audio and video downloads. The fcc move was opposed, however, by the National Religious Broadcasters (nrb), an industry association of “Christian communicators” whose members are heavily involved in web-based outreaches. Ironically, the evangelical lobby was founded in 1944 when preachers were denied access to major broadcast networks (Hangen, 2003; Ward, 2013). In the 1980s and 90s, the group urged the fcc to retain its “must carry” rule, guaranteeing channel space for local over-the-air television stations on local cable systems when the latter tried to make stations pay (Ward, 2016a). Yet today, nrb opposition to net neutrality arguably reflects the fact that the “electronic church” has, like the rest of the media industry, become consolidated and “dominated less by faces and more by corporations” (Ward, 2013, p. 111) with vested interests in limiting competition.

For example, Focus on the Family (2016), the leading evangelical radio syndicator, also operates some 50 media outreaches, including web-based properties that generate a combined 7 million impressions and 1.5 million unique visitors each month. Salem Media Group, the leading evangelical radio network, is the third-largest radio ownership group in the nation’s top 25 media markets. In addition, by aggregating and streaming syndicated evangelical radio and television programming through a single web portal, the Salem Web Network (2016) generates 110 million computer sessions and 79 million mobile sessions per month, and boasts 39 million Facebook fans and 13 million email subscribers. The Trinity Broadcasting Network (2016) is the third-largest television group in the United States and owns more local television stations than abc, cbs, nbc, or fox. Its programming, which is carried by every major cable and satellite tv service with a combined reach of 100 million households, is also available on-demand via smartphone, tablet, the Roku streaming media player, and the Playstation gaming console. These and other religious media conglomerates are experienced content providers with the resources to leverage the latest digital media technologies—and to pay “fast lane” fees that would give their streaming services a competitive advantage while raising barriers for new entrants.

Such numbers also suggest that North Americans (at least) are far more likely to participate in “digital religion” by engaging convergent media content distributed via religious media conglomerates than by visiting “narrowcast” online religious communities. The present study thus argues that Digital Religion Studies must account for media economics and the institution of the religious media industry. Campbell and Vitullo (2016) charted the progression of Digital Religion Studies through four phases over three decades as scholars: (1) described online religious communities, (2) categorized online religious activities, (3) examined offline religious communities’ negotiations with new media, and, now, (4) are exploring “the intersection of online and offline religious communities’ practices and discourses” (p. 74). A fifth phase is needed, as this study contends, that plumbs the intersection of online religious communities and offline media practices—which historically tend, through market concentration driven by transaction cost economics, to harness religious media platforms in the service of a religious culture industry.

To make this argument, the present study proceeds along the two vectors of concentration and convergence. First, the concepts of media concentration and transaction cost economics are reviewed and applied to demonstrate how religious media in the United States have tended, like the rest of the media industry, toward conglomeration and oligopoly. Second, this study demonstrates that the convergence of old (broadcast) and new (digital) media is already an established fact of the electronic church—defined as “the entirety of the evangelical mass media enterprise as an institution of American evangelicalism” (Ward, 2016b, p. xviii, emphasis in original). To document the extensive internet presences and digital outreaches of the major radio and television networks and syndicators that dominate the religious media industry, data about their self-reported media platforms are compiled and presented.

Consolidation in the religious media industry should not be surprising since every mass medium—newspapers, magazines, books, radio, broadcast television, cable and satellite television—in the United States has tended historically toward market concentration. As will be seen, every religious mass medium has demonstrated the same tendency. Why should not “digital religion” also be subject to the same market forces? Nor should it be surprising that, as with secular media genres, content generated by the “old” religious media of print, radio, and television is increasingly convergent with “new” digital media platforms. To name just one example, the daily devotional book Jesus Calling (Young, 2004) sold 300,000 units in 2012—eight years after its initial publication—when it was repurposed as an iPad and iPhone app that in two years garnered 200,000 downloads at $9.99 each (HarperCollins, 2014). Today, Jesus Calling may be followed via its own website that offers a streaming video series, podcast series, email newsletter, and blog community; via Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram; and via religious radio as a daily feature during Salem Media Group’s Mike Gallagher Show syndicated on 130 stations nationwide and carried on Salem’s Sirius satellite radio channel. The publisher estimates that 17 million people have “experienced” Jesus Calling through its various media platforms (Jesus Calling, 2016).

The twin phenomena of concentration and convergence have profound implications for Digital Religion Studies. Many online religious communities are, of course, affiliated with offline religious organizations: from cyberpilgrims (Hashim, Murphy, and Hashim, 2007; Hill-Smith, 2009, 2011) and virtual worshipers (Casey, 2006; Chiluwa, 2013; Gelfgren, 2014; Hutchings, 2010; Jacobs, 2007; Jonveaux, 2015; Kluver and Chen, 2008; Miczek, 2008; Radde-Antweiler, 2008; Robinson-Neal, 2008; Sbardelotto, 2014) to religious social networks (Antweiler, 2006; Drover, 2015; Helland, 2007; Katz, 2012; Larsson, 2005, Lövheim, 2005; MacWilliams, 2006; Niculescu, 2015; Rudolph, 2006; Watanabe, 2007) and online forums (Abdel-Fadil, 2015; Damil-Geilsdorf and Tramontini, 2015; Kawabata and Tamura, 2007; Rahman, 2015). Further, “the practice of online churchgoing has grown rapidly through the arrival of a number of large, well-financed projects supported by well-known real-world Christian groups” (Hutchings, 2007, p. 243). Yet these online communities and churches are not integrated with religious mass media organizations or convergent with other mass media content. Though “narrowcast” digital religious practices merit the close study they have received, none approach the sheer numbers generated by the likes of Focus on the Family, the Salem Web Network, Trinity Broadcasting, or Jesus Calling.

Campbell (2010) asserted that digital religion is best studied from a “religious-social shaping of technology” approach that focuses on a given religious community’s history and tradition, core beliefs and patterns, negotiations with new forms of media, and communal framing and discourse to justify the use of new media. Her user-centered method provides a needed corrective to the technological determinism that characterized studies of media and religion a generation ago (e.g., Christians, 1990, 2002; Postman, 1985; Schultze, 1990, 1991). Yet the affordances of a given medium must also be taken into account, and those are governed by media producers and gatekeepers. Thus, a full picture of digital religion requires what sociologists of religion call “an institutional field perspective [that] focuses on the institutions that shape religious belief, practice, and mobilization” (Edgell, 2012, p. 247). In the case of Digital Religion Studies (and in studies of media and religion generally), one institution that shapes religious belief, practice, and mobilization is the media industry—including the religious media industry. Again, the example of the electronic church is instructive. While Campbell’s method would go far to explain how American evangelicals have socially shaped their media, only a grasp of media economics can explain how Focus on the Family, Salem Communications, Trinity Broadcasting, Jesus Calling, and other conglomerated religious media producers and gatekeepers can attract millions of digital media users, spawning “interpretive communities” (Lindlof, 1988, 2002; Ward, 2014) of mass genre audiences in which North Americans are most likely to engage in digital religion. For this reason, the media practices of concentration and convergence merit attention from Digital Religion Studies.

Media Concentration and Transaction Cost Economics

Media diversity is desirable because, as van Cuilenberg’s (2007) model depicts, when “the media” reflect social diversity and media diversity, the media then nurture the informed opinion diversity needed to support democracy. Case law in the United States supports a “theory of the free marketplace of ideas” (Napoli, 1999, p. 9) as the best guarantor for exposing the public to a diversity of media sources and media content. Nevertheless, while “media markets have an in-built tendency toward product differentiation” because “media users’ preferences in society are hardly ever fully homogeneous,” the rub is that

Media content production, organization, and distribution typically entail high first copy costs of creating or acquiring media content, but often very low or even negligible duplication and distribution costs. Media products and services consequently show increasing returns to scale…. In sum, size pays in media industries. That is why we may expect that media markets tend toward heterogeneous oligopolies. (Van Cuilenberg, 2007, p. 34)

Such oligopolies are one of six types in Scherer’s (1996) typology of market structures. When a market is characterized by homogeneous products, the possible market structures are monopoly (one supplier), homogeneous oligopoly (a few large suppliers), or full competition (many small suppliers). But when a market is characterized by heterogeneous products—as in the media industries—then the possible market structures are a multi-product monopoly (one supplier), heterogeneous oligopoly (a few large suppliers), or competition (many small suppliers). The observation that media markets tend toward heterogeneous oligopolies is derived from industrial organization theory and the well-known scp (structure-conduct-performance) model as adapted by McQuail (1992) for the media industry. According to the scp model, an oligopolistic market structure results from conduct based on economies of scale by which a few large suppliers maintain efficient and profitable performance.

In a comprehensive quantitative survey of market concentration in American media industries, Noam (2009) made two conclusions pertinent to scholars of Digital Religion Studies. First, he discovered, “Generally, the more electronic and ‘digital’ a media subsector is, the more highly it seems to be concentrated.” Second, “Strong economies of scale, network effects, distance-insensitivity, and high complexity have led to a consolidation of the Internet itself as well as for many of its major applications,” a finding that “pours cold water over the hope that the Internet will solve the media concentration problem” (p. 5). Noam agreed that the American media industries “are not monopolies but more likely to be oligopolies” in which the top firms claim about one-quarter of the market, perhaps three firms claim about another 10 percent each, and five to ten smaller firms round out the viable players. His study did not find high levels of convergence between different types of media, as companies generally did not expand directly from one traditional media sector into another. Yet a crucial “exception has been the Internet, which seems to be the ground on which other firms from the more traditional sectors meet and contest” (p. 6). As will be seen, the patterns described—concentration, oligopoly, and media convergence primarily via the internet—characterize the American electronic church.

These patterns, however, are not new among electronic media. Western Union monopolized telegraphy. The Associated Press monopolized wire services. American Telephone and Telegraph (at&t) held a near-monopoly on telephone services that was unbroken until 1982. The Marconi Company monopolized maritime communication. at&t monopolized early radio networking until forced by trust-busters in 1926 to sell its stations to the Radio Corporation of America (rca) and its broadcasting arm, the National Broadcasting Corporation (nbc). Radio soon became an oligopoly of three major networks, as did broadcast television. Cable tv service has shifted from scores of local system operators a generation ago to a relative handful of large providers today, while satellite tv service features two dominant providers, DirecTV and the DISH Network. Satellite radio, authorized in the 1990s by the Federal Communications Commission for up to four national licensees, launched with only two providers, Sirius and xm, which had merged into one by 2008. Meanwhile, following passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 which lifted the national cap on how many radio or television stations a broadcaster could own, the two traditional media swiftly consolidated. Within two years, levels of ownership concentration doubled among radio stations in the Top 50 media markets (Drushel, 1998), while 80 percent of tv stations became owned by a network (Howard, 1998). And though the 1996 law limited any cable system operator from covering more than 30 percent of the national market, the cap was struck down in court, resulting in a rapid concentration of cable system ownership.

An approach often employed to explain the market conduct of media consolidators is Williamson’s theory of transaction-cost economics (tce). The theory has been tested by nearly a thousand empirical studies across a variety of industries and professions (Macher & Richman, 2008), and Williamson (1976) himself published the first such study by applying tce to broadcasters’ bids for cable tv franchise rights. The theory holds that, since no transaction agreement between two or more parties can cover all risks or optimize all possible benefits, the individual parties must each guard against the opportunism of the others. Then, too, parties are “confronted with a continuously fluctuating environment” so that “adaptability is the central problem of economic organization” (Williamson, 1991, p. 77). Thus, the parties to a transaction must look to “the ease with which an asset can be redeployed to alternative uses and by alternative users without loss of productive value” (pp. 79–80). Some fluctuations, such as changes in market prices, can be easily, even automatically, accommodated in a contract; other market disturbances are more complex and require a coordinated response by the parties. To handle differing degrees of simplicity and complexity, parties may resort to hybrid forms of agreement such as “long-term contracts, franchising, joint ventures, and the like” (p. 80).

In deploying its assets, a firm can adapt to fluctuating conditions either through relying on the market, allying with other firms, or vertically integrating so that asset deployment becomes an internal operation. If an organization has sufficient market power, vertical integration can reduce the costs of negotiating, monitoring, and enforcing transactions. Market-mediated transactions are then replaced by internal transfers that minimize potentials for friction, opportunism, and information distortion. When mergers and acquisitions are seen in a tce perspective, the question is not simply a joining of productive capacities. Conglomeration and vertical integration become strategies to govern transactions in predictable and economical ways so that assets can be redeployed without loss of productive capacity in response to fluctuating conditions. For heterogeneous media oligopolies, this either means converting production and distribution of media content into internal transactions (e.g., when a network produces media programming and owns the stations on which it is aired), or consolidating large numbers of individual transactions into a single transaction (e.g., when a syndicator purchases time on a national network rather than making separate buys from individual local stations).

For Digital Religion Studies, the lesson is that religious media conglomerates—such as Focus on the Family, Salem Communications, Trinity Broadcasting, Jesus Calling, and others—have tremendous market incentives to expand their content distribution via new media platforms. The transaction costs of doing so are comparatively low and economies of scale quite attractive, all without having to directly expand into another traditional media sector. Thus, Focus on the Family, a radio syndicator, generates 7 million monthly visits via the internet but has not entered television broadcasting. Salem Media Group, a radio network, leverages its relations with national syndicators to create web portals for streaming radio and tv content produced by others and, in the process, reaps 189 million monthly online sessions. Trinity Broadcasting, the leading religious tv network, need not enter radio since its iTBN app makes its programming available to mobile media users. The publisher of Jesus Calling not only leverages a mobile app, podcasts, streaming videos and social media, but has crossed into terrestrial and satellite radio by allying with Salem. Thus, the new digital media have provided the religious media industry a key to seemingly unlimited economies of scale at low transaction costs.

Religious Media Concentration

Steiner (2016) contended that religious media in the 21st century “are best understood not in terms of some historical break between ‘old’ broadcast media and ‘new’ digital media; rather, the digital-age electronic church is best seen in terms of continuities within the American [religious community] that predate electronic media, span all media forms, and guide the community today” (p. 7). Five historical turning points for the electronic church in the United States, identified by Ward (2016a), offer a basis for exploring historical continuities in the concentration of religious mass media. The five points are evangelicals’ decision in the 1870s to cooperate with the mass-circulation “penny press” to publicize urban evangelism campaigns; the decision to enter radio evangelism in the 1920s; evangelicals’ success at breaking the mainline Protestant television “media cartel” in the 1950s; their shrewd use of the fcc “must carry” rule in the 1990s to enter cable television; and the fcc’s 2015 ruling in favor of net neutrality, whose impact is unknown.

The technological “revolution in cheap print” (Starr, 2004) that occurred in the United States after the Civil War gave rise to a “penny press” of mass-circulation newspapers and periodicals. Chicago evangelist Dwight L. Moody was the first to realize publicity could fill his pews, even as newspaper and periodical editors discovered that puffing his urban crusades could generate excitement and increase circulation during the weeks Moody was in town. Yet even by the 1870s, the penny press was a media oligopoly in which a majority of mailed publications originated in just four cities: New York (32%), Chicago (8%), Boston (7%), and Philadelphia (5%) (Noam, 2009, p. 8). Not coincidentally, Moody became a national celebrity after holding crusades in Brooklyn (1875), Philadelphia (1875–76), New York (1876), Chicago (1876–77), and Boston (1877). Thus did “revival become a mass media campaign … [as] Moody needed the publicity, and the press needed a good story,” observed Evensen (2003). “Religion would be played in the nation’s press as civic spectacle, commodifying belief and making Moody … the star of the show … [so that] the historical intersection of mass media and popular religion comes into view, and with it a glimpse of modern America” (p. 13). While hundreds of freelance evangelists plied the small towns of America, only a relative few—starting with Moody in the 1870s and ending with Billy Sunday in the 1920s—had the organization and celebrity to hit the major urban centers and make the big time.

When evangelicals entered radio in the early 1920s, they joined everyone else in the rush to launch local stations (Ward, 2013). The airwaves became a bedlam, and in 1927, Congress created the Federal Radio Commission to assign frequencies and mandate professional standards for equipment and operations. Churches that only broadcast their Sunday services could not afford to comply with the new regulations and relinquished their licenses. However, 1927 was also the year that the nbc and cbs radio networks debuted. At the urging of the New York-based Federal Council of Churches, both networks adopted policies against the sale of airtime for religious programs (to avoid controversies over on-air fundraising) and instead donated time to the Council for distribution among its mainline Protestant member churches. Evangelicals were shut out until the Mutual Broadcasting System went on the air in 1934, allowing preachers to buy airtime and reach a national audience without having to operate their own local stations. Even so, the radio evangelism market quickly consolidated. Though local preachers were heard on local stations, only five evangelists developed sufficient organizations to afford coast-to-coast Mutual syndication. In the peak year of 1943, the Old Fashioned Revival Hour drew 20 million weekly listeners by spending $1,566,130 (or $21.7 million in 2016 dollars) for airtime, followed by The Lutheran Hour (c. $500,000, or $6.9 million in 2016 dollars), Young People’s Church of the Air and Voice of Prophecy (each $395,420, or $5.5 million in 2016 dollars), and Wesley Radio League ($172,384, or $2.4 million in 2016 dollars) (Finke and Stark, 2005, p. 222).

In 1944, however, Mutual heeded the Federal Council of Churches and joined nbc and cbs in restricting the sale of airtime for religious programs. Since 95 percent of all am stations were affiliated with a network (Sterling and Kitross, 2002), evangelicals were again shut out. The big-name radio evangelists rushed to buy time on independent stations, but their transaction costs greatly increased by having to purchase slots on one local station at a time and then ship long-play records of their weekly programs since stations could not all air the broadcasts at the same time. In response, evangelicals formed the National Religious Broadcasters association in 1944 to lobby for renewed network access. The campaign bore fruit when the newly-formed abc network (created after a federal antitrust action forced nbc to divest its secondary Blue network) decided in 1949 to accept paid religious programs. The power of transaction cost economics was immediately evident, as the big-name radio preachers quickly switched back to a network, and Billy Graham’s Hour of Decision debuted on abc the following year.

As network television became possible in 1949 with the invention of coaxial cables and microwave relays, only abc accepted paid religious programs. Two of the established national radio evangelists, Percy Crawford and Charles Fuller, experimented with short-lived weekly programs, and Graham bought time for occasional crusade specials. Other than these, religious television in the 1950s was concentrated within a “media cartel” (Finke and Stark, 2005) of mainline Protestants and Catholics (most famously, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and his Life is Worth Living telecast) who received donated airtime from nbc, cbs, and abc. These groups were given such “sustaining time” because broadcasters were required by law to serve the public, and the fcc classified religious programs as a public service. But when the agency ruled in 1960 that broadcasters could also receive public-service credit for paid religious programs, the cartel disintegrated. Mainline Protestants and Catholics had neither the fundraising apparatus to cover the high costs of television nor the organization to plan effective media buys, things conservative evangelicals had been doing for a generation.

By the late 1960s, when broadcast-quality videotape and affordable editing equipment became available, conservative televangelists including Oral Roberts, Rex Humbard, and Jerry Falwell entered first-run syndication and ultimately aired on more than 300 stations. But the familiar pattern of religious media concentration soon manifested itself. During the 1970s, only about ten televangelists could afford national tv exposure and attract viable support bases of at least 1 million weekly viewers (Melton, Lucas, and Stone, 1997). When the cable tv revolution arrived in the 1990s, only three viable evangelical cable networks emerged—Paul Crouch’s Trinity Broadcasting Network, Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, and Jim Bakker’s ptl Television Network. Consolidation further accelerated after the fcc ruled in 1996 that all over-the-air television stations must convert from analog to digital broadcasting within ten years. Since most independent local religious stations could not afford the multimillion-dollar conversion (Schultz, 2000, 2002, 2005), many sold out to Trinity. In turn, Trinity smartly used its expanding footprint of local tv stations, together with the fcc “must carry” rule, to be included in the basic channel packages of local cable franchises nationwide.

The same year that the digital mandate was issued, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 eliminated the national cap on radio and television station ownership. Within five years, the number of network-owned religious radio stations in the Top 25 media markets increased by 35 percent, and in the Top 50 markets by 20 percent (Ward, 2012). Rates for preachers to purchase airtime rose sharply while expected production values increased. Lesser-known preachers who could only afford the traditional quarter-hour daily program struggled for media access, as half-hour slots became the standard format and favored big-name preachers with large bases of listener support (Ward, 2009). On the television side, Trinity became the nation’s third-largest owner of stations once the national ownership cap was eliminated and, as noted above, local independent religious stations sold out in the wake of the fcc digital mandate. Moreover, through its economies of scale, Trinity (2016) has taken full advantage of “multicasting” or the ability to fit multiple digital side-channels into the same bandwidth as a single analog channel. In 35 media markets, the network broadcasts not only its flagship Trinity channel over the air, but also four more side-channels including a church worship channel, children’s channel, youth-oriented contemporary music channel, and Spanish-language channel.

Today, the electronic church is an institution that encompasses a dozen evangelical television networks carried via every major cable and satellite tv operator with a reach of 100 million households; some 50 nationally syndicated televangelists who can afford time on those religious networks; ten national evangelical radio networks that each control between 100 and 400 stations and also distribute programming to hundreds more; and some 30 evangelical radio programs that each are nationally syndicated on as many as 2,000 outlets (Ward, 2016c). In addition, the Contemporary Christian Music recording industry whose product is played by evangelical radio stations—of which 1,600 stream their programming online (Rodrigues, Green, and Virshup, 2013)—has likewise consolidated. Independent Christian Music labels were acquired over the years by consolidators such as cbs, abc and mci, and today the genre is dominated by industry giants Universal, Sony, and Warner Entertainment (Smith and Seignious, 2016). As will be seen in the following section, the electronic church has not been obsolesced by new media but has embraced it. And by the seemingly inexorable laws of media concentration, plus the digital technology that permits media convergence and the easy repackaging of media content for multiple platforms, this religious media industry has set its sight on digital religion.

Religious Media Convergence

Appendices 1 through 4 list, respectively, the traditional and digital outreaches of major evangelical television networks (Appendix 1) and syndicated tv programmers (Appendix 2), and of major radio networks (Appendix 3) and syndicated radio programmers (Appendix 4). These data were gathered by checking network websites for self-reported information on their available media platforms and their scheduled syndicated programming, and then consulting syndicator websites for self-reported information on their network and digital carriage. The appendices do not report networks’ and syndicators’ social media presences—Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, blogs—since these are “givens” for media organizations today. (In addition, virtually every syndicator sells dvds of its sermons and Bible study series, plus related printed materials.) Rather, the appendices list traditional media carriage (satellite, cable, broadcast television, radio) and new media platforms (web streaming, mobile devices, media players).

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The religious television industry is founded on networks that purchase transponders on direct-broadcast satellite services (e.g., DirecTV, DISH, at&t U-verse, Verizon Fios) and carriage rights on cable operators (e.g., Bright House, Cablevision, Charter, Comcast, Cox, Mediacom, Suddenlink, Time Warner) and recoup these costs by selling program availabilities to syndicators. Meanwhile, though radio stations are licensed by the fcc to use public airwaves without charge, they either sell program slots to syndicators (if commercially licensed) or solicit listener donations (if noncommercial) as well as receive a percentage of donations that listeners give directly to syndicators that received free airtime on the network.

This “pay to play” system, both in religious television and radio, favors formation of heterogeneous oligopolies. Networks incur high costs to acquire channels of distribution and syndicators to develop content. After that, however, duplication costs are low and returns attractive as networks sell time to multiple syndicators and syndicators acquire time on multiple networks. For example, according to 2014 tax filings, the top two religious television networks, Daystar and Trinity, respectively reported incomes of $233 million and $177 million that year, while the incomes reported by top tv and radio syndicators included $388 million by Samaritan’s Purse, $288 million by the Christian Broadcasting Network, $101 million by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, $74 million by In Touch Ministries, $59 million by Joyce Meyer Ministries, $29 million by Life Outreach International, and $21 million by Joseph Prince Ministries (National Public Radio, 2014). Similarly, a 2004 survey of the top 24 television ministries found syndicators that year collectively raised and spent more than $1 billion (Winzenburg, 2005); the amount today is likely much higher.

To achieve such returns, the most-watched religious tv networks, as Appendix 1 shows, generally acquire transponders on multiple communication satellites, while the most-watched tv syndicators acquire time, as Appendix 2 demonstrates, on multiple religious networks. In radio, Appendix 3 shows that the major national evangelical networks each control between 100 and 400 stations, while syndicators, as Appendix 4 documents, must air on at least 400 stations to be players in the market and many acquire time on between 1,000 and 2,000 outlets. Attaining such scale is further aided by transaction cost economics as networks deal with the limited number of syndicators that can purchase program time on a national basis, and syndicators need only make media buys with national networks rather than seriatim with local outlets. At the same time, all four appendices demonstrate that evangelical networks and syndicators alike have fully embraced every available digital media platform—web streaming, mobile apps, media players—because these offer potentially large-scale returns for minimal added distribution costs.

Discussion and Conclusions

While Digital Religion Studies have flourished, scholarly interest in the “electronic church” waned after the televangelism scandals of the late 1980s (Ward, 2016b). Although a few scholars (Hendershot, 2004; Kintz, 1997; Kintz and Lesage, 1998; McDannell, 1995) since then have explored the material culture of evangelical media industry, the structure of religious media—as a media industry—remains unaddressed, much less its convergence with digital religion. Yet it was inevitable, as this study has shown, that old (broadcast) and new (digital) religious media should converge, especially since the electronic church offered a familiar and ready-made institutional framework for American evangelicalism to adopt and adapt the new technologies. Further, by the laws (or at least the history) of media economics, it seems equally inevitable that “digital religion” should, in its turn, tend toward a concentrated market of heterogeneous oligopolies. These phenomena of media concentration and convergence merit study by scholars of Digital Religion Studies.

Further, the dynamic interplay between these phenomena and digital culture bear examination as religious media institutions and the technologies they employ co-evolve. From a structurational (Giddens, 1984) perspective, Orlikowski (1992) observed that a “duality of technology” operates in institutions and organizations such that technology is (1) an outcome of and (2) a medium for human action, even as institutions (3) are contexts for human interactions with technology and (4) are impacted by those interactions. Similarly, Rice and Gattiker (2001) demonstrated that institutions are comprised not only of formal structures but also structures of meanings and relationships that enable and constrain certain uses of new technologies; by the same token, new technologies can impact institutional structures as they enable and constrain certain meanings and relationships. Thus, a congregational website may start as a high-tech bulletin board where printed matter is posted online, until leaders discover that the site enables new forms of connection among members that go beyond weekly worship gatherings.

The co-evolution of existing economically-driven religious mass media institutions and new digital media technologies carries implications for how millions of believers and seekers engage in digital religion and participate in digital culture. Connable (2016), for example, suggested that the colonization of digital religion by the institutional electronic church has vastly expanded an “echo chamber” where, through “mediational reflexivity” (De Zengotita, 2005), communally validated media representations ultimately become communal reality. Using public sphere theory, Duerringer (2016) proposed that the melding of evangelical mass media and digital culture has exponentially extended a “tropological economy” (Lundberg, 2009) in which culture-war tropes are recursively (re)produced. On the other hand, Mesaros-Winckles and Winckles (2016) demonstrated through the example of Focus on the Family’s extensive digital media outreaches that programmers accustomed to simple linear religious messages designed for traditional “hot” media (McLuhan, 1964) struggle with the “cool” medium of the internet. By the same token, in applying Lövheim’s (2011) mediatization-of-religion thesis to the Jesus Calling mobile app, Trammell (2016) argued that:

the ‘new’ electronic church is bound to shift its focus from entertainment to empowerment, from thrilling success to convenient empowerment, from evangelizing the masses to affirming the individual. Put another way, the Christian faith itself may resemble an ‘app’ (p. 232, emphasis in original).

All of the foregoing theses—and more—about the interplay of religion, media, and digital culture are implicated in the concentration and convergence of religious media already proceeding apace by the seemingly inexorable laws of media economics. As scholars of Digital Religion Studies continue exploring “the intersection of online and offline religious communities’ practices and discourses” (Campbell and Vitullo, 2016, p. 74), they may also need to start following the money.

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