Pat Robertson’s mission on Earth ended yesterday, passing at the age of 93, a significant enough event to trigger multiple alerts from both mainstream news and media-specific sites. As Deadline’s Ted Johnson dutifully reported, his legacy organization issued this succinct release:
The Christian Broadcasting Network, the enterprise he created from a Virginia TV station, announced his death and said that he died at his home in Virginia Beach “Pat Robertson dedicated his life to preaching the Gospel, helping those in need, and educating the next generation,” the network said.
The implicit assumption was that Robertson was heading to heaven, the backdrop for many of the graphics and ads that his signature program THE 700 CLUB plastered all over the Norfolk airport that served as the travel hub for the thousands of guests, including many notable Hollywood celebrities and authors that would otherwise be booked on the TODAY and TONIGHT shows et alia. When I worked for the secular entities he owned in the late 90s, and personally knew his former executive assistant who had relocated to Los Angeles, I had a unique lens into a man who only years earlier had been an early leader in the race to succeed Ronald Reagan into the White House.
From what I learned, and from what I saw, I’ll net out that he indeed took a northward final journey, but it probably sparked a lot of debate.
I first met the man in person when he was “roasted” at a surreal Friars Club-like event in Century City, one that dutiful employees were “encouraged” to buy tickets to. His son Tim ran The Family Channel and, by extension, the remains of MTM Entertainment and he saw this event as a way for him to rub shoulders with all of the agents and talent he claimed he wanted to invest heavily in. When the guy who ultimately signs your check asks you to do something, you do it. At least that’s the Golden Rule I was raised by. I still chuckle at the thought of a dais populated by people who bought hours upon hours of time on local stations and transponders to also preach the Gospel–Robert Schuller, Charles Stanley, Benny Hinn, Tammy Faye Bakker. and others–liquored up and bragging about how much they had “raised” in recent months while trying valiantly to channel their inner Don Rickles. Thank goodness there was an open bar that night.
Through his very open and accessible former assistant, who was our guide to the roadmap of trying to understand the Robertson culture, we learned that the family had numerous skeletons in their closet, not unlike the heathens he would rail against on his shows. Tim loved to race fast cars, buying and sponsoring a NASCAR team as a way to gain access to a world he had no other extension to or interest in broadcasting. We’d showcase the car at conventions ultimately reminding people that his competing channels were worthy of far greater license fees than we were deserving of. Gordon, who ultimately succeeded him as 700 CLUB host, had numerous battles with addiction and misoygny. In more gossipy moments, I would frequently ask if those apples ultimately fell far from their progenic tree. I never did get a definitive answer, but I didn’t get a denial.
What I did see was someone who reveled in his ability to turn pennies into dollars as a believer would suggest water could be turned into wine. As the AP’s Ben Finley,Robertson began his media empire humbly:
Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network started airing in 1961 after he bought a bankrupt UHF television station in Portsmouth, Virginia. His long-running show “The 700 Club” began production in 1966.
Robertson coupled evangelism with popular reruns of family-friendly television, which was effective in drawing in viewers so he could promote “The 700 Club,” a news and talk show that also featured regular people talking about finding Jesus Christ. He didn’t rely solely on fundraising like other televangelists. Robertson broadcast popular secular shows and ran commercials, said David John Marley, author of the 2007 book “Pat Robertson: An American Life.”
His formula was simple, one that had been honed when he expanded his station group to include surprisingly competitive independents in Dallas-Fort Worth and Boston. I had inherited responsibility for Boston’s WXNE when FOX purchased it in the late 80s, and even in a market as progressive and Northern as Beantown reruns of LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, BONANZA, THE HIGH CHAPARRAL and lots and lots of John Wayne movies were rating on par with far more expensive and recent fare on competing stations. The Family Channel was similarly programmed.
But it was THE 700 CLUB, a show named for a strategy Robertson developed at that UHF station, WYAH-TV (call letters standing for the Hebrew name for Jesus, Yahweh) where he rationalized that if he could convince that many viewers to pony up a $10 monthly donation he could pay his operational bills, that was Robertson’s de facto pulpit and priority. His one non-negotiable demand as he was selling his empire, a sale that resulted in Tim giddily sharing with the company that “he now had 126 million new reasons to praise Jesus”, was to maintain that show in perpetuity. And when I was chosen to be part of the team that would continue with the company after Haim Saban and Rupert Murdoch’s joint venture purchased it to create FOX Family Channel, I was deployed by both entities, since I had a history with both companies, to figure out how this purchase and evolution could best go down.
The show occupied three of four daily hours which CBN programmed, two of which were live in midday and one a “best of” compilation that was slotted at 10 PM. No matter what kind of programming strategy we’d develop to boost the first two hours of prime time, giving over the last hour of it to a much lesser-viewed show that was hardly compatible with any entertainment fore and aft would negate our gains. We knew we had to move that telecast to even have a shot at making our estimates. Saban asked me to develop a presentation to present to “Dr. Robertson” and his team (for the record, his actual degree was a Masters in Divinity, but anyone who knows Haim knows he never lets details get in the way of HIS missions.
It was important enough for me to join several other executives on a private jet, to date my only such experience. We had looked in detail at what audience the show did have and we realized that they were coming in from many other places at 10 PM, including not watching any other television. We also looked at the duplication of that audience from the live run that Robertson focused heavily on and unsurprisingly learned the overwhelming majority of the nighttime viewers didn’t watch the live show. We theorized that if we moved the primetime hour up out of prime time, and added a satellite-friendly “West Coast feed” run three hours later that would assure anyone watching DIRECTV would see the show at 11 PM local time, the show would net out at least as good, if not better, than what they had by cockblocking 10 PM.
It was, of course, quite a lot of assuming. But I was assured by those that knew Robertson that if we presented ourselves as folksy, friendly and helpful as he would appear that he was capable of believing absolutely anything.
I waited several hours in his lobby along with Haim, my colleagues and with some of Pat’s minions, who repeatedly asked if any of us were believers. (Haim, they assumed, wasn’t). Ralph Reed, who was then running the Christian Coalition, stopped by to chat with Pat and we all made small talk. He chided Haim about sleeping in Bill Clinton’s house and joked “well, when we take it over, you can still have your old room back”. So THAT’s where Mike Pence gets his sense of humor.
I made the pitch, watching Robertson smirk and wink as I fumbled with my charts. He took it in, whispered to those closest to him, and then said “Son, you KNOW I’m not as concerned about viewers as I am about donations. You got any data to show me about how moving our show might impact THAT?”
I was proud of myself when I shot back “Sir, these viewers are ultimately loyal to YOU. And if you don’t have to make them choose between a high-rated 10 PM drama and your show, they will likely be so grateful that they’ll be willing to reward you that much more. And think about how much more likely someone watching at 2 AM, likely on edge with worry, will be”.
He bought it. And that’s the strategy that the show has had through three different network names for more than a quarter-century, where Robertson continued to offer parables such as these that Johnson’s obituary reported on:
Robertson often drew controversy — and some ridicule — for his statements on his daily program The 700 Club, in which he said that certain natural disasters were God’s revenge for acceptance of homosexuality, among other things. In 2013, he claimed that some gay men in San Francisco were deliberately trying to spread HIV with a special ring. His comments drew condemnation from civil rights groups. CNN’s Anderson Cooper highlighted Robertson’s comments, and quipped: “I totally get why Pat Robertson is against same-sex marriage. He just doesn’t want to give gay men a reason to wear rings.”
Robertson also was prone to wild predictions, including in 2020, when he said that Donald Trump would win the election and that an asteroid strike would end the world.
Again, I had my own experience where I saw behind this wizard’s curtain. FOX Family had hired the marketing guru Sergio Zyman, the onetime head of worldwide marketing for Coca-Cola that had engineered the fervor behind “New Coke”, which was later revealed to be nothing more than a brand correction, to help us develop our messaging for the evolution of The Family Channel into FOX Family. We called the otherwise implausible combining of Pat and the Saban world the “Hamhocks and Lox” study. Zyman offered that he should be booked as a guest on THE 700 CLUB so he could “infiltrate himself into that world”. The day he was booked, we gathered in Saban’s massive conference room to watch the live, wild feed from Virginia. As he attempted to explain what he did for Coke, Robertson quizzically asked if he had different strategies for different parts of the world. “I mean, I imagine Orientals might like to drink soda, too, right? How would you sell Coke to them?”
Saban broke out into one of its patented extensive bellylaughs. “Holy sh-t. What a putz.”. He turned to me and asked if I could whip up a pitch that would convince him to move the show even later. “This schmuck will believe anything”. Well, we never did get around to doing that pitch. But it was a sobering reminder exactly how out of touch some believers are.
The afternoon after our meeting with Pat et al, it was announced to an otherwise unsuspecting group of longtime Family Channel production people that the non-CBN operations center was closing, putting more than a hundred people who had economically produced game shows, sitcoms and light dramas out of work. Saban took his plane, which had been idling at a private airport when this news was announced, on to a meeting in Washington, so I flew back coach, Considering that when the news broke locals were servicing his plane, including his brakes, I was never happier to fly commercial than I was on that return flight.
So when I see how and why his audience will believe the kind of theories that those who now occupy prominent roles in media and Congress and aspire to join constantly spew, I’m reminded of my own experience, and ask for forgiveness from anyone who thinks I may have had some small role in starting that conflagration.
G-dspeed, Dr.–er. Mr.–Robertson. Hope you enjoy eternity, wherever it may be.
Until next time…