Jul 1 1987

PBS Drops Documentary on Religious Right

Heritage USA (cc photo: Emily Baron).

Heritage USA, Jim and Tammy Bakker’s defunct theme park, shortly before its 2013 demolition (cc photo: Emily Baron).

Award-winning filmmaker Antony Thomas was putting the final touches on his TV documentary about the religious right last April, just when the Jim and Tammy Bakker scandal broke. PBS Frontline had put up half the film’s $360,000 budget and was set to run it in two parts on May 12 and 19. It couldn’t have been more timely and TV reviewers were unanimous in their raves. But Frontline suddenly got cold feet and shelved the program indefinitely. Unless PBS is prevailed upon to change its decision, there are fears the documentary may never air.

The film opens at a Dallas rally in 1980 with televangelist James Robison screaming: “It’s time for God’s people to change America.” Next Jerry Falwell addresses the rally: “We established this nation on the Judeo-Christian ethic and we shouldn’t be ashamed of it. Mr. Khomeini is not ashamed of his Moslem state….” Finally, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan takes his turn at the podium: “I know this is a nonpartisan gathering and I know you can’t endorse me, but I want you to know that I endorse you and what you’re doing.”

Thomas then takes the viewer on an unprecedented insider’s tour of religious fundamentalism in America, including children who recite a revised pledge at school: “I pledge allegiance to the Christian flag and to the savior….” The documentary features Jim and Tammy Bakker’s Heritage USA empire (before they fell from grace), showing everything from the doughnut “Bakkery” to the Christian talking dolls that preach against abortion. Jim Bakker explains that he “was called by God to do television” and that people are hungry for God after “they try alcohol and sex. Materialism has not solved any problems.”

The documentary offers new insight into unscrupulous PTL fundraising methods and exposes how right-wing operatives in Washington stand ready to convert those who respond to religious TV shows into political shock troops. Televangelist-cum-candidate Pat Robertson warns that “by the year 2075, the population of the Western democracies will only be four-and-a-half percent of all the people in the world. What we are doing is committing racial suicide.”

Frontline’s decision to shelve the documentary is a total mystery. According to Thomas, the rationale for delaying the program continually changed. On April 4, Frontline executive producer David Fanning informed PBS stations that the documentary would be re-edited to include the latest on PTL; Thomas was ready to make the necessary changes. But then he was told it was being held until “the dust has settled” on the whole PTL scandal.

Why? The issue is newsworthy now, as shown by Nightline’s Jim and Tammy interview which got a 40-plus share. Los Angeles Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg called the decision a “bad error…difficult to understand.” Thomas, who has produced several major projects for PBS, including Death of a Princess (1979), says he remains on call to update the program for broadcast. “If it doesn’t air soon,” Thomas told Extra!, “I fear it never will.”

Perhaps PBS is reluctant to provoke additional attacks on its documentary programming from the right wing–including the Reagan-appointees who dominate the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Frontline’s Fanning dismissed this notion, telling Extra! that he hopes a timeslot can be quickly found for the documentary.

In a letter to PBS president Bruce Christensen, FAIR urged the network to air the program as soon as possible. “We look to PBS as a network that takes the risk of airing hard-hitting documentaries. Inexplicable decisions like this one will only isolate PBS from its natural base of support.”

To voice your concern, write Mr. Christensen at 1320 Braddock Place, Alexandria, VA 22314. FAIR is screening the video in Los Angeles on July 22 and in New York soon afterward.

UPDATE: Thomas’ documentary, Thy Kingdom Come, eventually aired on April 6, 1988–not on Frontline, but as a stand-alone special on PBS. The L.A. Times‘ Rosenberg (1/26/88) noted that the controversy over Frontline‘s withdrawal “apparently yielded this new airdate.”


Frank Zaps Fox

Frank Zappa was scheduled to guesthost Fox Broadcasting’s The Late Show on June 12. But Fox pulled the plug on him at the last minute. “I was talking to them over a three-week period,” Zappa told Extra!. “The agreement was predicated on my being able to choose my own guests.”

Zappa had lined up NPR analyst Daniel Schorr and Gerard Straub, author of Salvation for Sale, a stinging look at right-wing televangelists. Two days before the show, Zappa’s agent got a call. “We pass,” was all Fox said. Apparently middle management feared Zappa’s approach would be too much like Nightline. Zappa’s retort: “This show has a 1.5 rating. That’s worse than the David Brenner Show…. How can they do worse? Figure it out for yourself. Look at Nightline’s big ratings, they got a 40 share when they had Jim and Tammy on the show.”