Why ‘The 700 Club’ Is the Show That Won’t Die and Can’t Be Killed
Televangelist and political lightning rod Pat Robertson is retiring, but his long-running controversial Christian talk show still can’t be canceled. Here’s why. Note: A version of this article first appeared on Los Angeles Magazine online
Ninety-one-year-old televangelist Pat Robertson announced last week that he is he is hanging it up at The 700 Club, the Christian talk show he launched in the 1960s and has helmed ever since. Robertson is a titan of the conservative movement, but his retirement won’t mean an end to religious news or televised conservative commentary—in fact, it won’t even mean an end to his show, the longest-running program in television history.
The 700 Club, which made its debut on the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) in 1963, doesn’t boast particularly impressive ratings, but an “ironclad” contract with its home network’s parent company has kept the show on the air indefinitely—and kept the cash rolling in.
To say the least, The 700 Club is an uncomfortable fit on its anchor outlet, Freeform—formerly Fox Family and ABC Family—which is mostly home to fare for tweens, teens, and twenty-something. It’s such an oddball that channel bosses don’t promote it and have been known to make sport of it on air. In 2018, Freeform preceded the show with a blunt on-air notice: “Freeform is not responsible for what’s about to appear on your screen. Watch or don’t watch. We’re OK either way.”
In 2019, a disclaimer read, “The people at Freeform would like you to know that we did not make the next program. We haven’t even seen it.” Freeform has been known to encourage viewers to switch over to the app while TV airtime is given to the show.
This is what appeared on the Freeform cable network screen just before "The 700 Club" aired a few years ago
The 700 Club violates all the usual rules of broadcasting. Unlike typical programs, it doesn’t help its home network build audience or retain viewers after airing, but a deal with Freeform parent Disney has helped make Robertson rich and politically potent all the same.
Disney first got involved with Robertson and 700 in 2001, when it acquired what had been the Fox Family Channel for a handsome $5.3 billion, and soon renamed it the Disney Family Channel. That stuck until 2016, when, hungry for better ratings, Disney rebranded the network as Freeform.
Just as Rupert Murdoch was made to agree to always air 700 when Fox acquired the Family Channel in 1996 for $1.9 billion—including a $95 million payoff for the Robertsons—Disney had to guarantee 700 airtime, and not in just any daypart. The contract says Freeform can’t bury 700 in the wee hours of the night. It has to air once in the morning and again at night. That later time slot has kept Freeform from launching a late-night programming franchise.
Freeform loses millions in potential ad revenue when 700 airs but gets little in return. CBN reported in March 2021 that it pays a monthly fee of about $1.2 million to the network. In return, Freeform tries to ignore 700.
“They don’t promote it, they don’t lead up to it,” a source told TV Insider in 2016. “It’s just this little island. They treat it like an infomercial.”
That year Disney offered the Robertsons $42 million as a buyout. “According to an unnamed source, the network tried to buy out Robertson, but the price quoted was ‘astronomical,’” Vulture reported. “The 700 Club is valuable property for Robertson: CBN’s most recent tax audit shows its airtime is worth $42.4 million annually.”
“We thought we could negotiate it and give him a lot of money. But that was never [Robertson’s] intention,” an executive told TV Insider. “The language is ironclad. I don’t know what it would take at this point to get rid of it.”
It’s not hard to see why the Robertson’s have insisted on keeping a foothold on their time slots. While TV advertising and affiliate fees may drive most TV, 700 has the advantage of attracting donations, under its tax-exempt status as a religious organization.
According to the network’s March 2021 fiscal year-end financial statement, CBN’s annual revenue was about $391 million. Its cash flow rose in fiscal year 2021 to $55.9 million, up from $9.5 million in 2020. CBN reported 2021 assets of $94.8 million up smartly from $57.8 in 2020, showing that the pandemic paid off with more people at home to watch and more donations from the worried faithful. It continued to provide political capital as well to relentlessly promote Christian Conservative political positions and to boost Donald Trump.
Robertson has had former President Trump on "The 700 Club" and has been one of his biggest boosters. His son Gordon continues to support Trump and offer up the same daily dose of Conservative Christian political views
There are many news shows and multiple Christian religious shows on American TV, but none have leveraged the combination of religion, politics and the power of television to reach people and monetize it into the hundreds of millions. While others have to share their affiliate and ad revenues with a parent company and pay taxes, CBN keeps it all and has re-invested the profits to build an ever bigger empire and gain even more political and cultural clout.
The only question occasionally raised about the program’s TV deal was whether or not the contract was tied directly to Pat Robertson. Now we know that it’s not. Robertson has passed the baton to his youngest son, Gordon, 63, who is already a co-host of 700 and an executive producer, among other roles at CBN.
Gordon has stood in for his father in the past, most notably in 2018 when Pat Robertson suffered a stroke. Gordon’s older brother Tim ran the family business beginning in 1968, when his father stepped down to make an ill-fated run for president. Gordon joined in 1994 when he helped launch CBN in the Philippines with a weekly show, The 700 Club Asia, and built CBN World Reach centers in Beijing, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, and Thailand.
He returned to co-host the original 700 in 1999 and lead CBN’s humanitarian organization Operation Blessing. Gordon took over as CEO in 2007.
Gordon and Pat Robertson
Pat Robertson will still make occasional appearances on the network and is continuing his involvement with Regent University, which he founded in 1977. However, 700 is now driven by Gordon, who is on air each day, often serving up the same kind of ultra-conservative commentary that his father was known for—or infamous for, in some circles.
Gordon lives near CBN’s Virginia headquarters with his wife, Katharyn Robertson, who he met when both attended Yale. They have three grown children, so there will be more generations to continue the legacy of an unstoppable, self-perpetuating money machine.
BONUS: This is not the first time Alex Ben Block has written about Robertson and "The 700 Club." Here is a column he published in 2005 for TelevisonWeek:
Pat Robertson Keeps On Going and Going …
Dec 5, 2005 •
During the 1951-52 television season, when Milton Berle’s variety show was a national obsession, NBC signed the comedian to an unprecedented 30-year contract. Then as today, that kind of job security was unusual in the entertainment industry. However, there is a performer on television whose longevity surpasses even Uncle Miltie’s. He isn’t a comedian and this is no joke. Despite his increasingly bizarre on-air behavior and frequent outrageous statements, he is able to maintain a powerful daily electronic bully pulpit, reaching more than 90 million U.S. homes and viewers in some 200 other countries. For 45 years Marion Gordon “Pat” Robertson has been a TV fixture ministering to his electronic flock while masterminding the creation of a global business empire, the Christian Broadcasting Network, primarily funded by donations from viewers. His flagship show, “The 700 Club,” seen on ABC Family Channel and other outlets worldwide, brings in millions of dollars in charitable donations and advertising revenue that has financed the creation of a worldwide business empire, made Mr. Robertson wealthy and supported his political agenda. His daily show gives Mr. Robertson an important platform. “He has the ability to go on the air and generate calls and letters that can shut down Capitol Hill,” said Andrew Schwartzman of Media Access Project, an advocacy group in Washington. “You can’t put a dollar value on the political clout he’s got, and that is the basis of his power.” Every other program on TV is subject to cancellation if ratings are low. Not “The 700 Club.” According to sources, while ABC Family averages about 700,000 viewers at any other time of the day, national ratings for “The 700 Club” are barely detectable and have declined over the past three years. Much of the millions that the “700 Club” raises is plowed right back into running CBN and producing the show, to raise even more money. As long as “700” has a national TV platform, Mr. Robertson has a perpetual money machine with a rate of return that would make any businessman beam. In part, that is because a lot of funds are funneled through Operation Blessing International, which can take tax-deductible charitable donations. According to its 2004 fiscal year federal filing, Operation Blessing International had total revenues of $186.4 million, of which $91 million went to production and airing of religious radio and TV programming by CBN and affiliates. Why doesn’t Disney/ABC Family just cancel “The 700 Club”? According to a spokesperson, it can’t. The contract, she said, “is in perpetuity.” The agreement even specifies what time of day the program must air. ABC must provide program time “at cost.” The “700 Club” can only be canceled at “the Christian network’s option.” That is how Mr. Robertson keeps on going and going. Why doesn’t the Federal Communications Commission do something? Aside from the fact the Republican administration and Congress would be unlikely to take on Mr. Robertson, “The 700 Club” runs on cable TV, which is not regulated to the same extent as broadcast TV. CBN first went on the air Oct. 1, 1961, on a Portsmouth, Va., TV station. By 1990 CBN had become so profitable a business that the IRS challenged its tax exemption. So Mr. Robertson formed a new entity, International Family Entertainment, as a for-profit holding company, while maintaining CBN as a charitable nonprofit. IFE went public in 1992. His mixing of church and state, while using a nonprofit to raise millions, did bring IRS scrutiny under the Clinton administration. There was an investigation seven years ago, but it never went anywhere. A federal court last week even denied an advocacy group access to records specifiying the reasons why the IRS let CBN off. In 1997 IFE was sold to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. for $1.9 billion, of which CBN received $136 million, Mr. Robertson $19 million and related affiliates most of the rest. There was a published report in 2001 that Mr. Robertson turned down a Fox offer to buy out his option for hundreds of millions. Disney acquired the Family Channel in 2001 for a very rich price of $5.3 billion. Although the multiple daily airings of “700 Club” are a constant problem for programmers, Disney seems resigned to keeping it on the air. There apparently is no corporate appetite to pay “700” a billion dollars or more to go away. At age 75, Mr. Robertson seems to be in the twilight of his long career. His reputation has been tarnished in the recent past and his clout questioned even by other political conservatives after such questionable comments as his call for the assassination of the leader of another country and his comments that residents of a Pennsylvania town couldn’t expect help from God because they had rejected a ballot initiative he favored. There was also controversy in September when the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, put Mr. Robertson’s Project Blessing International high on the list of charities deserving donations. That brought an outcry from other charities. Within days, OBI was no longer prominent on FEMA Web site. That was an example both of the Rev. Robertson’s enormous political power, which got him on the list, and how quickly controversy can send even onetime supporters scattering for cover. It would be a mistake to think Mr. Robertson is not still a potent political force. He really does have friends in high places. But that may soon be tested. Last week CBN was among those opposing a la carte pricing of cable TV offerings, pitting it against many conservatives and the new FCC chairman. Niche broadcasters, including CBN, believe they would be hurt if they weren’t packaged with higher-rated channels. Mr. Schwartzman believes Mr. Robertson’s penchant for outrageous statements will do him in. “He is a diminishing threat,” he said, “who is self-destructing through his own nuttiness.” Mr. Robertson is already positioning “700” to continue even after his death. Eventually, however, Disney will have to take its medicine just as NBC did when it took Mr. Berle off the air after only six years but continued to pay him for the next 24 years. And Mr. Berle’s only offense was stealing jokes.