At the annual conference of the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) held earlier this year in Anaheim CA, there was much talk of all the Christian television stations in the country establishing their own network. Their aim would be promoting "family programming" by producing and broadcasting their own stories, which would contain a "Judeo/Christian message."
Several times during discussions at the conference, the Family Channel, headed by Pat Robertson, surfaced as an example of a "Christian" organization that was able, despite the expense, to create its own programming with a "Christian" message. Numerous speakers noted that Robertson already owns MTM (Mary Tyler Moore) Enterprises, whose syndication rights may give the televangelist some leverage in trying to place such programming before a broader market hungry for chaste, nonviolent content.
But hypocrisy on the part of the Family Channel is already apparent. On Sunday, March 23, 1997, MTM and Regent Entertainment presented a made for TV movie, broadcast on the Family Channel, titled "Dog's Best Friend." If this movie is what the NRB Christian network visionaries had in mind, then there is very little difference between "immoral" Hollywood plots and "Christian" plots with a "moral" theme.
In an attempt to out-Disney Disney, "Dog's Best Friend" tells the story of a 12-year-old boy whose mother was killed in an accident. The single parent father is an airline pilot whose schedule rules out much contact with the boy. Dad ultimately opts to dump his son "down on the farm" with the boy's maternal grandparents.
The Family Channel description completely belies the plot. The movie, it says, is "a heartwarming Family Channel original comedy about a young boy whose sudden ability to talk to animals enables him to save his grandparents' farm." It does star Adam Zalotin (late of "Leave It to Beaver"). Never mind that the film also happens to feature often foul-mouthed comedian Bobcat Goldthwait.
The real story, however, goes untold in this summary. In order for the boy to save the farm, he must gamble on horse races and entice a teacher to commit an illegal act by placing the bet for him. The unlikely moral: Hey kids, forget the lemonade stand or doing a play in the barn for the neighbors to raise cash. Hie thee to the racetrack!
The plot and the fact it was produced as a TV movie by Mary Tyler Moore Enterprises and broadcast on The Family Channel — both entities over which Robertson reigns — makes for something of a contradiction.
It was Robertson himself, as head of the Christian Broadcasting Network and host of the news-talk show "The 700 Club," who, only a few weeks before, on January 31, 1997, denounced gambling. "Gambling," he said, "[promotes] the wrong view of wealth."
As is his wont, Robertson offered a convoluted explanation. "If you take $100 and you invest it in some intelligent enterprise, which isn't too hard, in a year's time, you could probably make $200. So the next year you do it again. You make $400. ... At the end of 20 years, if you double every year, [you would have] $20 million.
"But to take this $100 and say, 'OK, I'm going to go in and roll the wheel' ... you'll [likely] lose your $100. ...The governments are teaching people to take long-shot odds ... when the way to do it is to invest their money, save their money, and let the money work for them."
A generous soul might say that Robertson, a very busy man commanding a vast web of employees, simply did not know his proverbial right hand from his left. Other observers might go a little harder: Hypocrisy, thy name is Robertson.
The movie's theme is not only a far cry from Robertson's lofty claims. A more accurate version of its core lesson is that the end justifies the means. How does this differ from any of a thousand movies produced by Hollywood — and for years condemned by many fundamentalists?
An added set of irreconcilables for Robertson may be the actors who had parts in the movie. "The voices behind the motley group of barnyard animals," reads the Family Channel promo, "are Edward Asner ('Lou Grant'), Meredith Baxter ('Family Ties'), James Belushi ('Jingle All The Way'), Roger Clinton (First Brother and international musician), Valerie Harper ('Rhoda'), Markie Post ('Hearts Afire'), and John Ratzenberger ('Cheers')."
For years Asner, Baxter, Post, and Harper have attained high profiles taking liberal stands presumably anathema to Robertson. Their causes have included labor unions, equal rights for women, nondiscrimination protections for gay people, compassion for the poor, and safeguards for the elderly.
The presence in the field of First Brother Roger Clinton, kin to Robertson's archnemesis, would seem to make the movie's credentials all the more dubious from the standpoint of Robertson-style religious conservatives.
Pat Robertson and other Christian leaders, in a quest to reach audiences clamoring for gentle entertainment, appear eager to put their imprimatur on programming they deem "family-friendly."
For religious conservatives, the facts of life of the entertainment business mean dealing with talent that doesn't march in lockstep with the right. But the moral gist of some items on their would-be index may not match the values touted by their purveyors. In fact, they may not even jibe with some of their sponsors' own preaching.
Jerry Sloan is the founding director of Project Tocsin.