House of Cards
MU history professor John Wigger says if someone developed a television series based on the rise and fall of televangelist Jim Bakker and his wife, Tammy Faye, audiences would have a tough time believing the story because it seems so ludicrous. A pair of small-time faith healers parlays a puppet show into a multimillion-dollar media empire, builds a Christian theme park at the height of their success, and then watches it all blow up. Wigger’s new book, PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelical Empire, chronicles the incredible success and humiliating downfall of America’s first Christian talk show hosts, and considers the couple’s impact on religion in America today.
Wigger says Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker had three important innovations: the creation of the Christian talk show, the creation of their own satellite network, and the development of a Christian theme park.
A Christian Version of Johnny Carson
Before the Bakkers arrived on the scene, religious television was basically a televised church service. In the early 1960s, the Bakkers traveled the Bible Belt as healing evangelists, and Tammy Faye created a puppet show to appeal to kids. Pat Robertson, who at the time owned a UHF television station in Virginia, heard about the puppet show and invited the Bakkers to start a kids’ show on his station. The puppet show became popular, and Jim talked Robertson into letting him spin off a talk show, which became The 700 Club. Wigger says when Jim and Tammy Faye had been traveling evangelists, they unwound at night by watching Johnny Carson, and Jim often wondered why there couldn’t be a Christian version of the Carson show. The 700 Club became Jim’s version of a Christian Tonight Show, and then Jim went to California and helped launch Trinity Broadcast Network with Paul Crouch. But Wigger says Bakker had a falling out with both Robertson and Crouch, and so struck out on his own to create PTL in Charlotte in 1974, initially broadcasting from a former furniture store.
Reaching the Masses
Wigger says the Bakkers were early adopters of satellite, which eventually created enormous fundraising potential. HBO went live on Nov. 8, 1972, becoming the first satellite network in the country, although it struggled for a few years to become profitable. Around this time, Ted Turner bought a small, struggling UHF channel in Atlanta and decided the only way he could make money was to put the channel on satellite. Turner beamed his signal to cable companies in four states, creating the first “superstation,” what was ultimately known as Turner Broadcasting System. The 700 Club was broadcast on one of Turner’s channels in Charlotte; Turner dropped that program, but offered Bakker two hours of air time each day. Bakker accepted and called his new show The PTL Club. Wigger says Bakker then cut a better deal with the Federal Communications Commission than Turner had done to create his own satellite network.
“Bakker and PTL created the first private satellite network, which meant they had their own channel and their own transponder, so they could broadcast 24 hours a day virtually everywhere,” Wigger says. “Eventually they connected to an audience of 13 million homes, so this opened up tremendous fundraising potential, because not only could their show be seen everywhere, they could sell airtime.” All of the money that began to pour in to PTL led to the Bakkers’ third big innovation.
A Christian Disneyland
Wigger says Jim Bakker got the idea to build a Christian theme park similar to Disneyland, which became the hugely successful Heritage USA, attracting six million people in 1986 alone. The theme park included a television studio, where the Bakkers produced PTL, and a $13-million water park. But according to Wigger, it was Jim Bakker’s unusual scheme to raise money for a lavish new hotel at Heritage USA that sealed his fate. PTL viewers who donated $1,000 would get four free days per year at Heritage USA for life, but Bakker oversold the property and used much of the proceeds for other projects. He used the same scheme to raise money for an adjoining hotel, until his sexual encounter with Jessica Hahn became public in 1987 and Bakker resigned from PTL.
Wigger says the dichotomous nature of the Bakkers surprised him most while researching the book.
“They were truly creative and innovative—they weren’t just following other people’s way of doing things, they were creating all of these new ways to connect,” he says. ”The other side was just how dramatically dysfunctional a lot of this was behind the scenes.” Wigger says Jim Bakker preferred to raise money from his viewers rather than lending institutions in an effort to keep his finances secret. “What most people did not realize—because only Jim and a handful of insiders knew PTL’s true finances—was they were leveraged to the max to build Heritage, and by ’87 they were barely able to keep everything going. Yet they were still spending and starting new projects, so once the Jessica Hahn scandal broke, it took that little blip in fundraising to suddenly bring it all down,” he says.
In 1989, Bakker went on trial for mail and wire fraud in a circus-like atmosphere before Judge Robert “Maximum Bob” Potter. Bakker was sentenced to 45 years in prison, although he served less than five years after a couple of successful appeals. Tammy Faye Bakker, meanwhile, started her own talk show with Jim Jay Bullock and became an icon of the gay community. She died in 2007. Jim Bakker is back on television, selling buckets of food to survivalists on satellite television from a compound near Branson, Missouri.