Ninety-one-year-old televangelist Pat Robertson announced last week that he’s 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 twentysomething. 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.
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.
Its cash flow rose in fiscal year 2021 to $55.9 million, up from $9.5 million in 2020.
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.
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 cohost 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.
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.
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