On April 30, 1939, NBC, then a division of RCA broadcast the first public television transmission from the World’s Fair in New York – a speech by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In 1941, the first commercial broadcast was made by NBC, with full-scale broadcasting beginning in 1947.
Billy Graham has always been committed to proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ by every effective means. Mr. Graham’s evangelistic ministry began in radio and quickly incorporated television as well.
Even while in its infancy, Billy understood the power and reach of television. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), formed in 1950, began using television as early as 1951 when nearly 12 million households owned a black and white set as Billy, along with Cliff Barrows and George Beverly Shea, used studios of KTTV in Los Angeles to produce a half-hour program that they place on as many stations as possible.
In 1957, the BGEA first broadcast live in the U.S. from the New York Crusade at Madison Square Garden. Then in 1959, they were the first program ever broadcast in color in Australia.
Billy Graham’s classic messages continue to be broadcast on television. Today, the BGEA produces several television programs each year as well as ministry specials including Billy Graham’s 95th birthday message, “The Cross,” which was broadcast to over 4 million U.S. homes in November 2013.
Here’s a look at what Billy Graham has said about the use of television for evangelism:
“My first excursion north was when I finished Bible school in 1939. I was invited to hold some meetings in York, Pennsylvania. After that I went to the New York World’s Fair for a few days. We didn’t have enough money to stay very long.
That’s when I first heard of television. They had a camera and you could walk in front of it and see your picture a few yards away. They said this was going to come to the whole country. Of course, nobody believed it. It was too impossible to think about.
Most preachers and teachers would say, I think, that talking to a live audience stimulates the speaker. It still astonishes me, however, to realize that I can be all alone in front of a radio microphone or a television camera and still reach more people than I ever could in a lifetime of personal appearances.
Radio, books, and films have all had an important part in extending our ministry, but by far the most significant in the long term has been television. More than one critic has pointed out the limitations and pitfalls of television. No doubt television also has been used to promote lifestyles and points of view that are opposed to what the Bible teaches.
All of that, however, does not rule out television as an incredibly powerful vehicle for shaping character and influencing people for good or for evil. Like most technologies, television in itself is morally neutral; it is what we do with it, or fail to do with it, that makes the difference.
Over the years, I have been invited to make special guest appearances on a variety of television shows – for too many to recount. I have accepted as many of them as I could. Sometimes people have questioned whether a minister of the Gospel should be on entertainment shows.
My sole purpose in accepting these invitations is to witness for Christ in a totally secular environment. Very few Christians have this opportunity. It is important to keep contact with the millions of Americans that never darken the door of a church . . . It seems to me that this was the method of our Lord. He went among the publicans and sinners.
Did these television appearances make any spiritual impact on the lives of individuals who were watching? That, of course, is difficult to measure. Only God knows the answer.”excerpts from Just As I Am by Billy Graham (1997, HarperCollins)