Faith in Programming

A made-for-TV movie about media mogul Lowell “Bud” Paxson would have to feature two pivotal props: an electric can opener and a Gideons’ Bible. The can opener helped make Paxson a billionaire. The bedstand Bible brought focus to his affluent, hard-driving life.
     At one time, Paxson—now chairman and chief executive of Pax TV—was the owner of a struggling radio station who agreed to accept 112 Rival electric can openers as payment from a cash-strapped advertiser. Paxson, a born retailer who bought his first radio station at age 22, offered the gadgets on air and sold out in a few minutes. Two years later, he took the concept to television, and the Home Shopping Network was born.
     In the 1980s, Paxson’s lucrative communications network grew from 5 to 7,000 employees. “It was like riding a tiger—and the hardest job I’ve ever done,” Paxson says. Still, the intensity took its toll. In 1986, the year he spent 260 days on the road negotiating with manufacturers in 100 countries, Paxson’s marriage broke up.
     A few weeks after the split, Paxson and his four children were staying at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. “It was New Year’s Eve Day, and I was not feeling festive,” he remembers. In the middle of that sleepless night, Paxson flipped through the pages of a Gideons’ Bible on his bedstand. Two passages about God’s unconditional love for sinners stopped him short. “I had an instant response in terms of my comfort and inner peace,” Paxson says. “I was 54 years old, yet I had never realized how important faith is in life.”

Courtesy of Paxson Communications
     Soon after, Paxson left the Home Shopping Network and sold his stock. He cashed out for $1 billion in 1990, and used the funds to create Paxson Communications, a publicly traded empire of radio and television stations. In 1998, Paxson consolidated his empire and parlayed his 67 UHF television stations into Pax TV, the nation’s seventh-largest television network and the focus of Paxson’s book, Threading the Needle: The Pax Net Story (HarperCollins).
     The new network’s programming, inspired by Paxson’s now firmly entrenched faith, focused on families and spirituality. The wholesome lineup raised red flags on Wall Street. “Lots of skeptics said, ‘No sex, no violence, no ratings,’” remembers Paxson. “I love it when people tell me I can’t do something. As far as I was concerned, Paxson Communications had a good track record, and Pax TV had a good business plan. I knew I could raise money from investors.”
     Two-and-a-half years after its launch, Pax TV operates in the black and reaches 82 percent of American households. Its stock is stable, despite a rocky market. “Between February 2000 and February 2001, our viewership was up by 39 percent,” reports Paxson, who owns 46 percent of the network. “There is a niche for what we are doing. Television can either support or undermine moral values. Parents want to know there is a safe haven for family viewing.”
     Prime-time Pax TV features reruns of feel-good shows like Touched by an Angel and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. It also produces 25 hours a week of original programming, such as the top-rated It’s a Miracle and highly applauded Mysterious Ways (which also airs on NBC). “Our shows are about storytelling and parables, which is how Christ taught,” explains Paxson. “The message is that there is a higher power intervening in our lives. That power is God, and he loves us.”
     But on Pax TV, the message is subtle, according to Paxson. “We are not evangelists. This is not a network on which people accept Jesus as their savior. It’s a network that acknowledges that many people have a spiritual side.” As Paxson told USA Today in 1998: “We understand that today’s baby boomer has a good job, two kids, two cars, and is not happy. He’s starting to seek, and that’s leading America back to church.”
     Although Pax TV reflects Paxson’s personal values (“You can’t act in opposition to your faith, or you lose it,” he believes), the network is not a monument to his spiritual beliefs. “We do not begin the day with a prayer,” he says. “I spend most of my time on investor relations and leave the programming to the professionals. I believe in what I’m doing, but I do not lose sight of the fact that I am not running a church, I am running a business.”

—Denise Owen Harrigan


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