Hollywood Is a Mission Field: Prolific Producer Phil Cooke Talks About Cleaning Up Christian Broadcasting and Improving Films of Faith

Phil Cooke / Handout
Phil Cooke / Handout

Phil Cooke has worked for some of the biggest TV preachers in the industry, including Billy Graham and Oral Roberts. He’s produced a wide selection of TV offerings, from the video “Starting Over” for a Billy Graham TV special to Super Bowl commercials. In recent years, he has become a vocal critic of the prosperity gospel and many of the heavy-handed fundraising techniques he sees on religious television. He is a board member of the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB), the Hollywood Prayer Network, and The Influence Lab. I talked to him in Burbank, Calif., about his involvement in the TV preaching and entertainment industries.

Tell me about your involvement in NRB. National Religious Broadcasters is an organization originally designed to [lobby] to keep a pathway open for Christian broadcasting in America. There have been a number of assaults on that over the years from Washington, D.C., and from other places, and so it primarily is focused on how we keep our faith alive on the airwaves. It’s also evolved into a professional organization with training. That’s where I’m more involved, teaching classes and things like that there. … Anytime Christians are intentionally using the media more effectively, I’m thrilled to be a part of it.

There are a lot of ministries that have learned to use media more effectively. As they grow, they seem to make a lot of money and get into trouble. I’m thinking of Trinity Broadcasting Network, with some of the problems that it had, and the so-called “Grassley Six,”—the six Christian ministries that Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, investigated several years ago. Is it possible to become big in TV ministry without ending up unfit for ministry at all? It is, but I have to say, it’s very, very difficult. We are all fallen human beings, and the truth is the temptations are huge. Billy Graham, I think, is a great example of someone who built about a $300 million ministry airing four primetime specials every year. Then he had a national radio ministry. He’s probably the ultimate symbol of integrity that there is out there. There are others. Some of them have stumbled on the way. It’s really interesting to see how some have responded well. Some have responded not so well. It’s a very difficult row to hoe.

Here’s the other thing that I think is important: In the Billy Graham days and in the Oral Roberts days, there were three channels. It was easy to raise money. Roberts never asked for money at all. Money just came in. In those days it was pretty easy, because the audiences were so huge.

Today, the average cable system in America is 180 channels. My DirectTV satellite has 500 channels, and so the competition is enormous. I think that leaves a lot of ministries to try a little too hard to get people to respond. As a result, they step over the line. They do some screwy things. It’s embarrassing.

If you were called to counsel one of these ministries, what would you tell them to do? Perception is so incredible. I don’t care how anointed your message is. I don’t care how great your program is. If people’s perception of you is that you’re a con-artist, you’ve failed because that’s going to hold people back from hearing what you have to say. I think perception is really important. You know what? I’m the guy that has to talk tough. I have to speak some very difficult things into people’s lives sometimes. Sometimes they listen. Sometimes they don’t, but the bottom line is we’ve got to clean up our act.

My fear is if we don’t clean these things up, if we don’t do things correctly, the tax exemption will be gone. They’re going to hurt everybody. They’re going to hurt local churches. … I think big media ministries in particular have a real responsibility to do it right, do it by the book, be an example for everybody else because it does have an impact.

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Warren Cole Smith

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