Televangelists have dominated religious broadcasting for decades with their use of TV to preach gospel into living rooms, some soliciting donations from viewers through one simple phone call in the name of Jesus Christ.
Now the Church of Scientology has stepped into the broadcasting arena with Monday evening’s launch of the Scientology Network on DIRECTV’s channel 320, streaming devices like AppleTV and Roku, and apps on iTunes and Google Play.
Standing inside the Flag Building in downtown Clearwater, the church’s international spiritual headquarters, Scientology leader David Miscavige greeted viewers at 8 p.m. with a video message, promising the network would reveal the inside of the "dynamic and expanding religion," its beliefs and technologies.
"There’s a lot of talk about us, and we get it," Miscavige said. "We want to answer your questions, because frankly, whatever you have heard, if you haven’t heard it from us, I can assure you we are not what you expect."
RELATED: Clearwater council candidate’s development plan relies on Scientology’s cooperation
In the network’s opening moments, viewers saw panoramic aerial video of downtown Clearwater. After that came a long stream of footage showing Scientology’s churches around the world, depictions of its outreach programs and courses, and images of its technological hardware, all set to pulsating music.
The Scientology Network follows the launch of Scientology Media Productions in 2016, a five-acre broadcasting studio on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Scientology spokesperson Karin Pouw declined to answer specific questions about the network Tuesday.
The Network’s catchphrase is "Curious?" But whether the 64-year-old religion can use its newfound platform to recruit believers and control its message is yet to be seen. It is launching amid increasing media scrutiny, allegations of rampant abuse and financial exploitation of parishioners, and ridicule by late night talk show hosts.
"It’s an attempt to get legitimacy; at the same time it’s an attempt to diminish the impact of extensive media criticism," said Stephen Kent, a professor of sociology at University of Alberta who has studied Scientology for 30 years. "A lot of indicators point to the fact (Scientology) is not doing well."
Christian churches that historically dominated religious broadcasting aimed to recruit financially supportive followers and elevate their public image, Kent said. But while those televangelists were reaching out to the millions of Evangelical Christians in America, Scientology has a drastically smaller pool from which to draw.
The church has boasted its membership to be in the millions worldwide. But Kent said a more reasonable estimate is closer to 50,000 globally. That comes from census figures reported in various countries, low activity at refurbished buildings known as Ideal Orgs, and analysis from former high-level insiders, Kent said.
"The fact that Scientology is targeting its broadcasting through new media is indicative of the problems the organization is having with its image," Kent said.
Last week, comedian and political commentator Samantha Bee had a segment on her TBS show Full Frontal, telling National Rifle Association members if they wanted to be part of a "money-making scheme" and "brainwashing cult," they could ditch the AR-15s and join Scientology instead.
And in September, A&E’s Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath won an Emmy award for its series that detailed stories of physical, mental, sexual and financial abuses within the church to millions of viewers.
Scientology has long faced criticism for operating like a business by charging members to advance through levels, putting prices on required courses and using aggressive sales tactics. The sums that practicing Scientologist spend for courses, counseling and donations can reach well into six-figures.
RELATED: In Scientology’s backyard, Baptist preacher ‘takes a stand’
Adding a broadcast network onto that, in an apparent attempt to gain paying members, further clouds their stance as a tax-exempt religious organization, said Pete Evans, an investigator with Trinity Foundation, a nonprofit watchdog group that has monitored religious broadcasters for three decades.
"They will be making money off their broadcasting and gaining donations," Evans said. "I’m sure they’ll be talking about the good works they do … so they’ll be soliciting money and pulling on people’s heartstrings and there will be absolutely no accountability for that number."
Evans noted that many religious broadcasters have preached their faith ethically without exploiting viewers financially. He pointed to the late Billy Graham, who became world renowned for his televangelism beginning in the 1950s and "stuck with Christ as a message rather than money."
But others, like Kenneth Copeland and Creflo Dollar, have become notorious for lavish personal wealth and spending on the backs of viewers.
"You can look at the number of televangelists that have jets, and there are dozens," he said.
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.