One may have had low expectations when his television show began in 1951, to put it mildly.
The former radio broadcaster worked without a teleprompter or cue cards or referring to written notes, with only a blackboard for a prop, alone without guests or so much as a chair, delivering an almost full thirty-minute unscripted monologue at the camera and a studio-audience invisible offstage. Moreover, he was a Roman Catholic priest dressed flamboyantly from black cassock to flowing scarlet cape (only missing were the mitre and crosier). And he talked about God, rather a lot in fact. Other unfashionable topics included philosopher Henri Bergson’s lectures in 1920s Paris, he analysed inductive logic, critiqued polling theory, discussed advances in modern science from biology to psychiatry, went deep into the brainier kind of unpopular literature and much besides. Meanwhile, screened at 8 pm on Tuesdays, he was up against hit programming featuring Frank Sinatra and America’s best-loved television comedian. Must-see entertainment? A good shot at the Nielsen ratings? It would fill the air-time, at least until someone could think up a new game-show.
But any Doubting Thomas was soon eating industrial quantities of crow. Monsignor Fulton Sheen became an overnight sensation; television’s Stupor Mundi, the wonder of the broadcasting world. The background to his phenomenal success prompts unpleasant comparisons with modern American media-culture, but his formula proffers advice.
And what a hit he was! Before fledgling television networks could provide nationwide broadcasting, then-Msgr. Sheen’s weekly program jumped from three to fifteen stations in the first two months (i.e., a 500-percent expansion within eight broadcasts), drew 8,500 fan-letters a week and had four times more requests for studio-audience tickets than there were seats available. Less than a year later he was on the covers of Time and Newsweek magazines and had won an Emmy. His show, ”Life is Worth Living,” became a national obsession that attracted up to 30 million viewers weekly, about one in five Americans. His superstar competitor Milton Berle, who had a running gag about stealing jokes from other comedians, wisecracked that the priest “uses old material too!” In haute media style, Sheen thanked his writers, “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.”
For American “youngsters” still living in their first half-century on earth, the overall phenomenon of early television warrants brief explanation. US television ownership rocketed from 0.4 percent of the population in 1948, to 55.7 percent in 1954 and 83.2 percent four years later. Historians write: “No other household technology, not the telephone or indoor plumbing, had ever spread so rapidly into so many homes.”
Television’s growth was limited initially by how fast metropolitan areas acquired local start-up broadcasting channels, but one must not discount a family’s economic sacrifice. Forbes magazine reports that the average new car or light truck costs about $30,000; in 1950 it was $1,500 or twenty times less. In 1951, a mildly upmarket 17-inch General Electric tabletop television (black-and-white of course) cost $289 or about one-fifth of an average car then, or the equivalent of paying $6,000 for the most basic television set today.
Even amid America’s post-war economic boom a television set was a major expenditure; in order of social and economic magnitude much greater than any purchase today when families enjoy proportionally greater discretionary income, ability to borrow and the inclination to splurge. Yet more than four-fifths of US families bought one within only a decade. It is hard to think of a modern family purchase that would attract as much attention from the neighbours as did buying a television back when Msgr. Sheen appeared on what was called “the small screen.”
Television changed social patterns: people went less often to cinemas and restaurants and instead invited in friends to admire and watch their posh and rare new contraption, often dining off new-made (and rickety) individual folding tables clustered around the set. But most television viewing was a family affair just as listening to radio had been: single people and childless or elderly couples were the last groups to buy televisions in any significant number. The thought of separate televisions in children’s bedrooms would have been considered a bizarre extravagance and anti-social to boot. So Sheen’s audiences were whole families, to a degree that simply does not exist within today’s atomised patterns of broadcasting and viewing.
Now, when modern tablet computers and “smart” telephones sell millions within days of coming to market, the growth in television ownership seems less startling than it really was. The immense social impact appears slightly less odd only because we can see the black-and-white photos of strangely over-dressed families staring at a tiny screen, and individually we still submit to its domination ourselves. Harder to grasp, nowadays, are differences with the style and content of modern telecasting.
The medium was new, so production quality was low and often amateurish. Game-show hosts would lean off camera to whisper with the producer, right in the middle of a broadcast. Sit-coms, already well-established on radio, were often shot in a single one-room set; basically radio with costumes, filmed (not video-taped) usually on one enormous mobile camera bigger than a pair of refrigerators. Wild West dramas were of higher visual calibre, benefitting from already-built town-sized sets, pre-identified scenic locations and vast inventories of costumes and props, thanks to the already-fading B-movie industry (B-movies were screened after the main cinema feature-film in a Saturday matinee). From actors to horse-trainers to stunt-riders to script-writers, those who had made Western movies merely followed their audiences to the smaller screen. Most other telecasting was jerry-built from scratch and showed it.
Unless modern Americans prowl YouTube to watch 1950s television programs, it is hard to fathom the moral component in early telecasting that is rare today. Cowboy dramas all had moral messages: protecting the weak, standing up against the powerfully greedy and unjust, ignoring idle or malicious gossip and overcoming one’s temptations to cowardice, the need for rule of law, an adult’s responsibility to set an example for children, etc. These had their antecedents in Wild West feature-films, of course, but writing them into tight 30-minute weekly plots, in a way that was dramatic and not cloying, took real skill. Sit-coms and other dramas, often well-acted by performers experienced in Hollywood or on Broadway, adhered to a similar if less grandly mythic moral standard.
Lastly, because television was a new medium finding its feet, it was far less anodyne than today and more experimental. Innovative dramas and even operas, by America’s best writers and composers, were aired routinely; material of a high creative standard that is unavailable even from modern public broadcasters.
No matter how quaint it looks in hindsight, into this rather dynamic new medium Msgr. Sheen rolled his chalkboard.
Sheen (1895-1979) was born into the Victorian Age before Teddy Roosevelt charged up San Juan Hill. A former high-school valedictorian ordained in Peoria in 1919, he studied theology in Minnesota and at Catholic University in Washington, D.C, before later earning his doctorate at the Catholic University at Leuven in Belgium while winning important academic awards along the way. Judging by his broadcasts, he was astoundingly well-read in history, literature and science, and he came up with illustrations and examples effortlessly and without notes; from Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, to Marx, Darwin and Herbert Spencer, to Freud and Einstein, to innumerable philosophers, theologians and saints.
Sheen wrote the first of his 73 books in 1925 and in 1930 began a Sunday night radio broadcast, “The Catholic Hour,” which attracted up to 6,000 letters a week from listeners (in days of snail-mail and postage stamps, not user-friendly Facebook and Twitter). In the mid-1940s he conducted America’s first religious broadcast on the new medium of television. Then “Life is Worth Living” aired from 1951 to 1957.
In 1951 he was consecrated as an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of New York. Then in 1958 he became the national director of The Society for the Propagation of the Faith, and hosted The Fulton Sheen Program from 1961 to 1968. He facilitated the celebrity conversions of industrialist Henry Ford II, formerly-agnostic writer Heywood Broun, Congresswoman-turned-diplomat Clare Booth Luce, violinist/composer Fritz Kreisler and actress Virginia Mayo among others, a process said to have taken around 25 hours of individual instruction for each (95% of his private students converted).
Two months before his death in 1979 he was embraced in New York by Pope John Paul II, who said “You have written and spoken well of the Lord Jesus Christ. You are a loyal son of the Church.” In 2012 Pope Benedict XVI praised his “heroic virtues” and entitled him as “The Venerable,” an important step toward beatification.
Even though the times are different and Sheen’s talent was unique, it is worth trying to dissect his stunning popularity and vast moral influence.
In his intentionally elaborate clerical garb he looks camp today, while even in the 1950s only urban Catholic viewers would have recognised his dress from High Mass on Holy Days of Obligation. But it commanded respect and got him attention, until he began with a few inevitable jokes (often self-mocking ones) that established humility, warmth and rapport. These two aspects of his broadcast openings were no accidents; he was a skilful communicator.
Sheen’s delivery was warm but never frivolous, and often even stern. Occasionally he grows melodramatic in a way that startles modern viewers; in a few final moments he raises his arms and stares into the camera, employing an ominous tone reminiscent of Boris Karloff. But it worked for his audiences; or what compensated for moments of ham-acting was his sincerity, his phenomenal “gift of the gab” and his ability to draw his viewers into serious thought with a seemingly natural effortlessness.
Many of his broadcasts featured compelling titles and a shared strategy well-employed ever since, by broadcasters including Oprah Winfrey: Sheen often started with a problem that resonates with us all, for example “How to Improve Your Mind,” “How to Think” or “Wasting Your Life” (although no modern hosts, even Oprah, have the erudition and delivery-skills to work solo; they all require guests that distract and make broadcasts shallow).
But these populist titles seem to account for less than half of Sheen’s output; just as many of his broadcasts seem to have had more cerebral and less immediately personal titles such as “Freedom” or “Anatomy of a Melancholy” or “Education.” A significant number just cut to the quick religiously: “The Devil,” “Our Lady of Fatima” or “The Death of God.” For these it could be that his audience was better educated, more religious or more reflective than are modern viewers, or quite possibly those who were attracted initially to his more personalised topics soon flocked to watch whatever he broadcast. However he began, his broadcasts followed a general formula thereafter.
Oftentimes, in one moment he shares our concerns over some common individual problem (and thus builds honest credibility with his audience), then he explains modern scientific interpretations, and then he concludes with Church teachings that verify personal experience and science but with greater history, depth and impact. It is a rhetorical progression used by Ronald Reagan in almost his every speech, moving from the personal and immediate to identifying and refining the causes of problems, to policy solutions that fit with tradition and finally the path to a happy ending. Each requires a disciplined and nuanced rhetorician.
Along the way Sheen slips in literary examples from books that few of his audience would likely have read, done in ways that are neither preachy nor arrogant nor lacking in quiet authority. In one he segues in and out of Raskolnikov. In another he reworks Shakespeare’s death of Caesar but with Stalin’s top henchmen replacing Brutus and his conspirators. Sheen’s structure can be copied by anyone with forethought, but the illustrative richness demands a well-read speaker who (especially without referring to notes) thinks fast and deep.
Audiences a half-century ago may have enjoyed greater reflective moral capacities than viewers have today, and surely broadcasting was not so thoroughly “dumbed down.” But Sheen’s audiences seemed to suffer no palpable division of class or education; despite the demanding content, his viewers ranged from milkmen to factory-workers, housewives and salesmen and shopkeepers, business executives and college professors. Moreover, the size of his audience implies that it wasn’t just Catholics, or perhaps not even only Christians. The very title of his show, “Life is Worth Living,” cut across all boundaries to strike at the heart of the modern Existential/materialist dilemma of Sartre and Camus. High-brow material or not, his vast audiences rose to the occasion.
Yet it is still remarkable how inflexible Sheen could be, meaning an utter lack of tolerance for sin, sloppy thinking and self-delusion. He was somewhat gentle to the sinner but ruthless against the sin, whether that was selfishness, promiscuity, simple laziness or giving in to social pressure, or falling prey to the larger soul-threatening ideologies such as blind scientism-as-progress, materialism, atheism or communism. He seemed to avoid American party-politics, but no moral issue eluded him and at some point in his every broadcast the gloves came off and he waded in with bare-knuckles boxing. Such tough honesty, combined with blue-chip orthodoxy, wisdom and a central message that never strayed from God’s love and the real option of redemption, drew him tens of millions of viewers every week. He was so sincerely and indefatigably relentless that there can be few other explanations for his sustained popularity.
Could Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s recipe work again? You can answer that better after watching his broadcasts: several hundred on YouTube are collected here, free MP3 downloads here, on EWTN re-broadcast here, or for DVD purchase here.
Would the modern equivalent of Sheen’s audience, now almost sixty million Americans, watch a half-hour talk on the Virgin Mary or some similar topic every week? Fewer than twice that number watch the Super Bowl, and only once a year, while fewer than nine million watch 60 Minutes when there are so many media and viewing choices available..
A modern television hit of such former magnitude seems unlikely no matter the topic (and especially with religion), but so what? Viewer comments on Sheen’s YouTube videos suggest enthusiastic demand from some, and although his topics may no longer have such broad national appeal then modern technology reaches smaller audiences in ways impossible even a decade ago. An audience of more than ten million may not be an excessive estimate, given some of three million home-schooled students and so forth. There may be many more.
The next question is where to find such talent, and his was prodigious. His successor would need to be a gifted talker, better than any televised priest I know; and he or she would need to be far more broadly educated than modern televangelists who cite only the Bible and otherwise rely on bombastic performances or schmaltz – his erudition, even if unfamiliar to his viewership, helped to prove his point. Again so what? Like the original Fulton Sheen, he may also be in Peoria, or she may be teaching in a small college. If imaginative conservatives put more tasty and morally nutritious lectures online, either we find another Fulton Sheen or we find one hundred mini-Sheens who are good for one or two talks apiece.
Thus we begin to better assume the mantle that he dropped in death, and illuminate the path to national rescue and individual salvation for which he worked lifelong.
Books on the people and topics discussed in this article can be found at The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.