Sheen Entertains and Instructs on American Television

The DuMont Network introduced Bishop Fulton Sheen to American television audiences with the popular inspirational program Life Is Worth Living, which was followed a decade later by The Fulton Sheen Program. These programs, which examined moral, spiritual, and religious issues, were immensely popular, attracting as many as ten million viewers and winning Bishop Sheen several Emmy Awards.

Summary of Event

In 1951, a priest in New York City named Edwin Broderick, a longtime fan of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen’s Catholic Hour, Catholic Hour (radio program) then in its twenty-first year on national radio, urged the archdiocese of New York and the four major television networks to develop a Catholic program for the new medium. The only network that showed any interest was the smallest and poorest of the four, the DuMont Television Network DuMont Television Network , whose only real star at the time was Jackie Gleason Gleason, Jackie , then headlining DuMont’s Cavalcade of Stars. Gleason, a Roman Catholic who was also a Bishop Sheen fan, and Frank Bunetta, Gleason’s director on Cavalcade of Stars, convinced their network to do the show. DuMont agreed, but only if it could be done with a bare-bones budget (no money would go to Sheen) and shown in the 8:00 Tuesday night slot opposite Milton Berle’s Berle, Milton
Texaco Star Theater
Texaco Star Theater (television program) on the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) network. The time slot was called the “obituary” spot in the industry, because no programming could survive opposite “Mr. Television,” Milton Berle. Television;religious programs
Life Is Worth Living (television program)
Fulton Sheen Program, The (television program)
[kw]Sheen Entertains and Instructs on American Television (Feb. 12, 1952-1957, and 1961-1968)
[kw]American Television, Sheen Entertains and Instructs on (Feb. 12, 1952-1957, and 1961-1968)
[kw]Television, Sheen Entertains and Instructs on American (Feb. 12, 1952-1957, and 1961-1968)
Television;religious programs
Life Is Worth Living (television program)
Fulton Sheen Program, The (television program)
[g]North America;Feb. 12, 1952-1957, and 1961-1968: Sheen Entertains and Instructs on American Television[03750]
[g]United States;Feb. 12, 1952-1957, and 1961-1968: Sheen Entertains and Instructs on American Television[03750]
[c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Feb. 12, 1952-1957, and 1961-1968: Sheen Entertains and Instructs on American Television[03750]
[c]Radio and television;Feb. 12, 1952-1957, and 1961-1968: Sheen Entertains and Instructs on American Television[03750]
Sheen, Fulton J.
Broderick, Edwin
Bunetta, Frank

Sheen’s program, Life Is Worth Living, did better than survive; it thrived. Premiering February 12, 1952, at first only in New York and Washington, D.C., Sheen’s simple, “talking-head” series of inspirational half-hour talks soon was seen on hundreds of stations throughout the United States (75 by the end of 1952, 132 the following year). With no budget to speak of, Sheen was able to produce a professional show thanks to the kindness of many professional friends, including violinist Fritz Kreisler Kreisler, Fritz , who wrote the show’s theme song; comedians Harry Hershfield Hershfield, Harry and George Jessel Jessel, George , who contributed jokes; and designer Jo Mielziner Mielziner, Jo , who crafted the familiar set: a replica of a rector’s study, lined with books and Sheen’s famous blackboard.

Mostly, however, Sheen succeeded because of his consummate showmanship. Flourishing his red ferraiolo (the Bishop’s cape: Sheen enjoyed telling of letters from parents whose children watched his show and told them they were watching Superman), Sheen played to the camera and punctuated his rhetoric with hand gestures: always large, but also always appropriate. A major factor in Sheen’s popularity in the Cold War years was his unabashed anticommunism. On February 24, 1953, he performed a stirring dramatic reading of the burial scene from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, in which he substituted the names of Soviet premier Joseph Stalin and his henchmen for those of the Roman conspirators, concluding with a warning that Stalin must one day face judgment. Two days later, Stalin suffered a stroke; a week after that, he died. A flurry of media comments on the coincidence boosted Sheen’s already soaring ratings, though the bishop himself never commented on it, on or off the air.

While Sheen’s radio show had often explicated Roman Catholic doctrine by contrasting it with Protestant theology, his technique in Life Is Worth Living was to begin with the major topics and concerns of the day (“the rat race,” parenting, nuclear proliferation), and move gradually to the spiritual issues that illuminated them, rarely alluding to specific Catholic doctrines. This rhetorical development, which he called Aristotelian (moving from the known to the unknown), no doubt had a role in his unprecedented broad appeal to a pluralistic American audience. In 1952, he received the Emmy award Emmy Awards for Most Outstanding Personality, winning over nominees like Edward R. Murrow, Arthur Godfrey, and Lucille Ball, all icons of Dwight D. Eisenhower-era television. He also won Look magazine’s Television Award three years in a row. A nationwide poll in Radio and Television Daily named him Television Man of the Year in 1952.

One of Bishop Sheen’s most popular visual gimmicks was his use of the chalkboard. This low-tech medium was necessitated by the lack of a production budget for on-screen graphics, but it soon became a trademark of the show. Bishop Sheen would draw a diagram, crude stick figures, or key words and then step away from the board. When he returned to write something else, the board would have been erased, an action the grinning Bishop would attribute to his “angel,” Skippy. Bishop Sheen would never write anything on the board without first scrawling “JMJ,” for “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” a habit he acquired in St. Mary’s Catholic School in Peoria, Illinois, and never abandoned. In 1953, Bishop Sheen’s literary agent collected transcripts of his television talks and published them under the show’s title; subsequent volumes appeared each year through 1958. In all, Sheen published more than seventy-five books, many of which remain in print.

On October 12, 1955, with the demise of the DuMont Network, the show moved to the American Broadcasting Company American Broadcasting Company (ABC) network, first on Thursday nights and a year later on Mondays. At first, the show had no commercial interruptions, but advertisers paid top dollar to run their commercials immediately before and after the show. Six months into the show’s run, Admiral Corporation offered one million dollars to sponsor the show, a portion of the cost to be a donation to Sheen’s Society for the Propagation of the Faith. In 1957, with ratings still high, Bishop Sheen declined to continue the show, for reasons that are still not clear. He remained off the air for four years.

Bishop Sheen syndicated his older shows beginning in 1961, and he videotaped a new series under the title The Fulton Sheen Program from 1961 to 1968, as well as a second series in 1965, Quo Vadis, America?
Quo Vadis, America? (television program) A philosophy professor with two earned doctorates (a Ph.D. from the University of Louvaine in Belgium, and an S.T.D. from the Angelicum in Rome), Bishop Sheen was able to engage a popular audience in quite complex ideas without, on one hand, indulging in the technical jargon of Thomistic philosophy, or, on the other hand, talking down to people. Bishop Sheen often told reporters that he rejected the prevailing notion that television should be aimed at the comprehension level of the average twelve-year-old.

In 1965, when Pope Paul VI Paul VI became the first pontiff to visit America, Bishop Sheen was invited by the Columbia Broadcasting System Columbia Broadcasting System;news programming (CBS) to narrate the network’s live coverage of the pope’s visit to New York to address the United Nations. He accepted. This was to be Sheen’s final network appearance, although his The Fulton Sheen Program would continue to run for three more years in syndication, the last two in color. By the end of 1968, Sheen no longer appeared on television. On December 9, 1979, he died.


The first religious figure to be televised conducting a service (New York, 1940), Bishop Sheen remains the only religious broadcaster to host a primetime broadcast by one of the major networks and the most popular cleric in broadcast history. By the mid-1950’s, he was receiving 25,000 letters per day (and writing 150 to 200). A 1956 Gallup poll named him one of the ten most admired men in the United States. He was the only star at the DuMont Television Network to receive an Emmy. His frank discussion of spiritual matters in a generally secular medium not only resulted in a number of conversions to Roman Catholicism but also stimulated discussions of related psychological issues in the secular world.

Indeed, at a time when many religious leaders branded psychology as an enemy, Sheen often employed the language of psychoanalysis as a bridge to understanding spiritual matters. Staunchly orthodox in his Roman Catholic theology, the bishop was nevertheless able to connect with a diverse audience. At the close of the twentieth century, a poll conducted by the internet Catholic Daily declared Bishop Sheen one of the top four Catholic figures of the century (along with Padre Pio, Mother Teresa, and Pope John Paul II). The Catholic Almanac for the year 2000 called him the most popular and influential American Catholic of the century. Television;religious programs
Life Is Worth Living (television program)
Fulton Sheen Program, The (television program)

Further Reading

  • Massa, Mark. Catholics and American Culture: Fulton Sheen, Dorothy Day, and the Notre Dame Football Team. New York: Crossroad, 1999. A twenty-page chapter on Sheen connects the success of his television programs with the beginnings of the acceptance of Catholics in American culture generally.
  • Reeves, Thomas C. America’s Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2001. The first biography of Bishop Sheen that is neither muckraking nor hero-worship.
  • Rodriguez, Janel. Meet Fulton Sheen. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Servant, 2006. Monograph presenting the Bishop mostly in his own words and through selected anecdotes from his life. Foreward by Father Andrew Apostoli.
  • Sheen, Bishop Fulton J. Treasure in Clay. New York: Doubleday, 1980. Sheen’s autobiography, completed after his death by his literary agent. Appendixes include a time line and list of Sheen’s publications. His chapter on his broadcasts is entitled “The Electronic Gospel.”

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