TBN officials said the decision was made weeks ago and was prompted largely by concerns about the health of network co-founder Paul Crouch, 70, and his wife Jan, 66, who remain the most popular on-air personalities for the world's largest religious broadcaster.
But observers were quick to suggest that TBN was reacting to news reports last month revealing that Paul Crouch secretly paid an accuser $425,000 in 1998 to keep quiet about claims of a homosexual encounter with the televangelist. Crouch has denied the allegations.
"To take the live broadcasting off - I can't imagine [that]," said R. Marie Griffith, a scholar at Princeton University who studies evangelical Christians and the media. "It suggests a very strong sense of the chaos they are undergoing there."
Griffith and others also said it would be unseemly for the Crouches to ask for money after articles in The Times detailed the robust financial health of TBN, which averages annual surpluses of $60 million, and the luxurious lifestyle enjoyed by the Crouches.
Paul Crouch Jr., a network executive and son of its founding couple, acknowledged that TBN's decision to go with reruns would take pressure off the guest pastors scheduled to appear on the "Praise-a-thon."
"It seems that when TBN is persecuted, so goes the whole body of Christ," Crouch said. "Other ministries get concerned that they are going to be next on the hit list. Everyone goes into the alert mode."
But other factors were more important in deciding to cancel the live telethon, he said. Among them: Jan Crouch had been slow to recover from recent gall bladder surgery.
And a "best of" format, with segments from past shows edited down to small chunks, will allow for a faster-paced telethon, he said.
Perhaps more important, he said, Paul and Jan Crouch may no longer be up to appearing on fund-raisers twice a year.
"We're already resigned to the fact that we may only do one live telethon a year from now on," Crouch said. "With my parents in the sunset of their lives, it's much easier on them physically, spiritually and emotionally."
A TBN "Praise-a-thon" works like a religious version of a Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Assn. fund-raiser. The show, which runs for a week, features 24 hours a day of preaching, singing, Bible teaching and video highlights of the network's work activities around the world.
Pastors plead with viewers to make a pledge so TBN can expand and spread the Gospel message throughout the world. They also preach heavily on the "prosperity gospel," a controversial doctrine that says a donation - in this case, specifically to TBN - will result in blessings from God, material as well as spiritual. About 200 operators are available to answer the viewers' calls.
Jackie Alnor, a Texas-based Christian writer and longtime TBN critic who has monitored the "Praise-a-thons" for 20 years, said she was surprised by the news that the telethon wouldn't be aired live.
"They know that with this 'Praise-a-thon,' [if] they were doing it live, they would receive a lot of calls questioning the recent articles," she said.
TBN has known adversity before, but it has never altered the Praise-a-thon routine. In previous years, TBN continued with its live telethons despite attacks from critics, legal battles with the FCC and, last year, Jan Crouch's successful battle against colon cancer.
Alnor said TBN preachers often use such setbacks as leverage for their cause, calling them evidence that money is needed to combat satanic attacks.
"They say [the adversity] is a sign that God is about to take TBN to the next level, and the devil is trying to stop it," Alnor said.
The younger Crouch, who has led efforts to modernize TBN programming, acknowledged that the network could have used the recent controversy to spur its fund-raising. Instead, he said, it chose to try a new approach, one that he hopes will make the telethon more successful than ever.
"I predict this will be a record 'Praise-a-thon' for us," he said.