FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Bob Thornton, who lives in Dallas, has logged more than 600,000 miles driving to and from work over the past 27-plus years. But he doesn’t regret one single mile.
That’s because Thornton, who gave up a promising secular career to work for the Southern Baptist Radio and Television Commission in Fort Worth, feels good about what he has accomplished over the years.
Now RTVC vice president of television services, Thornton said, “If I had it to do over again, I’d probably move to Fort Worth. But the truth is, the daily drive has given me a lot of time to think about, pray about and reflect on the work of the RTVC. I came to the RTVC because I wanted to make a spiritual impact. Hopefully, I have.”
One of Thornton’s fondest memories is of being producer for “Spring Street USA,” a Home Mission Board television project in 1973.
“We did 31 of the programs,” he said. “We shot the programs in Nashville (Tenn.) and did post-production in Hollywood. Each 30-minute program featured the Spring Street Singers, a guest artist and an eight-minute inspirational message. It was a theme-oriented program, with every song geared toward the theme of the message.
“The Home Mission Board bought television time in select markets to air the program. Because of the cost, the Home Mission Board was unable to sustain the program.”
Another series that brings back fond memories for Thornton is “At Home With the Bible,” which the RTVC produced in cooperation with the Baptist Sunday School Board. The program featured Frank Pollard, now pastor of First Baptist Church in Jackson, Miss., and preacher for the RTVC-produced radio and television versions of “The Baptist Hour.”
Thornton was producer/director of the program, which offered a correspondence Bible study to viewers, with more than 500,000 enrolling in the Bible study.
“We did 126 of the 30-minute programs in our Fort Worth studio,” Thornton said. “In terms of reaching people, it was one of the most successful series we’ve ever done.”
Early in his RTVC career, Thornton produced a number of documentaries for Baptist state conventions, for a Baptist children’s home in North Carolina and for a Baptist senior citizen’s home in Virginia.
“With the inception of ACTS (American Christian Television System), there was pressure to produce a number of programs,” he said. “A primary concern was children’s programs, so we produced more than 200 episodes of ‘Sunshine Factory.’ It’s still going strong.”
ACTS is the RTVC’s cable television service; its programming is currently aired on the Odyssey Cable Channel.
“Sunshine Factory,” which was produced in the ’80s, is aired weekly on FamilyNet, the RTVC broadcast television service. It is shown at 5:30 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday and Thursday and at 10 a.m. Eastern on Saturday. It is also seen Monday through Friday mornings on the preview channel of USSB, a satellite-fed direct broadcast service.
“We produced a number of family ‘how-to’ programs back then,” Thornton said. “We did ‘The Plant Groom’ with Dale Groom, the David Wade cooking show and ‘Super Handyman’ with Al Carrell. We did ‘Prime Timers,’ which was a senior citizens program shot in Florida and a series called ‘Our World,’ which was similar to the ‘P.M. Magazine’ shows that were so popular.
“All our studio time in Fort Worth was booked and we were shooting on location in Florida.”
A highlight of Thornton’s career was when he was awarded an Emmy for being producer of the documentary “China: Walls and Bridges,” which was first shown on the ABC television network. He has since been nominated for three Emmys in the writing category.
For several years the RTVC has annually produced a onehour television documentary for ABC and another for NBC affiliates. In addition, the agency has been responsible for bringing Christmas and Easter services of various SBC churches to network television.
The documentaries are done “in-house” with partial funding from ABC. The time in which the documentaries are aired is provided free by network affiliates.
As an offshoot of “China: Walls and Bridges,” Thornton produced and directed a program called “Musical Bridges” at CCTV in Beijing, China. The program, under the banner of cultural exchange, featured the Centurymen, a choir of 100 music directors from SBC churches. “Amazing Grace” was one of the Christian songs included in the program, which was aired twice in prime time to an estimated audience of 350 million people in China.
The program received a Starlight Award, which is China television’s version of an Emmy.
“I appreciate the opportunity we have in producing documentaries for the networks because they have the potential of reaching so many viewers for Christ,” Thornton said. “We are in the business of producing programs for mass media, and when we can get a program on network television we truly reach the masses.
“All of our documentaries carry a message of Christian commitment. We show how Christ works in the lives of individuals.”
Recent documentaries produced by the RTVC for ABC TV for which Thornton served as supervising producer and writer include “Circle of the Earth,” relaying stories of Christians in the space program; “Beneath the Big Sky,” on the work of Christians in rural western Montana; and “Wings as Eagles,” featuring the stories of Christians serving aboard an aircraft carrier.
He also was supervising producer of a recent documentary aired on NBC affiliates titled, “Haiti: Mountains and Hopes,” featuring Christians helping people in that country in the aftermath of political upheaval.
In addition to his work with ABC and NBC, Thornton consults with CBS television regarding the production of religious specials. His division is responsible for many of the ACTS and FamilyNet productions including “Home Life,” “Country Crossroads TV,” “COPE” and various specials.
As to the future of Christian television, Thornton thinks a primary emphasis should be on developing “spots” (commercials) aimed at getting families into a church.
“It takes real creative talent to explain the plan of salvation in 30 seconds,” he said, “but we have to work toward that end because of the way people receive information nowadays. And we have to just keep pounding away because the redundancy factor is critical in getting across a message. That should be obvious from the way products are sold on television.”
Thornton thinks a spot campaign needs to be coordinated with a local Baptist association and local churches.
“Specials during the Christmas and Easter holidays also work well,” he said. “Stations will clear time for religious programs during these holidays and audiences seem to be more responsive to Christian messages during these periods. Whether animated, musical or variety, a special can be a very high-profile program that promotes Jesus Christ.”
Thornton said it is not necessary to reinvent the wheel, because the good things on television far outweigh the bad.
“I counted one day’s TV programs in TV Guide,” he said, “and found that between 500 to 600 would be family acceptable. There were, of course, 150 or so that were not, but all TV should not be condemned.
“There’s no doubt that we need to develop some series aimed at children and teens, possibly with an MTV style but from a Christian perspective. You have to attract an audience and at the same time make a spiritual application. To intermingle a Christian application with entertainment takes work, but it’s very effective.”
While a Dallas newsman Thornton, a graduate of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, covered events related to the Kennedy assassination, including reports and interviews for ABC television and radio and NBC radio. He was in the basement of the Dallas police station when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald.
He interviewed Officer J.D. Tippit’s widow for ABC-TV on the eve of the funeral. Tippit was slain by Oswald. He later covered parts of the Jack Ruby trial and once interviewed Ruby in the hallway outside the courtroom.
He also interviewed Texas Gov. John Connally while his arm was still in a sling from the wound received during the Kennedy assassination.
Thornton and his wife, Alice, members of Casa View Baptist Church in Dallas, have three children and three grandchildren.