Barry Bowen and Pete Evans
(Time to read: 20+ minutes)
In 2009, the Charlotte Observer reported, “With compensation exceeding $1.5 million a year, Cerullo is the best-paid leader of any religious charity tracked by watchdog groups.”
Fourteen years later, Cerullo retains the position of highest paid executive in MinistryWatch’s 100 Highly Paid Ministry Executives list.
Over the past decade, Trinity Foundation, Inc. (TFI) investigators have examined hundreds of Form 990 informational returns of religious non-profits and have found no one that received more compensation in one year than Cerullo in 2019: $7 million.
The staggering compensation motivated TFI to dig deeper to attempt to follow the advertising revenue money but were thwarted by a confusing web of financial disclosures, Delaware corporations, LLC’s with scant information, etc.
To be fair, the highly successful TV network says it does in fact report and pay its share of corporate taxes on its TV ad revenue.
Yet for almost ten years, The Inspirational Network, Inc. has declined to report advertising revenue on 990s earned by its for-profit subsidiaries and in fact claims it is not required to.
Why this would matter if they weren’t paying corporate taxes: Non-profit organizations are required to report unrelated business income over $1,000 on a Form 990-T and pay taxes on this income. Before 2018, the tax on unrelated business income ranged from 15 to 35 percent. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 changed the new tax rate to 21 percent.
A for-profit subsidiary of The Inspirational Network, Inc. can separately pay taxes on advertising revenue, but these subsidiaries must be listed as a related organization on The Inspirational Network 990s—and Cerullo’s non-profit currently fails to disclose that INSP, LLC is a related organization.
How much advertising revenue has INSP, LLC received during the ten year period after it restructured in 2013? Trinity Foundation investigators honestly don’t know the answer but the following strong clues should speak for themselves.
Cox Media Group (CMG) reported the TV network purchased 18 TV stations in 12 markets in August 2022 for $488 million. An earlier CMG article quotes David Cerullo about the acquisition, “This acquisition is part of our broad corporate strategy to expand our media ownership across multiple entertainment platforms.” Yet in 2021, The Inspirational Network form 990 showed only $298 million in assets prior to the acquisition.
Additionally, the data mining and market research company RocketReach reported INSP’s advertising income in 2021 to be $773 million.
Moreover, its ratings soared.
When a non-profit religious organization generates advertising revenue from a related for-profit entity, it is common for them to report the revenues under Schedule R of a Form 990.
For example, Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association generated $923,854 from advertising through a company it owns named Traco Advertising and reported the revenue on its latest 990 and Trinity Broadcasting Network also reports unrelated business income from advertising on the 990s of its affiliate organizations Trinity Christian Center of Santa Ana and Trinity Broadcasting of Texas.
However, The Inspirational Network does not follow this practice.
INSP is the Direct Descendant of Jim Bakker’s PTL Television Network—also dubbed “The Inspirational Network”
Thirty-five years ago, the IRS revoked the tax-exempt status of PTL Television Network. Out of the ashes of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s dead ministry emerged The Inspirational Network.
In the book Forgiven: The Rise and Fall of Jim Bakker and the PTL Ministry author and investigative reporter Charles Shepard writes that the Bakkers referred to PTL as “the Inspirational Network to help distinguish it from the industry’s leader, CBN, which now offered more family entertainment than religious programming.”
After an ownership change, the description became the network name.
In 1990, Morris Cerullo World Evangelism (MCWE, founded by David Cerullo’s late father Morris) purchased the PTL cable network for $7 million. Two years later, the Cerullo family incorporated The Inspirational Network, Inc. in North Carolina as a non-profit organization and changed the cable TV network’s name to The Inspirational Network.
Morris Cerullo resigned from the board of The Inspirational Network, Inc. after his indictment for tax-evasion (but not a conviction) in 2005.
Westerns by Day, Televangelists by Night
As head of the network, David Cerullo dramatically changed the TV channel’s programming and business model.
(Photo: David Cerullo, president of The Inspirational Network)
In 2010, the small religious TV network re-invented itself. INSP operates like a secular, commercial cable TV network during the daytime and then features re-runs of prosperity gospel preachers in the wee hours of the morning. In a typical week less than 15 percent of INSP airtime features religious programming or serves a charitable purpose.
The Inspirational Network TV channel changed its name to INSP and began replacing preachers with westerns. Reruns of Bonanza, Gunsmoke and The Virginian drew nostalgic audiences.
INSP added original reality TV programming to its schedule. TV programs Ultimate Cowboy Showdown, Handcrafted America and Into the Wild Frontier, a series about America’s original mountain men and pioneers, expanded the network’s appeal.
And, the TV network began to run lots of advertising commercials.
And then the viewing audience and advertising dollars increased significantly.
The main religious program is Camp Meeting. Some of the episodes are more than 10 years old and feature televangelist Mike Murdock, an infamous preacher known for claiming that if viewers donate with their credit cards, God will erase their credit card debt.
The United States tax code prohibits non-profit organizations from conducting business that is “more than an insubstantial part of its activities is not in furtherance of an exempt purpose.”, and yet INSP clearly focuses on commercial broadcasting.
On a typical weekday, the network airs three hours of religious programming of which none are shown in prime time. The preachers are buried in an early morning timeslot. They give God the leftovers.
Surge in TV Ratings
INSP’s massive increase in viewers surprised the entertainment press. In 2021, the Hollywood newspaper Variety reported, “It’s become an annual tradition to marvel at the growth of INSP.”
INSP’s Chief Operating Officer Dale Ardizzone told Variety, “Believe it or not, since 2010, our household ratings are up 1,171%.”
A press release from last year reported that INSP’s “average monthly [household] ratings increased by more than 1300% from 2010 through 2022.
For the TV broadcast period of August 1-7, 2022, Multichannel News reported,” INSP finished fourth in primetime with 816,000 viewers, followed by TLC’s 804,000 viewers.” The only cable networks with a higher rating that week were top-rated Fox News, second place MSNBC and in third place HGTV.
More recently, for a week in May 2023, INSP reportedly ranked tenth in America based on an audience size of 770,000 viewers.
(Screenshot: USTVDB publishes a list of the top 100 networks in the U.S.)
TV Ratings Produce Massive Revenues
In 2010, the start of their new format, The Inspirational Network, Inc. reported less than $9 million in advertising revenue.
In 2013, the ministry’s Form 990, an information return filed with the IRS, revealed for the first time the organization generated more money from advertising than from donations. That year, INSP reported $37.6 million in advertising revenue on their IRS unrelated income form 990T.
And then the reporting of advertising revenue ended.
(Photo: The last time The Inspirational Network disclosed advertising revenue on its Form 990-T.)
Several marketing research firm websites provide intriguing clues to the size of INSP’s advertising revenue.
Corporate email marketing company RocketReach reported that INSP, LLC generated $773 million in revenue, fiscal year unknown. The B2B database company Zoominfo reported revenues of $371.6 million at INSP, LLC but the fiscal year is unknown here as well.
Trinity Foundation sent a list of eight questions to the network including a question about the amount of their advertising revenue; however, this was one of several questions INSP declined to answer.
Missing Employees Yield Another Significant Clue
Between 2013 and 2014 The Inspirational Network lost 2/3rds of its employees. In 2013, the ministry reported 335 employees and $165 million in revenue, boosted partly by a sale of securities. For 2014, The Inspirational Network, Inc. reported total revenue of $55 million and 111 employees, a loss of 2/3rds of the non-profit’s employees.
Yet RocketReach, the aforementioned data-mining and marketing research company, reported 597 employees of the TV Channel in 2021, in contrast to 98 employees of The Inspirational Network.
Web of Organizations
A restructuring of The Inspirational Network, Inc. occurred in 2013 but little is explained in the non-profit’s 990s.
The following partial companies are inter-related: The Inspirational Network, Inc. (the original non-profit org.), INSP, LLC, MediaComm, Inc., INSP Management, LLC, Inspirational Holdings Inc., Imagicomm Communications, LLC, Imagicomm Enterprises, and Inspiration Church Fellowship, Inc.
Ronn Torossian, The Inspirational Network’s spokesperson responded to Trinity Foundation’s questions about related organizations with brief, succinct answers:
• INSP, LLC is a for-profit general entertainment cable network that features classic Western and Western-adjacent programming. For 120 consecutive weeks it has been rated as a top 10 cable network by Nielsen;
• INSP, LLC is a for-profit, Single Member, Limited Liability Company ultimately owned by The Inspirational Network, Inc., a North Carolina Non-Profit Corporation and 501(c)(3) Religious Organization;
• INSP, LLC’s income is taxable and reported, along with the taxable income of other for-profit subsidiaries, including Media-Comm, Inc., on a C-Corporation Federal Form 1120, which is not subject to public disclosure rules;
• Neither David Cerullo nor any related family member has ANY ownership in INSP, LLC, or Media-Comm, Inc., or ANY of the other corporate entities associated with The Inspiration Network, Inc. Rather, ALL assets are ultimately owned by the non-profit. All financial info required to be disclosed is contained within the applicable 990’s. (end of Torossian’s INSP response)
1) The Inspirational Network, Inc. is the original non-profit corporation established in 1992.
2) INSP, LLC was created in 2013 as a for-profit entity registered in Delaware and according to INSP Airtime Purchase Terms and Conditions posted on their website, INSP, LLC operates the TV network.
The Inspirational Network, Inc. 2013 form 990 listed INSP, LLC as a related organization and reported it had $52 million in assets at the end of 2013. After 2013 INSP, LLC’s assets were no longer reported.
In Nov. 2014, INSP, LLC’s only listed member became MediaComm, Inc.
From 2015 through 2018, INSP, LLC was listed on the 990 as a partnership with The Inspirational Network, Inc.
In 2015, MediaComm, Inc. was listed as a direct controlling entity of INSP, LLC with an 80% stake in ownership by The Inspirational Network, Inc.
From 2019 through 2021, INSP, LLC is no longer listed on The Inspirational Network, Inc.’s 990s as a partnership.
In 2020, MediaComm, Inc. became the sole member of INSP, LLC. again as it was in 2013.
3) MediaComm, Inc.— MediaComm, Inc.’s articles of incorporation grant the corporation the authority to issue 100,000 shares of common stock and David Cerullo serves as its Chairman of the Board.
MediaComm, Inc. was listed as a related organization up until 2008, and though it shows up later as a controlling entity of INSP, LLC, it was no longer described as a related organization on The Inspirational Network’s forms 990. During those years the two organizations shared facilities, assets, equipment, mailing lists and paid employees.
4) INSP Management, LLC—Though this company shared control of INSP, LLC for a time, INSP Management, LLC. has never been listed as a related organization on The Inspirational Network’s 990s.
It is unknown if this company is owned by The Inspirational Network, Inc.
5)Another confusing clue, Imagicomm Communications, LLC (a Delaware Corporation)—Cox Media Group calls Imagicomm Communications the “parent” of the cable television network INSP.
6) Imagicomm Enterprises, LLC, which shares the same address as MediaComm, Inc., owns a private jet.
7) Inspirational Holdings Inc. is 100% owned by the original religious non-profit, The Inspirational Network, Inc.
8) Inspiration Church Fellowship, Inc. shares the same address as The Inspirational Network, Inc.
Trinity Foundation examines hundreds of 990s each year and has not found a single American religious leader compensated more than David Cerullo.
From 2008 to 2021, David Cerullo received over $50 million in compensation from The Inspirational Network, Inc. and related organizations. His wife Barbara and son Benjamin both received over $4 million of compensation during the same period. Dale Ardizzone, the non-profit organization’s general counsel and corporate secretary received $15.8 million.
(Spreadsheet: Compilation of David Cerullo compensation from 990s.)
In fact, eight of the top 20 highest compensated ministry executives on the January 2023 list work for The Inspirational Network. (Because of Covid delaying the IRS processing of 990s, the list is somewhat dated, not including compensation from many 2020 and 2021 Form 990s.)
David Cerullo is also President of Morris Cerullo World Evangelism
Following the death of his father, David Cerullo became president of MCWE which is based in San Diego. Because MCWE is classified as a church, the ministry does not file a Form 990. Any compensation David Cerullo earns from the ministry is confidential. MCWE is not a related organization of INSP, as of 2005.
Before Morris Cerullo died, MCWE constructed the $190 million Legacy Center in San Diego. The San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper described the “Bible-themed resort” as “an intriguing high-tech mash-up of religious themed attractions, museum-quality exhibits, meeting space, and luxury lodging.”
The MCWE-owned hotel offers a presidential suite costing more than $1,000 for a one-night reservation. The hotel also features a spa and fine dining. Theresa’s Italian Steakhouse is named after Morris Cerullo’s late widow.
In 2008, MCWE acquired a Gulfstream G-IV jet through a shell company Frontliner Inc. and shared the jet with Benny Hinn Ministries. The jet was sold in 2016.
Recently, the David Cerullo-related company, Imagicomm Enterprises, LLC, acquired a Bombardier Challenger jet. (Jet pictured here, before Cerullo’s company acquired it.) Trinity Foundation tracks the jet on its Pastor Planes project via Twitter and Instagram.
The Inspirational Network, Inc. claims to both 1) be a church, and 2) lists Inspiration Church Fellowship as a related tax-exempt organization in its 990s.
(Screenshot: Schedule A on a Form 990 identifies The Inspirational Network, Inc. as a church.)
TFI searched multiple social media sites, multiple phone listing sites, and websites, but could find no evidence that Inspiration Church Fellowship exists as a functioning church holding meetings and/or worship services.
The Inspirational Network, Inc. uses the tradename Inspiration Ministries.
A Trinity Foundation investigator called Inspiration Ministries on March 22, 2022. The ministry employee was unaware of a church named Inspiration Church Fellowship.
The investigator was told, “Well, actually, Inspiration Ministries specifically doesn’t have a church. We do have a church that meets in our chapel on Fridays and Sundays, but they are separate. The staff and the organization, and the people here, we do have our own specific churches that we go to. We come together for the purposes of spreading the Gospel but the ministry itself doesn’t actually have a church. I’m thinking the Inspiration Church might be a separate organization.”
Finally, we asked them directly in our list of eight questions to the INSP organization: 8) Inspiration Church Fellowship, Inc. is listed on 990s as a tax-exempt related organization of The Inspirational Network. Trinity Foundation has been unable to find evidence that such a church actually exists. What is the purpose of Inspirational Church Fellowship, Inc.? If it is a real church, when and where does it hold meetings?
The question was ignored and remains a mystery.
Obtaining Wealth from Related Organizations
As part of the $50 million in compensation David Cerullo received from The Inspirational Network from 2008 to 2021, $27 million came from related organizations of The Inspirational Network.
Cerullo is not the first televangelist to receive millions of dollars via related organizations. In 2015, the IRS revoked the tax-exempt status of World Religious Relief, the parent organization of The Word Network, after its CEO Kevin Adell received $15.7 million in compensation from related organizations in three years.
David Cerullo has owned or operated at least two production companies producing movies and TV shows for INSP to air.
David Cerullo was CEO of Five Mile Cave LLC which produced the movie The Legend of 5 Mile Cave and he was chairman of the board of Steelroots that produced a television series. Both of the company’s addresses share the same address as MediaComm.
However, the production companies are not listed as related organizations of The Inspirational Network, Inc. and it is unknown if Cerullo receives compensation from production companies producing movies and TV shows for INSP.
The Big Picture
In 1988, the IRS revoked the tax-exempt status of Jim Bakker’s PTL Television Network for two reasons: The IRS concluded the ministry theme park was a commercial enterprise and that ministry employees profited from excessive compensation. Charles Shepard reports in the book Forgiven, “An IRS report put the Bakkers’ excess 1981-87 compensation at more than $9 million.”
The Inspirational Network, Inc.’s restated articles of incorporation state, “the purposes for which the corporation is organized are exclusively religious, charitable, scientific, literary and educational …” as well as article 6, “No part of the net earnings of the corporation shall inure to the benefit of any officer, director, or member of the corporation.”
However, The Inspirational Network, Inc. provides little financial assistance for charitable causes. Out of $43 million in revenue in 2021, the ministry spent only $75,000 for grants to organizations. The ministry reportedly spent nothing on assistance to individuals.
The Form 990 numbers tell a story: Religious programs take a backseat to commercial programming.
(Spreadsheet: Compilation of The Inspirational Network’s 990 data shows deep reduction in religious programming revenue. Numbers vary from 990 to 990-T. )
Having earned more than $50 million dollars from 2008 to 2021, David Cerullo is on the path to becoming one of America’s wealthiest televangelists.
To quote Jesus, “And again I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”
One last thing to note: Forty years ago Inspirational Network was known as PTL, the TV network founded by Jim Bakker. The extravagant culture that Bakker created lives on with different management and a different name. This culture will continue as long as donors and advertisers financially support it.