Channel Governors Criticise BBC1 for Reducing Religious Programming

The BBC has been criticised by its own board of governors for cutting the amount of religious programming on BBC1 and for failing to find new ways to entertain viewers. A day-long debate on the topic will be held on Friday which will be headed by chairman Michael Grade.

There had been a previous edict from the governors in 2002 to improve "high quality, wide impact" religious shows on BBC1. A review will say that the corporation has comprehensively failed to impact this. "The strategy has not resulted in religious output with a wider impact on BBC1," it said. The review added that a strategy of screening one-off shows in high-profile slots has "failed to deliver greater impact on BBC1."

Instead of conforming to the demand by governors to increase the amount of religious programming on BBC1, it reveals that a number of shows have been cut back on the channel.

Previously, 101 hours of religious content have been broadcasted on BBC1, but the review found that only 87 hours of religious programmes have been broadcast in 2003-04. It also shows that fewer programmes were scheduled in peak time which led to a decline of viewers reached by religious programmes down from 62% last year to 54%.

As a "result of earlier and irregular scheduling on this key strand," audiences for Songs of Praise reached 3m, which is half a million lower. It urges BBC1 to take note on the success of BBC2 which has increased its audiences for religious programmes through shows like Seaside Parish and Country Parish.

A second paper which is based on the findings of an independent panel and viewer focus groups, will observe religious impartiality across all of BBC’s production, including news and current affairs. The panel suggests the programme makers require more training, saying that significant shortcomings in the creators’ knowledge have been discovered. The paper suggests that BBC should do more to portray the reality of religion as lived by ordinary people, by scheduling programmes better and including more examples of religious characters in dramas.

Religion has been a sensitive topic since the BBC decided to televise Jerry Springer – The Opera, which caused a commotion with over 50,000 complaints earlier this year. This has been the latest issue to be scrutinised by the governors.

Executives of BBC will argue that many of the shortcomings recognised in the reports are being addressed. Recently, director of television Jana Bennet charged John Willis, director of factual and learning, with championing innovative coverage of religion at board level. Adam Kemp, BBC’s arts and music commissioner, has been asked to conduct religious programmes together with Alan Bookbinder, head of the BBC religious department.

Bookbinder argued that the governor’s reports did not take any recent successes into account and that the scope was too narrow. "I am puzzled by [the] air of crisis around it. A lot has been achieved, there's more to achieve ... But we are up-scaling the importance of religion. If something good has come out of this report, it's 'let's beef it up'".