Religion on TV facing major threat

(Photo: Getty/iStock)

Just days after millions of people around the world watched the Coronation of King Charles III from Westminster Abbey, the future place of religious programming on UK TV channels is under threat.

The crowning of the new King – in the context of a Christian church service – attracted a massive audience, but many broadcasters believe that religion does not attract enough viewers to make featuring it worthwhile.

A new draft Media Bill, published by the UK Government, proposes removing the obligation on 'public service broadcasters' such as the BBC, ITV, Channel Four and Channel Five to carry 'core content' such as religious programming.

Tony Stoller, who chairs the Sandford St Martin Trust – formed to promote 'thought-provoking, distinctive programming that engages with religion of all faiths, ethics or morality' – has spoken out against the proposals.

He said: "To ignore religion is to leave a gaping hole at the heart of public service broadcasting.

"For this reason, it is essential that the Government ensures that the sustainability of this important genre is at the heart of the process of modernising broadcasting legislation and the future of Public Service Broadcasting.

"While we welcome moves to modernise current broadcasting legislation, we are concerned that the Government's draft Media Bill will not protect or ensure the future of core Public Service Broadcast content such as religious and ethical programming."

The Trust fears that any loosening of the existing PBS remit "will see current obligations to provide a range of programming - which includes 'education, sport, science, religion and other beliefs, social issues, matters of international significance or interest' - replaced by a much less specific obligation, 'a sufficient quantity of audiovisual content that ... reflects the lives and concerns of different communities and cultural interests and traditions within the United Kingdom'".

Mr Stoller added, "We believe this qualification is too vague to be enforceable and fails to indicate what a 'sufficient' quantity is."

Campaigning group the Voice of the Listener & Viewer has come out in opposition to the removal of the obligations. The organisation expressed concern about the removal of "the responsibility for PSBs to jointly provide a range of programming which includes 'science, religion and other beliefs, social issues, matters of international significance or interest and matters of specialist Interest'."

Its chair, Colin Browne, said: "At a time of increasing concerns about fake news and polarisation on online platforms, it is essential UK audiences continue to have free to air access to high quality content which is reliable and accurate."

Torin Douglas, who was the BBC's media correspondent for 24 years, has also spoken out. In a blog post on the Sandford St Martin Trust website, he said: "Millions of people were profoundly affected by the two-hour ceremony in Westminster Abbey – the longest church service most will ever have attended.

"As well as the ancient liturgy and sublime music, they will have noted the prominence given to other faith leaders – from the moment they arrived to the service's close, when the King stopped to talk with them."

Torin, who has just stepped down after 10 years as a Sandford St Martin trustee, questioned the commitment to religious programming by broadcasting executives, and said, "The Government must ensure that sustaining strong religious programming lies at the heart of modernising broadcasting legislation and the future of Public Service Broadcasting."

On Thursday, Roger Bolton, a former BBC executive and editor of high-profile TV programmes including 'Panorama' and 'Heart of the Matter', will be highlighting the challenges facing religion on public service broadcasters at St Albans Abbey, with the event also being available online.

Roger, who is a trustee of the Religion Media Centre and on the parochial church council of his local church, will be in conversation with the Dean of St Albans, Jo Kelly-Moore.

The organisers of the event explain: "Public Service Broadcasting is in an existential crisis. The BBC, stuck with a frozen licence fee and rocketing inflation, is cutting back and preparing for a future without state funding.

"ITV wonders whether it should remain a public service broadcaster, and Channel 4 is being deserted by younger viewers who are turning to Tiktok and YouTube. Religious broadcasting was already in retreat before this latest crisis. Can anything be done to secure its future in a rapidly changing media environment?"

That question – currently being asked by people who have worked in broadcasting, and who understand the way TV executives make decisions about programming and content – is one that denominational and church leaders should also be asking ... and making their views known. Or religion could soon be disappearing from British TV screens.

Rev Peter Crumpler is a Church of England minister in St Albans, Herts, UK, and a former communications director with the CofE.