'God slots' embrace the spirit of the age

Attracting audiences to religious programmes has always been a challenge. But an injection of reality television seems to be providing the answer. Sally Turner reports

In May of last year, an episode of BBC2's religious "reality" series The Monastery beat ITV's Celebrity Love Island in the ratings. Having pushed the boundaries with food, sex, and sport, it was only a matter of time before producers gave faith the reality treatment as well.

The Convent, which begins on BBC2 next month, follows four women from different walks of life as they spend six weeks with a closed community of nuns. It's an approach that appeals to society's obsession with the make-over; instead of plastic surgery and home improvements we're being sold the possibility of spiritual transformation.

Last Wednesday the Religious Television Awards were held at Lambeth Palace, the official home of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and three of the shortlisted shows for the Radio Times-sponsored Audience Award were reality shows. Although the prize went to a documentary (Channel 4's Tsunami: Where Was God?), the success of the reality formats denoted a trend. With church attendances in decline, programme-makers face the same challenge as the religious establishment - how to make faith entertaining, progressive and accessible.

The shortlisted reality shows - The Monastery, Priest Idol and the observational documentary series A Seaside Parish - all relied on the human interest angle. If religion is going to engage a new generation it needs to entertain. Do the popular components of the entertainment and reality genres gel with religion?

Watching ordinary people attempt to cope in extraordinary circumstances is the mainstay of reality TV, but other devices that work in an entertainment context - volatile "contestants", conflict, and humiliation - are potential pitfalls where religion is concerned. The Monastery played up the personality clash between two of the participants which, within a one-faith framework, was of little consequence. But given the current climate of religious tension, how far are producers willing to push this aspect? Place an outspoken group of Muslims, Jews, Hindus and evangelical Christians in a reality format and a Big Brother-style meltdown quickly becomes incitement to religious hatred.

"The Monastery and The Manchester Passion were innovative and high risk - you're seeing the stirrings of a renaissance in religious broadcasting," says Adam Kemp, commissioning editor for religion at the BBC. But it's unlikely we'll see a "high-risk" event like The Manchester Passion in an Islamic context on the streets of Birmingham.

Channel 4 pushed the boundaries last year with Gay Muslims, and coming up in June is Six Feet Under: The Muslim Way, about a London-based Muslim funeral service. "We take more risks with religion than the BBC," says Aaqil Ahmed, commissioning editor for religion at Channel 4 and a practising Muslim. "Our output is risk-taking whether it be Christian or Islamic." Inevitably, this approach has upset certain sectors of the Christian and Muslim communities. "Being a Muslim doesn't make it easier for me [to make programmes on Islam] but it has enabled me to understand how to tell a story a different way."

It's worth drawing a parallel between religious programming and its entertainment equivalent, the paranormal. LivingTV's Most Haunted and Derek Acora's Ghost Towns are ratings winners with a cult following. What's on offer here is the promise of an afterlife that doesn't require a religious entry ticket - we're destined for immortality regardless of who we are, what we believe or how we've lived. There's a vague sense of karmic justice - troubled souls apparently remain stuck in an earthbound purgatory of their own making - but no mention of God.

Spiritualist medium Derek Acora claims he's able to communicate directly with the spiritual realm. (Ofcom regulations for religious programming state that due care must be taken around claims that "a living person has special powers or abilities". As the paranormal genre falls under the entertainment banner, there's clearly more scope for flexibility here.) Acora "channels" a cross-section of the spirit world - servants, nuns, soldiers and serial killers - and recounts their stories with boundless enthusiasm. It's a formula that taps into the Zeitgeist - anyone can be famous for 15 minutes (even, apparently, after they've given up the ghost).

Programme-makers in the religious domain tend to dismiss the comparison as irrelevant: paranormal programming is considered lightweight entertainment that has little to do with the serious nature of religion. But society's fascination with the supernatural reflects the rise of a pick'n'mix spirituality, where a traditional god is redundant. An increasing number of people now define themselves as spiritual, rather than religious. They're willing to engage with the more "benign" expressions of the spiritual realm - angels, spirits and universal energy - but not with a God they associate with guilt, fanaticism and tedious school assemblies.

Ofcom's research suggests that a broader definition of religion (to include spirituality and ethics) is the key to attracting a wider audience.

Commissioning editors are acknowledging the emergence of a secular spirituality: the BBC's The Heaven & Earth Show and Channel 4's Spirituality Shopper have addressed the trend. But programme-makers have a tough task ahead: extend religion's remit to entertain a new generation of viewers, while satisfying the genre's established audience.

Last year Ofcom let ITV out of its commitment to religious programming and reduced its output to one hour a week. The religious establishment must have heaved a sigh of relief.

Imagine if ITV were allowed to meld faith with full-on entertainment - 10 young priests battle it out in a charismatic preaching contest; the winner secures double-page sermon opportunities in Heat and Hello! magazines; "Welcome to The Cross Factor; the Archbishop of Canterbury on a judging panel next to Simon Cowell. Now that would be innovation in religious broadcasting.