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Making every day a Sunday

The churches claim they are marginalised by a secular media. Now they're striking back, says Meg Carter
Some regard it as an unholy alliance. To others, it represents another weapon in the battle for souls. Whether mounting an advertising campaign, launching a dedicated TV station or withdrawing investment from BSkyB, religious organisations are taking an unprecedented interest in Britain's media. All creeds agree: the time has come to strike back.

"We are no longer happy being relegated to the Sunday morning 'God slot'," says Francis Goodwin, the joint managing director of the poster company Maiden Outdoor and founder of Christians in Media (CIM), an unofficial advertising agency comprising media and marketing volunteers. "There is undoubtedly a feeling we should do more."

CIM has created a number of high-profile advertising campaigns for the Churches Advertising Network, an umbrella body representing the Church of England, United Reformed Church, Roman Catholics, Methodists and Baptists. It incensed some with its Easter campaign: "Surprise! ... said Jesus to his friends, three days after they buried Him". The group will launch its latest campaign next month - posters listing essential festive ingredients, from turkey to indigestion, with the call: "Make room for God this Christmas".

Mr Goodwin claims that the churches have been wary of exploiting the media for too long. "There is a paranoia because nine-tenths of churches' contact with the media comes when they are caught on the back foot, defending themselves against something in the News of the World." Instead, he says, they should embrace modern mass communication: "The 'Surprise!' campaign is just what the church should be doing - creating a stir, raising issues."

Advertising is merely the start. This summer saw the launch of the London commercial station Premier, the UK's first religious radio service. Then came Christian Channel Europe, which began broadcasting last month. Existing services include Ahmadiyya Muslim TV and the Vision Channel, a 10-year- old Christian cable channel available in around 350,000 homes. Waiting in the wings is Ark2, another Christian channel, ready to launch next spring. Then there's the Ethical Word UK, the European Family Christian Network, Christian Communications, and Capital Network. All have been licensed by the Independent Television Commission.

The reason for this outbreak? There is no mainstream media alternative. A spokesman for Ahmadiyya Muslim TV explains: "Only extremist ideas are newsworthy to mainstream media. Our response was to do something practical to broadcast true perceptions of Islam."

The Rev John Kennedy, secretary of the Methodist Church Division of Social Responsibility, agrees. "Established broadcasters are biased. There is a demand that's not being catered for." He believes this is because the media world is more secular than society as a whole.

Although religious output is enshrined in the ITV and Channel 4 licences and under the BBC charter, all have been criticised, either for popularising or trivialising religious affairs or for being too neutral. Earlier this year, BBC Radio provoked an outcry when it tested a humanist discussion programme, Were You There?, in place of Radio 4's Sunday morning church service. And when ITV axed Highway in 1993 it received 1,400 letters of complaint. Even acclaimed Channel 4 series such as Witness have fallen foul of the ITC for adopting too broad a brief. The broadcasters' defence is simple. They fear their core audience is, literally, dying out. "To retain audience share, we must extend appeal," explains Ernest Rea, the BBC's head of religious broadcasting. He says that Songs of Praise has a hard-core, older following, but since the start of the year efforts have been made to make it more accessible to younger viewers. Recent editions have featured the comedy duo Cannon and Ball's gospel show and a programme with Harry Secombe achieved the series' highest rating all year: 7.1 million.

Other BBC initiatives include Heart and Soul, a Sunday morning religious magazine for young people that, Mr Rea says, generates audiences of around 500,000: "Our role is to make religious programming people want to watch. We are not here to proselytise." He adds that the BBC no longer sees ITV as direct competition. "Now they've moved religious output out of peak time, it's left for people to find, should they choose to do so."

An ITV programming source concedes: "We have to do it. But it just doesn't seem to make commercial sense when you look at what other channels are scheduling against us at the same time." Rubbish, responds Peter Meadows, chief executive of Premier Radio: "It does have an audience. Most religious programmes on ITV have generated higher ratings than many specialist programmes. The people who make the scheduling decisions assume most people are like them - not interested."

The faithful insist that there is a market. "NOP research shows that 71 per cent of the British believe in God, but only 15 per cent practise some kind of religion regularly," says Alan Rogers, director of programming for Ark2. "That means more than half the population think there's something in it but do nothing about it." Ark2 plans a broad-based schedule, underpinned by Christian values, containing sport, a soap, women's interests, on-air advice and, eventually, drama and light entertainment.

Advertisers are seeing the light. "A large number are interested in appealing to the more morally aware Nineties consumer," claims Simon Lynds, chief executive of the advertising and sponsorship specialist Scott Lynds. "Ultimately the volume of audience matters to them less than the committed nature of the viewers."

Religious channels cannot live by advertising revenue alone. Before its launch, Premier passed the plate around London churches and churchgoers, raising pounds l.2m. Advertisers say they are "pleased" with Premier's initial performance. It attracts regular audiences of 210,000 - twice that of Viva!, the London women's station. Still, Premier recently launched a second campaign to raise pounds 500,000. Mr Meadows says: "We must fight to get all the pennies we need."

It's a similar story at Ark2. "If the churches want to they can have a broad-based ecumenical station catering for anyone, from Catholics to Pentecostals," Mr Rogers says. "If not, the televangelists could move in." He points to Christian Channel Europe, launched last month by Rory and Wendy Alec. Without money, TV experience or connections to established churches, they persuaded Sky to give them space to broadcast. Their programmes are mainly pre-packaged and paid for by preaching ministries - chiefly from the US.

It is a development few relish. In the US, financial and sex scandals brought down the televangelists Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker in the Eighties. Since then, on-air fund-raising has been a thorny issue. Now, 24 religious networks compete for cable space, prompting prophets of doom to ask: how long before they come to the UK?

Cristina Odone, editor of the Catholic Herald, believes the threat is overplayed. "Reservations about discussion of religion and money are so ingrained in the British psyche, televangelists would find it very hard to get money from viewers," she says. Besides, British broadcasters are banned from on-air fund-raising.

However, Ms Odone sounds a note of caution: "More relevant is the threat that cable and satellite marginalises religion." It is a danger acknowledged by John Kennedy: "New channels offer part of the answer, but religion isn't a niche market. It's for the whole of your life."

Mr Goodwin remains sanguine. It is inevitable that mainstream broadcasters' religious obligations will change: "We're no longer operating in a Reithian society." But he is optimistic. "It's up to us to ensure we are not talking only to ourselves. This upsurge in religious channels is the start - not the beginning of the end."