Media: A holy mission to serve viewers: Religious broadcasters need to modernise, argues David Sheppard

Critics of the Church blame us for the decline in moral and spiritual values. But they don't always support good schedules for religious programmes in mainstream television and radio. Critics within the Church deplore the lack of airtime given to their favourite preachers. But often they don't study the nature of mass audience television.

It is not the medium for lecturing people, or for working out complicated arguments. It can provide the setting for storytelling, for seeing how people relate to one another, for drama, information and entertainment.

Religious bodies do not own slots on mass audience television. Channel controllers have hard-earnt ratings and are not willing to risk them by broadcasting programmes that do not engage with their viewers' interests. Religious broadcasters enter the territory of people who are watching a channel with the expectation of being entertained and informed.

Albert van den Heuvel, vice-president of a Dutch television company, NOS, spoke to the Central Religious Advisory Committee (Crac) about religious broadcasting in Europe. He told us that Christians must be looking to serve mainstream television companies and their viewers, not use them.

Some religious programmes will rightly come close to other popular entertainment: Highway and Songs of Praise reach very large audiences. When they get the mix right, programmes such as these need not be bland; there is a proper place to respond simply to the ancient call to worship, 'lift up your hearts'. And there are moments in these programmes when, in interviews filmed in the neighbourhood, we see courage, love, witness to alternative values.

There is no single audience for religious programmes. Sixty per cent of viewers watch one religious programme each month: it is false to suppose that only elderly churchgoers switch on.

A variety of religious programmes have varied viewing audiences, which include many who do not attend any church. Series such as Everyman and Heart of the Matter on BBC 1, or Encounter and the Human Factor on ITV, as well as religious programmes on Channel 4, reflect the ideal that public service broadcasting provides diversity and quality.

They offer an object lesson for the churches in tackling issues that are close to the experience of a wide range of people: they occupy 'middle ground', are accessible to many thoughtful people, and perhaps lead some to look more closely at a religion for themselves.

The Independent Television Commission's programme code allows programmes to proclaim on mainstream television but not to recruit. This has been criticised for restricting the freedom of Christian evangelists. But critics do not say whether they expect that freedom to be available to all religious bodies.

A Christian sense of justice and hospitality cannot argue for freedom for our own faith and not for others. Nor is it possible to draw up a list of approved religious bodies. Some religious or quasi-religious bodies use the law courts very readily. The ITC has to have a programme code that can properly protect viewers watching a mainstream channel from the pressure of direct recruiting to dogmas, membership or instruction courses.

Only on a specialist channel, where a religious body has built up its viewing audience by followers choosing to switch to it, is recruiting allowed.

The churches should build on good beginnings already established in local radio by encouraging those with gifts in communication and by co-operating in training. Commercial radio stations and cable television offer fresh opportunities where good, locally made programmes will be at a premium.

Churches that are committed to sustaining a ministry in every part of the country fear they could never afford to produce quality programmes; there may be a way forward through ecumenical co-operation, perhaps in partnership with other bodies such as educational institutions.

The recession has shown very clearly why the BBC should stay in local radio. Many commercial stations have cut their staff by half; religious broadcasting has disappeared from them, along with other public service broadcasting.

The BBC's religious department reaches quite distinct audiences on the different wave bands. Radio has advantages over television: in worship the imagination can move beyond where a camera would be focused, to allow moments of transcendence.

Perhaps the most important battle confronting religious broadcasting concerns scheduling. The BBC has made it clear that it will hold the high ground with Songs of Praise in spite of the announcement that Highway will not be scheduled in the former 'God slot' when it returns in the new year.

But the question remains as to when the two hours of religious programming required by the ITC will be scheduled on ITV. Programmes need to be at times when the distinct audiences to which they are calculated to appeal are likely to be watching.

The Right Rev David Sheppard, Bishop of Liverpool, is about to finish his term as chairman of Crac, which advises the BBC, ITV and the Radio Authority.

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