Latest figures from media regulator Ofcom show a dramatic decline in the number of religious programmes shown by public service broadcasters in the last decade.
The figures for 2022 - the latest year available – show that 140 hours of 'Religion and Ethics' programming were broadcast across the BBC, Channel 4, Channel 5 and ITV. However only 13 of those hours were at peak times. That’s a marked reduction from 2013 when there were 254 hours of religious content with 51 hours of programming at peak times.
Former BBC executive Roger Bolton has been speaking to Premier about the findings:
“It shows a dramatic collapse. If you look at the peak hours of first-run UK religious and ethical broadcast programmes - programmes made for British television and shown for the first time in peak - they've dropped in 10 years by 85 per cent. All programming of a religious nature, including bought-in material added to the UK, dropped by 76 per cent.
“So what's happened in part is that things have been moved out of peak. But it's still bad, because overall, the hours of original religious broadcasting fell in that 10 year period by 41 per cent. And so for example, Channel 4 dropped from being the most prolific broadcaster ten years ago, to providing nothing at all now.”
Roger Bolton says he fears it’s all part of a move to drive religion and ethics programming onto digital-only platforms:
“I’m all in favour of niche broadcasting, but broadcasting still has a role because we have to reach out to people who don't know anything about religion, and to interest them in it, and to give them information so they can start to think about these things. If you don't do that, we will end up like the United States with lots of people living in silos effectively. Obviously you can’t force young people in particular to watch in the way I used to do. But you have an obligation to go and meet them where they are digitally. And what about all these older people? What’s quite shocking, is there are still seven million households with no broadband or mobile access. This is a quarter of all UK households. There are also 4.2 million adults who never use the internet. So if you move everything from broadcast to digital, you're effectively saying to all of these people who don't have access, ‘sorry, chaps, you can't have anything to do with religion’.”
Roger Bolton added that he’s also concerned about the new Media Bill which is currently going through Parliament. It will provide more flexible rules on the types of programmes public service broadcasters are required to show, giving organisations more control over their TV schedules and on-demand offerings. Bolton, a former BBC presenter and commentator says this is likely to make it more difficult for programmes featuring religious content to be given airtime on the main channels:
“This bill, which is going through Parliament now, is going to make the situation worse. It says to all the broadcasters, 'You can move anything onto digital'. It also doesn’t state specifically the programme areas that need to be preserved, including Children’s programming, which is another disaster area and means Ofcom, which is the regulator, doesn't need to measure what the broadcasters are doing.”
Premier contacted Ofcom for a response, who said the matter lies with the Departure for Culture, Media and Sport.