Factsheet: the Media Bill and religious broadcasting

Monitor showing filming Songs of Praise at St Alban's Church, Westbury Park, Bristol. Image courtesy BBC

The Media Bill going through parliament will change the landscape for public service broadcasters (PSBs) — the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, STV and S4C. They are being given powers for more flexible programming and the requirement to include specific genres of programmes on religion, science and arts will be removed. Questions have been raised as to whether this endangers the provision of religious broadcasting, where there has already been a dramatic decline over the past ten years. Ofcom have confirmed they will continue to collect data on genres.

Changes in the bill for religious broadcasting

The Media Bill 2023 began going through parliament on 8 November 2023. It passed its final Report Stage in the Commons on 30 January 2024, when John McDonnell MP proposed reinstating the requirement for public service broadcasters to include programmes about religion, alongside arts and science. But his amendment was not voted upon and the Bill now goes to the Lords, probably in mid-February.

It says PSBs should make available a broad range of audiovisual content to meet the needs and satisfy the interests of as many different audiences as practicable. It should reflect the lives and concerns of different communities and cultural interests and traditions within the United Kingdom.

The culture secretary, Lucy Frazer, said the bill would give PSBs more control over their television schedules and content through more flexible rules on the types of programmes they are required to show. “The laws will now require PSBs to ensure an ‘appropriate range of programme genres’ are available on their services, protecting against a potential reduction in specialist genres of shows — such as religious, science and arts programming,” she said. Ofcom, the regulatory and competition authority for broadcasting, will be given new powers to require more of a particular type of programming if audiences are being underserved.

The wording is different from the 2003 Communications Act, by omitting specific reference to religion. Section 264 paragraph 6 says PSBs must “include a suitable quantity and range of programmes dealing with science, religion and other beliefs, social issues, matters of international significance or interest and matters of specialist interest. Religious programmes should include news, history of different religions and beliefs and programmes showing acts of worship, ceremonies and practices.” It established Ofcom as the industry regulator.

The role of Ofcom

Ofcom checks output for genres of programming for all public service broadcasters, which have been set by the 2003 act, the BBC Charter and European legislation and, in addition, an Operating Framework and Operating Licence for the BBC.

The 2017 Ofcom operating licence for the BBC included requirements for 115 hours of religious programming a year across BBC1 and BBC2, and at least 200 hours for original religious programming (excluding repeats) on Radio 4, as well as religion within 375 documentaries on Radio 4. “We expect the BBC to produce informal learning content which covers subjects such as art, music, religion, science, nature, business and history, and content with an international focus,” it said.

The 2023 Ofcom operating licence abandoned specified hours. It says the BBC should provide planned hours of religious programming (including repeats) on Radio 2 and Radio 4. Instead of specifying hours, it says the BBC should deliver “a broad range of output covering different genres and content types, including genres that are underprovided or in decline across public service broadcasting (including music, arts, religion and other specialist factual content, comedy, and children’s programming)”.  The licence requires the BBC to make important content available for online audiences, including for the nations and regions and at-risk programming, including arts, children’s, comedy, music, religion, and specialist factual content.

A spokesperson for Ofcom told us: “At the moment we do not plan to stop collecting data on genres, including hours of religious programming, for the foreseeable future. This is because will still have duties to ensure that PSBs are meeting the needs and satisfying the interests of as many different audiences as practicable”.

Dramatic decline in religious programming

Ofcom’s 2022 report lists the number of hours of programming under specific categories on PSBs, including religion.

This Ofcom chart surveys the hours of programming on religion and ethics for each PSB from 2010 to 2022. There has been a dramatic decline:

  • The number of hours of programmes on religion and ethics on all public service broadcasting platforms fell by 42 per cent, from 243 hours to 140 hours. 139 out of the 140 hours were from the BBC.
  • Channel 4 has gone from 39 hours to zero.
  • Channel 5 from 13 hours to zero.
  • ITV from 5 hours to 1.
  • BBC2 is stable at 46 to 43 hours.
  • BBC1 105 hours to 78 hours.
  • BBC portfolio (not including nations and regions) 35 to 18 hours.

Peak-time hours: The number of hours of first run, UK-produced content shown at peak-time viewing hours (6pm-10.30pm daily) on all public service broadcasting platforms fell from 48 to 7, a drop of 85 per cent

Programme Categories: Ofcom included three categories of religious programming in its survey:

  • Life experience (moral, ethical, spiritual): 109 hours to 43 hours.
  • Religious faith and inspiration: 71 to 51 hours.
  • Religious worship / services: 63 to 46 hours.

Worship programmes:

  • All-day-hours programmes of all origin fell from 63 to 46 hours
  • All-day-hours programmes (first-run origination) fell from 60 to 43 hours
  • Peak-hours programmes of all origin fell from 9 to 2 hours
  • Peak-hours programmes (first-run origination) fell from 8 to 2 hours
  • Daytime-hours programmes (first-run origination) went up from one to 9 hours
  • Daytime-hours programmes fell from 51 to 41 hours

Daytime-hours’ television/audio-visual output, almost entirely comprises Songs of Praise, which airs most weeks. This was described as the “flagship religious programme right at the heart of our religion offer” by Fatima Salaria, who was then commissioning editor for ethics and religion, when independent producers Afanti Media and Nine Lives won the pitch to produce it in spring 2017. Afanti said the programme “appeals to a broad audience of over a million each week, with an average of 83 audience appreciation”. Songs of Praise has now moved to independent producer CTVC, which has a decades-long track record of award-winning “religion” programmes. It also produces BBC2’s Pilgrimage. Daisy Scalchi, the BBC’s current commissioning editor, described CTVC as “bringing their passion, expertise, and commitment to this much-loved brand. I know it is in very safe hands and will continue to thrive in the years ahead.” Songs of Praise’s Sunday daytime slot is not fixed and moves around the schedule, often for sports coverage, and across channels from BBC1 to BBC2.

Ofcom reports that content in the 2022 “worship and services” category included A Celebration for Commonwealth Day, a multi-faith service produced by BBC Studios for BBC1; A Celebration of Pentecost, BBC1; Urbi et Orbi, the Pope’s live broadcast from Rome, BBC1; services for Christmas and Easter on BBC1 and Carols from King’s and Easter from King’s, BBC2.

On 6 January 2024 the BBC passed the 100th anniversary of its first religious broadcast on radio. The Daily Service is now broadcast on Long Wave, but when Long Wave transmission ends in March, it will be available online via BBC Radio 4 Extra and BBC Sounds.

Commercial broadcasters

The Ofcom Communications Markets Report of 2022 shows that the amount of output is so small they pretty much disappear from the graphs from about 2015.

The commercially funded channels (ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5) produce religious programmes at their discretion, set out in the annual statements of programme policy that the broadcasters are required to produce under the 2003 Communications Act.


ITV’s document for 2023 does not mention religious programming, but says ITV continues to drive positive change through its social purpose priorities, pointing to campaigns on mental health, charity fundraising events and focus on diversity and inclusion.

An ITV spokesperson said: “ITV no longer has any formal obligation to deliver religious content and our public service remit, determined by Ofcom and ultimately by parliament, lies elsewhere. For instance, in bringing the nation together for key moments in national life, in news, current affairs and through using our schedule to deliver social benefit in everything from storylines in our soaps and dramas to the on-air campaigns we run.

“Clearly religious belief is part of the lives of many of our viewers and so it is part of the worlds that we portray on screen. For ITV’s Channel 3 licences, our public service remit is set by the 2003 Communications Act as “the provision of a range of high-quality and diverse programming”.

On Christmas Eve, Royal Carols-Together at Christmas, which was dedicated to The Queen, was watched by 4.2million viewers.

Channel 5

A spokesperson for Channel 5 (now owned by American media conglomerate Paramount Global), said: “Channel 5 does not have a specific quota or licence obligation to provide religious programming. As such, we are unable to provide specific data on religious output — though religion and religious themes feature across our schedule including in our children’s content Milkshake! and within factual series such as Westminster Abbey Behind Doors.”

Channel 5 is the UK’s only PSB with a dedicated, daily children’s programming block each morning. Its schedule includes programme shorts, produced in-house, which cover a range of subjects that have an early years foundation framework, including cultural/religious celebrations like Eid, Ramadan and Hanukkah.  

Other Channel 5 factual series which have featured religious themes include: Westminster Abbey Behind Doors, Dan & Helen’s Pennine Adventures, Building Britain’s Cathedrals, The Pyrenees with Michael Portillo and The Child Snatcher: Manhunt.

The BBC and religious broadcasting

In 2022, the BBC accounted for 99 per cent of all religious programming on PSBs. As Tony Hall, then the corporation’s director-general, wrote in the BBC Religion and Ethics Review in 2017: “The BBC is now the main mass audience provider of religion and ethics content in the UK, which means that any decline in output or a downgrading of its importance will not be made up by another broadcaster.”

The BBC press office said: “The changes set out in the Media Bill don’t directly apply to the BBC (they are for other PSBs) and would not affect our religious programming – our obligations and remit are set out separately in our Charter, Framework and Operating Licence.

“We have always exceeded our regulatory requirements when it comes to religious programming and continue to broadcast far more religious content than any other broadcaster. As shown in Ofcom’s report, in 2022, the BBC accounted for 99 per cent of all religious programming on PSBs (both first-run and all hours).

“The BBC has objectives and requirements around providing a broad range of output, and our Annual Plan sets out in detail how we’re committing to deliver this content over the next year”.

Ofcom tests whether PSBs comply with the 2003 Communications Act in including a suitable quantity and range of programmes dealing with science, religion and other beliefs … Religious programmes should include news, history of different religions and beliefs and programmes showing acts of worship, ceremonies and practices.”

The BBC Charter commits it to “reflect, represent and serve the diverse communities of all of the United Kingdom’s nations and regions and, in doing so, support the creative economy across the United Kingdom: the BBC should reflect the diversity of the United Kingdom both in its output and services. In doing so, the BBC should accurately and authentically represent and portray the lives of the people of the United Kingdom today, and raise awareness of the different cultures and alternative viewpoints that make up its society.”

Precise details of religious programming, with promises of broadcast hours, are unveiled in the BBC’s annual plan and press releases from the commissioning editors.

Its Annual Plan 2023-24, sets out details of religious programming in 2024:

  • We will make about 200 hours of religious programming available for our audiences across our TV channels and BBC iPlayer, of which about 120 hours will be broadcast on TV with 80 hours available only on BBC iPlayer.
  • We will broadcast about 70 hours of first-run religious programming across BBC iPlayer and our TV channels.

This will include:

  • Long-running strands such as Songs of Praise, Sunday Morning Live and Sacred Islands; new programmes such as My Supersized Christian Family and Married, Sikh and Wanting a Baby. We will also cover a wide range of religions through the Faith and Hope for Spring season and programmes such as Pilgrimage.
  • BBC radio will broadcast about 500 hours of religious programming across our stations and covering a wide range of faiths.
  • Radio 2 will broadcast about 185 hours of new religious output, including Good Morning Sunday, Pause for Thought, a special evening of music and reflection to mark Good Friday with At the Foot of the Cross and a Christmas special by Mica Paris, Mica’s Gospel Christmas.
  • Radio 3 will broadcast about 110 hours of religious output, with at least 60 hours being first-run. This will include: The annual EBU (European Broadcasting Union) Music Days inspired by Easter and Christmas, with two days of live music bringing performances from countries in Europe, Australia and Canada. Weekly Choral Evensong live from cathedrals, churches and chapels across the UK. Night service of Compline (Monday evenings) specially recorded for the six weeks of Lent and four weeks of Advent.
  • Radio 4 will broadcast about 195 hours of programmes which represent a wide range of faiths and offer fresh insight into the spiritual condition of Britain today. This will include The Archbishop Interviews with Justin Welby, Beyond Belief relaunched with Aleem Maqbool, and Sunday Worship across the UK every week.
  • The Asian Network will reflect and celebrate key South Asian religious festivals such as Diwali and Ramadan

The BBC press office commented: “Our religion content remains a vital part of our remit as a public service broadcaster. The BBC creates religious content not only out of duty but also because we firmly believe it holds importance for society. We take this commitment incredibly seriously — bringing audiences an unrivalled range of ambitious, timely, thought-provoking content.

“Teams across the organisation work together to ensure our content reaches a breadth of audiences across our platforms, including radio, TV, children’s, news and digital. Recent highlights such as The Holy Land and Us: Our Untold Stories presented by Rob Rinder and Sarah Agha, Humza: Forgiving the Unforgivable and Stacey Dooley: Inside the Undertakers demonstrate our commitment to tackling big, challenging issues in our output.

“In recent years TV, radio and news have adopted a more joined up approach to reflect and represent faith and ethics across the breadth of our content — for example through our annual Faith and Hope for Spring season which marks Easter and other key faith festivals in the spring …

“In addition, we want to ensure that religious themes are woven into other content, such as drama and documentaries, and not treated in a silo — examples include the recent drama Time and the Louis Theroux documentary with Stormzy.” Those examples are not categorised as “religious” programming and are not counted in Ofcom’s data set.

Other examples of religion woven into other content are The Archbishop Interviews, the Bishop of Chelmsford on Desert Island Discs, and the series Black, African and British.

The press office added: Viewing figures for live worship this Christmas are up on recent years and single documentaries, such as Stacey Dooley: Inside the Undertakers, which was shown in a prime-time BBC1 slot, performed exceptionally well and continues to bring broad audiences to difficult conversations about life, death and faith. Songs of Praise is in rude health and regularly draws about a million viewers each week.

“We continue to ensure religion content is found in regular, long-running series such as Songs of Praise and Sunday Morning Live but are also reaching wider audiences with single films and series such as Humza: Forgiving the Unforgivable, Pilgrimage and The Holy Land and Us: Our Untold Stories, as well as creating new strands in well-loved brands such as Saturday Kitchen, Celebration Kitchen. Digital output also does well with films such as How to Have a Kosher Marriage and My Hindu Coming Out Story reaching younger viewers via digital shorts on Facebook and Instagram etc.”

BBC local radio

In 2017, the BBC produced more than 7,000 hours of religion and ethics programming each year, 5,000 of which were on local radio and national TV and radio services.

As of March 2023, the local radio network broadcast to a combined audience of 5.2 million, with a listening share of 4.6 per cent, according to Rajar (Radio Joint Audience Research). Forty per cent of BBC local listeners listen to no other radio output and 58 per cent are over 55 years old.

However, in the past few months, the Sunday morning religious programmes on 39 BBC local stations have been cut to 13 regional hubs, with the aim of making more content only available online.  

There is broad agreement from various pieces of research that around 1.7million people have no mobile or broadband or internet at home (research links below), including 26 per cent of over 75s.  

One access campaigner was quoted in the Big Issue: “There was no public consultation … No equality impact assessments done, and no public value test done on any of the proposed changes.”

David Lloyd, founder of Boom Radio, has pointed out that nearly 80 per cent of BBC local radio’s five-million-plus listeners are aged over 55. (Nearly a quarter of the UK population, that’s 15.5 million people, are now 60 or over, with more living longer than ever; 3.2 million people are 80 or over).

The weekly Sunday Breakfast religious programmes are understood to have had an average combined audience of 800,000 a week before the change. Most of the 39 local presenters have gone, to be replaced by regional presenters, with years of community contacts and experience lost.

The senior journalist serving all BBC local radio religious programme producers and presenters has left and a new senior journalist appointed whose role is, according to the BBC, “to support the local faith programmes and ensure that those stories are heard more widely across the BBC. They also represent local on the BBC religion steering group who meet every two months along with representatives from across the BBC.” There continue to be three part-time producers working to them too: each respectively with a focus on the UK’s Muslim, Hindu and Sikh communities.

The BBC said: “Local radio remains committed to the representation of the UK’s different faith communities and the provision of religious and ethical content for audiences across England. Faith remains the focus of all our Sunday Breakfast shows … we produced a special service for Christmas Day which ran across all our stations. There’s also a special programme called Keeping Faith, featuring stories of people whose faith is helping them make a difference in their communities.”

Campaigners also point out that in 2023 the local network of 39 stations all broadcast the same 30-minute Christmas service, presented by the Rev Geoff Eze, from Stoke-on-Trent.

Peter Crumpler, formerly communications director of the CofE’s Archbishops’ Council, said: “I deeply regret the cuts that have been made across BBC local radio, including to the faith programming. The producers and presenters of the new regional programmes are doing their best to make engaging, entertaining faith programmes, but the unique proposition of being local and community-based has been lost.

“Churches and all faith groups practise their beliefs locally, living them out in their own communities. The regional programmes, although well-intentioned, cannot replicate this. Also, the nature of the programmes, seeking to interest a wide, general audience, means that often the more eccentric or unusual manifestations of faith are given greater coverage, while day-to-day religious practice takes a back seat. There is also a temptation to reduce faith to ‘wellbeing’ or ‘wholeness’ rather than the lived experience of diverse faith groups.”

Andy Griffee, former controller of BBC English Regions (which cover 40 local radio stations and 12 television regions) posted on Twitter/X at the end of 2023: “It’s been a terrible year for BBC local radio listeners and staff. I sincerely hope it recovers but I fear it won’t without new investment or a strategic rethink. It’s a public service that needs protection more than ever. Ofcom do your job in 2024.”

Digital deficit: moving content online

The BBC says: “There are no plans to move our religion content to online only. However, BBC iPlayer and Sounds provide a valuable additional resource for the audience to engage with and discover our content – for example via the Faith and Hope rail on BBC iPlayer and the Religion and Ethics category on BBC Sounds. Our digital output also gives us an opportunity to engage with new and younger audiences via digital shorts and on social media platforms.”

The House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee published a report in June 2023 saying 1.7 million households have no mobile or broadband internet at home. Up to a million people have cut back or cancelled internet packages in the past year as cost-of-living challenges bite. There is a digital skills shortage, with around 2.4 million people unable to get online, and over 5 million employed adults who cannot complete essential digital work tasks.

An Ofcom report on digital exclusion, from March 2022, agreed 1.7 million households, around six per cent, have no internet access. And 26 per cent of people aged 75 or over don’t have home internet access.

The Cabinet Office has identified (in December 2022) that a fifth of the UK population (over 14 million) are disabled

The UK Consumer Digital Index, published by Lloyds Bank in 2023, said 2.1 million people in the UK are offline, and around 4.7 million people cannot connect to Wi-Fi.

A BT report on digital inclusion from 2023 says at least one million individuals are estimated to live in households with incomes so low, they are unlikely to be able to afford any internet connectivity at all.

Concerns about the bill

Dr Tony Stoller, chairman Sandford St Martin Trust, a charity established in 1978 to promote excellence in religious broadcasting: While the Sandford St Martin Trust welcomes 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. [We] have long argued that 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.”

Roger Bolton, the journalist and broadcaster, told Premier Christian Radio that he feared the media bill would drive religion and ethics programming on to 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. And what about all these older people? What’s quite shocking, is there are still seven million households with no broadband or mobile access … 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. 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 on to 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.”

Additional research by Julia Bicknell


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