Our religious programming is universal and appeals to the ‘nones’ too, says BBC chief

Image credit: RMC

By Lianne Kolirin

Religion is “an extraordinary resource” for everyone, regardless of their background, according to the woman in charge of programming religious television content at the BBC.

Daisy Scalchi, head of religion and ethics for BBC television, said “universal themes” like love and family can resonate with a wide audience of people — whatever their background.

Speaking at the fifth Religion Media Festival at the JW3 Centre in north London today, Ms Scalchi said: “The word religion instantly means many different things to many different people, both positively and negatively. It can be quite a wide-ranging headline and difficult to pin down or define in any singular way and that is, I believe, its very strength.

“Because when you get behind the word religion, and some of its inevitable associations, it can take you into exploring life’s biggest questions and understanding the human experience, both for us as individuals, but also in relation to one another.”

Ms Scalchi outlined how she works “in a joined-up way” with colleagues Tim Pemberton, who is the BBC’s head of religion and ethics for radio, and Aleem Maqbool, religion editor for BBC news. 

She said: “Religion is an extraordinary resource and connecting us through universal themes that resonate widely like love or death or purpose, meaning, grief, can help engage viewers — both secular and religious — with the content and bringing a greater understanding of faith and belief to as wide an audience as possible.”

It is this broad reach that influences her outlook when it comes to commissioning, she explained.

“When it comes to the programming, I think [religion] is better thought of not in a silo and something slightly over there, but as something that can be part of any content, any other style, any other form.”

Highlighting her point, she cited several examples — among them Stacey Dooley’s documentary, Two Daughters, in which she meets the former Anglican priest Mina Smallman whose two daughters were murdered in a random attack in 2020.

Ms Scalchi also showed a clip from Humza: Forgiving the Unforgivable, a documentary in which comedian Humza Arshad explores his complex feelings about a violent attack on his teenage cousin, which speaks to people of different faiths and none on the meaning of forgiveness.

“It wasn’t a film about Islam and forgiveness although that was referenced throughout. It was a film about forgiveness, regardless of your religious or secular viewpoint and whether or not asking for forgiveness or giving forgiveness is always the right thing. And what do you do when you want to but you find that impossible,” Ms Scalchi said.

She explained that her overall strategy had been influenced by the 2021 Census, which revealed the growing group of people identifying as “no religion”. The collated data showed that this section has experienced a 12-point jump since the last census — from 25 per cent in 2011 to 37 per cent in 2021.

Describing it as an “exciting time” for her area of programming, she said: “The UK’s religious landscape is changing significantly and we are also seeing that the appetite from audiences for programming in this area is as strong as ever.”

She added: “There is … also an audience who might not see that religion content is for them and these might be people who ticked the no-religion box on the recent census and we know from a lot of the work that has been carried out about that group is that they’re a very nuanced and complex group of people, the so-called nones.

“They don’t necessarily see themselves as belonging to any one particular belief system, but they will nevertheless be warm towards, or interested in, the conversations that a religious framework might bring.”

She said big-name talent, extraordinary access or cutting-edge technology were focusing on that audience, as well as exploring universal themes that might be relatable to both religious and secular people.

One such example of “big-name talent” was Louis Theroux’s interview with Stormzy. Meanwhile, BBC Two’s I’m an Alcoholic: Inside Recovery provided “extraordinary access” to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, while engaging “deepfake” technology to change the contributors’ faces to maintain their anonymity.

Upcoming highlights she outlined include a second series of Scotland’s Sacred Islands with Ben Fogle, and a film following a “well-known, well-loved Muslim comedian” — whom she cannot yet name — as he explores his faith.


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