THE loss of the BBC programme Songs of Praise to two independent production companies last week is a “worry” for people of faith, who may see the move as “another nail in the coffin of the religious literacy” of the UK, the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, has warned.
The BBC removed its guarantee to produce the programme in-house in September, as part of a Charter agreement with the Government to open 40 per cent of its returning television series to a competitive market within two years — and all by 2028.
Songs of Praise has been produced in-house since its conception in 1961, and was one of four long-running BBC series to be tendered for competition under the “Compete or Compare” strategy, which was launched by the BBC Director-General, Tony Hall, in 2014.
BBC Studios, which was created last April to compete with independent producers, pitched for a three-year contract to continue producing the programme, but lost out to a joint bid from Avanti Media and Nine Lives Media, the BBC announced last Friday.
“Songs of Praise remains our flagship religious programme right at the heart of our religion offer,” the BBC religion and ethics commissioning editor, Fatima Salaria, said. “This decision secures its future for the next three years, and reflects both a commitment to the ongoing success of this much loved series and to religious coverage more broadly.”
The BBC confirmed that it would retain all intellectual property rights for the tendered programmes, which would all continue to be shown on BBC channels. It is understood that Songs of Praise will also remain a music-based programme celebrating Christian worship, and will keep its Sunday slot on BBC1.
But Bishop James told BBC Radio Norfolk on Sunday: “The real problem is that, compared with some other programmes which have lots of other productions in the same genre, Songs of Praise is the only regular televised worship, and so, without it, it is difficult to see how the BBC will maintain its expertise in terms of regular weekly broadcast worship. And that will have a knock-on effect on the broadcast of worship at other times.”
That the programme was attractive to independent bidders in the first instance was testament to its popularity and relevance, he said. “Songs of Praise has been quite remarkable over the years in adapting and adjusting to the way in which worship has altered over 50 years, the way in which the Church has been engaged with many issues of the day.”
But that might be lost with the “considerable reservoir of expertise” held by the BBC, he warned.
The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, who chairs the Sandford St Martin Trust, agreed.
“An independent company may well bring a fresh approach to Songs of Praise,” he said on Tuesday. “But the BBC should also continue to bolster its religious output. At a time when the need for religious literacy and understanding is more acute than ever, the expertise of the BBC’s religious department is an asset that needs protecting.”
The broadcaster Roger Bolton, a Sandford St Martin trustee, said that the decision “raised questions” about the BBC’s future coverage of religion and ethics.
The head of the broadcasting workers’ union BECTU, Gerry Morrissey, demanded protection for the 30 BBC staff who work on the programme at MediaCityUK, in Salford. “Our worst fears are confirmed: programmes going outside the BBC, jobs being lost — the BBC has a lot of explaining to do about this process.”
The Director of BBC Studios, Mark Linsey, said in a statement this week: “Our main priority now is supporting our people who are impacted by this.”