EVERY SUNDAY evening at 6.15, both the BBC and ITA embark on what is known as "the closed period" of television. This period is closed to everything except religion—or what passes as religious television.
It represents, in fact, a sort of truce between the two networks. Within that period they can compete for viewers, but only within the strict bounds of religious subjects. The competition, therefore, is not of a very serious nature.
This atrangement has certain advantages from the viewpoint of the programme planners. Religion, let it be said, dues not rate as "popular" viewing. If the men at the BBC, therefore, can be sure that ITA is broadcasting religion at the same time as they are, there is no fear that the opposition is grabbing off a whole chunk of the Sunday mass audience.
And vice versa.
But while this arrangement might save a lot of heartache at the various television headquarters. it cannot be said to be a good thing for the viewers . . .
and even less of a good thing for religious television.
So long as there is no real challenge—and religion, regrettably is not the sort of ground on which a big challenge is made —both the BBC and commercial television are happy that they should get through this period as easily and as inexpensively as possible. keeping their big guns for 7.25 p.m. by which time the truce flag is lowered.
I have the greatest sympathy with such first-class television men as Kenneth Lamb, Head of Religious Broadcasting for the BBC, and Penry Jones, who does a similar job for ITA, because no matter how many bright ideas they or their producers might think up, so long as religion is regarded as a closed period they just cannot get the budget or the talent they need to give their programmes a lift.
For these reasons I believe the time has come to end the closed period. I realise full well that certain risks would be involved
in this . . indeed a television executive concerned with religious programmes told me only a few days ago that if there was no closed period for religion, there might not be any religion at all on television.
"The fact k", he said, "that programme controllers generally do not consider religion a good subject. It would be very difficult indeed to get a religious programme into peak-hour viewing periods. But so long as we have our little reserved period on Sunday, we know we cannot be pushed out altr,gether."
This seems to me to be a case of taking the easy way out. What is more, I am not so sure that he is absolutely correct in his assumption that religion would be frozen out.
I have in mind such recent instances as the Malcolm Muggeridge programme on Lourdes and the feature programme on Fr. Trevor Huddleston. Both of these were without doubt religious subjects; both were shown during peak periods; one, at least, of these two programmes was of a sufficiently high standard that I have heard it is being put forward for a TV award.
I would hazard a guess that thousands of people who would never have watched a minute of the "closed period" were able to sit through, and enjoy, every second of either of these two programmes; I would guess also that they would gain a great deal more from either of them than they would do in a year's watching of Sunday Story, Hallelujah, or Songs of Praise.
These two programmes, so far as I am concerned. offered proof that if first-class producers and writers are put to work, with the backing of a liberal budget, then religion can be just as compelling as a television subject as politics, the arts, or the week's top drama offering.
If the money that is devoted to the normal run of religious programmes could be set aside, and supplemented for the production of worthwhile features, I am fairly confident that religion would not lose out a lot in air time; and what it did lose in air time it would make up for in viewing numbers and. therefore impact.