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The Representation of Religious/Spiritual Experience on factual British TV, 2000-09 Ruth Deller, Sheffield Hallam University AHRC-funded PhD candidate

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Page 1: Leeds

The Representation of Religious/Spiritual

Experience on factual British TV, 2000-09

Ruth Deller, Sheffield Hallam University

AHRC-funded PhD candidate

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Key questions

What is the nature of coverage of religion/spirituality in factual television?

How can it be understood in relation to debates within sociology, cultural studies and religious studies about the role of religion in contemporary Britain?

What are viewers’ responses to these programmes?

What are programme-makers' motivations?

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Textual analysis Discourse, narrative, semiotics, quantitative etc Sample of themes, channels, years, genres

Audience research Forums Blogs Focus Groups Exit survey Twitter Live chat

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Interviews TV commissioning editors Programme-makers Participants

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Key findings: texts Factual TV conventions

Personalities Journeys and experiences Debates Talking heads and experts Historical/Cultural contexts

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Key findings: texts

Seeking to understand belief in socio-historical context.

Debunking/unpacking particular beliefs, stories and practices.

Personal exploration of beliefs and practices. Education about different beliefs and practices. Debate and discussion about world events and

belief. Appreciation of culture.

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Key findings: texts

Acceptable and unacceptable beliefs and practices

Of the 'big six', Islam and Christianity receive most coverage; Sikhism and Buddhism least; particularly in relation to Britain.

Atheism occasionally discussed but agnosticism rarely mentioned; however agnosticism often default ideological perspective.

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Key findings: texts

'Spirituality' widely discussed but mainly in relation to mainstream religion.

'New age', 'occult' or 'supernatural' beliefs often dismissed, ridiculed or presented as light entertainment (e.g. ITV2).

Paganism, occult/spiritualism and some other beliefs (e.g. Voodoo, Wicca, Scientology) often presented as sinister or 'spooky' - sometimes jokingly.

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Key findings: audiences It's impossible to please everyone! Many

groups complain about the coverage they get n relation to other groups; perceived (often imaginary) biases within programmes.

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Audiences like:

Open-mindedness Learning something new Willingness to debate Detailed exploration of issues Attractive visuals Respect for those featured Covering wide range of beliefs and practices Being ‘fair’

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Audiences like:

Creativity, something ‘new’ Interesting narratives and ‘characters’ Knowing the perspective of those involved in

making programme – or at least of the key voices

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Audiences dislike: Misrepresenting their own beliefs Giving a voice to people they don’t like The presenter/narrator patronising those

featured Inaccuracy Omitting key points, facts or events Stereotypical imagery and portrayals Length of programmes Sensational titles, trailers or opening


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Audiences dislike: Not being allowed to make up their own minds ‘Flaky’ people Not getting to the ‘heart’ of an issue Not being able to see a particular programme

(e.g. many are watercooler stuff, hear about it after event via friends, press coverage, awards; repeats happen too soon or at odd times; some programmes not publicised)

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Interviews: industry

Understand lack of diversity within religious programmes, but feel there aren’t good programming ideas for some of the under-represented faiths.

Don’t know how to present ‘spirituality’ outside of religion.

See importance of religion to mainstream and within non ‘God slot’ genres.

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Interviews: industry

Feel emphasis on personality can be at expense of deeper, more intellectual discussion.

Constrictions of budgets, timeslots etc. 9/11 was a key turning point. Some topics are seen as more audience-

friendly (e.g. Da Vinci code). Feel less experimental commissioning now

compared to earlier in decade.

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Interviews: participants

Not always given full idea of what programme will be like.

Complaints about finished edits omitting key detail.

Sense of footage being used to fit a pre-determined script.

Dealing with press and public reaction has been difficult.

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Sense of importance of religion (this has increased over decade, less ‘why believe’, more ‘what is role of religion’).

Spirituality and religion still largely understood through shorthand and stereotyping.

Strong sense of what is and isn’t acceptable. Several groups/beliefs still excluded. Emphasis on moderation and tolerance within

religious belief. Desire for ‘fairness’ and detailed exploration of topics.