The BBC has lost the right to make Songs of Praise, in what a senior Church of England figure has warned could be “another nail in the coffin of the religious literacy of the nation”.
The much-loved programme has been made in-house since 1961. But under a new competitive tendering process, BBC Studios was required to pitch for the contract. It lost out to a joint bid by two independent production companies.
Nine Lives Media, which has made editions of Panorama, Channel 4’s Dispatches and a documentary entitled Holiday Love Rats, was the successful bidder alongside Avanti Media, a Welsh company that has produced several Songs of Praise episodes set in Wales.
Their pitch offered better value for money and more innovative programme ideas, the BBC said. Staff who worked on the show must either switch employers or lose their jobs.
Mark Linsey, director of BBC Studios, said: “We are disappointed with the outcome. We take great pride in how we’ve nurtured and developed the series over many years, which continues to delight audiences.”
Although there are no plans to move Songs of Praise from its Sunday night slot, the loss of its flagship religious programme to outsiders is a major blow to the corporation.
It will also prompt fears that religion will slip further down the BBC’s agenda. Last year, the head of religion, Aaqil Ahmed, left and was not replaced. Instead, religious affairs programming was absorbed into the remit of James Purnell, head of radio and education.
The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Rev Graham James, said: “I wish the new production companies well in their endeavours. But I do fear that there will be a loss in the BBC of specialist expertise in broadcast worship, which has been a core element of its public service remit.”
Before the competitive tender result was announced yesterday, Bishop James said: “It’s a worry to some of us that it will be another nail in the coffin of the religious literacy of the nation.
“I don’t think there’s any chance of us losing Songs of Praise; it will still go out and I hope it will maintain its standard. What I am concerned about is that there could be a diminution of the other programmes that we see.”
The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, says: "An independent company may well bring a fresh approach to Songs of Praise, 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."
Nine Lives and Avanti Media will make the programme for the next three years.
Fatima Salaria, the BBC's commissioning editor of religion and ethics, said: "Songs of Praise remains our flagship religious programme right at the heart of our religion offer. 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 is required by the government to put all its programmes out to tender over the next few years. The first to go through the process, A Question of Sport, was retained by BBC Studios. Holby City and Horizon are currently under consideration.