In the very first blog post I noted in passing that contemporary media are more than happy to place a spotlight on heterodox religion and heterodox science. Well – in the latest issue of the Norwegian journal for culture- and religious studies, Din, there is an interesting article on alternative spirituality and television. Anne Kalvig focuses on the presence and function of alternative religiosity in Norwegian television media. What’s particularly interesting about it is her analysis of the sister TV channels, TV Norge and Kanal FEM as basing themselves on an “alternative-theological agenda”.
The article is in Norwegian (nynorsk), but it does come with an English abstract:
The Norwegian, commercial television channels TV Norge and Kanal FEM are increasingly, and quite boldly, offering a range of television programs and series where alternative spirituality is promoted, by being theme and framework for these various programs. Interestingly, and not very surprisingly, some of these programs turn out to be very popular, with almost half a million viewers. This choice of spiritual profile is in this article contrasted to other Norwegian television channels, which do present programs with religious or ethical themes, but in which the apologetic agenda is far less outspoken or discernible. …
With a population of approx. 4.8 million, half a million viewers is pretty good for a Norwegian television show.
That media and popular culture occupy a central place in the dynamic of modern spirituality is nothing new. What is interesting with the data Kalvig draws attention to, at least to my mind, is a stronger emphasis on agency: the claim is not only that certain channels and shows have a structural place in the workings of the modern spiritual economy – rather, they are consciously pushing an alternative-spiritual agenda. This has not really been discussed and problematized that much in academic literature on contemporary religion.
To get a bit of background we should have a quick look at Norwegian media history. Television and radio broadcasting used to be monopolized by the state owned NRK until the late 1980s, early 1990s. At that point the first commercial stations began appearing, the most successful one on the television front being TV2, established in 1992. In the shadow of NRK and TV2 (and more recently their various daughter channels) there is TV Norge. Originally established in 1988, it has not enjoyed the same kind of success as the younger TV2 and has had to struggle to survive at all. Last year they decided to abandon all of their independent news production, and focus instead on their “strongest muscles, which are best fit for fight”. Quoting from the channel’s websites, Kalvig observes that these were apparently “paranormal muscles”, which the channel wanted to flex by “an increasing investment in programs with a supernatural theme”. Prime time productions offering conversations with the dead, clairvoyant investigators, and paranormal themed talk shows have become their trademark.
This suggests, to put things bluntly, that the agenda is not only alternative-spiritual. It also fits a history of tight competition with larger television companies. Investing in “the alternative” is simultaneously an investment in a niche that had not been explored by the larger competitors.
This brings us to the other interesting point in this article, born from a comparison of the coverage of religious material among the actors on the Norwegian television market. Kalvig shows that the focus on religion has remained quite conventional in NRK and TV2. The religious profile of the state regulated NRK may be described as a lutheran protestantism overarching a confessionalism type religious pluralism. In TV2, Kalvig doesn’t find much of a religious profile outside of a couple american produced entertainment shows. The argument, then, is that the major actors left a huge market unexplored, which TV Norge and especially its daughter channel Kanal FEM are now exploiting.
And it’s working. One intriguing piece of data is that while easter service only attracts between 57-83.000 viewers each year, the mediumism/ghost show “Åndenes makt” (“Power of spirits”) is seen by close to 500.000 people every single week. That asks some questions concerning the actual consumption of religion, which furthermore indicates certain shifts in the religious economy of a country where as of 2009 80.7 % of the population were officially a member of the lutheran state church.
(Via forskning.no, with thanks to Anne Kalvig for supplying a copy of the article.)