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How white is Australian TV?


An ambitious new study shows television drama still fails to fully reflect the diversity of our society, but Screen Australia hopes its findings will be a springboard for change.

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Seeing Ourselves: Reflections on Diversity in TV Drama has found that only 18 per cent of main characters of the 199 home-grown dramas screened between 2011 and 2015 came from non-Anglo Celtic backgrounds, whereas 32 per cent of the Australian population is from non-Anglo Celtic heritage.

“Diversity on screens has been a hot topic in recent years locally and abroad, so in undertaking this milestone study, Screen Australia sought to empower the industry with a baseline of data that could become a springboard for change,” Graeme Mason, the CEO of Screen Australia, said yesterday.

“Throughout the year-long process of completing this study, it is clear there is an appetite for change within the industry and for that change to be authentic rather than tokenistic.”

For the study, the 1961 main and recurring characters across the 199 dramas were analysed by cultural background, disability status, sexual orientation and gender identity, then compared to the cultural backgrounds of the actors playing the characters based on their and their parents’ place of birth.

The study found that while 18 per cent of the characters were non-Anglo Celtic, 24 per cent of actors playing them were from diverse cultural backgrounds which it suggested shows a degree of “blind” casting – casting a role without prescribing the actor’s background.

Overall, 64 per cent of all programs included at least one character who was not Anglo Celtic, while children’s shows and comedies tended to be more diverse than other dramas.

We don’t want tokenism, but we don’t want inaction either.

The study and consultations within the industry showed that the high cost of drama and need to attract international buyers can make investing in untested diverse talent and stories risky.

It said that while broadcasters had displayed a willingness to cast diversely once talent was established (for example, Miranda Tapsell in Love Child), there was evidence that audiences looked elsewhere for diverse content, while diverse talent sought work overseas.

The exception to the tendency towards Anglo Celtic is the growing representation of indigenous talent.

A 2002 study, Broadcast in Colour, found that in 1992 there were no indigenous Australians in continuing roles on Australian TV but by 1999 there were two. The new study shows 5 per cent of main characters are indigenous, while indigenous people make up 3 per cent of the population.

Screen Australia said this shift was the result of decades of work by itself, the ABC and other organisations and production companies, including Blackfella Films, Brindle Films, Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association, Goolarri Media, state screen agencies, broadcasters and training institutions such as the Australian Film, Television and Radio School.

“You cannot underestimate how powerful it is for indigenous people to turn on the TV and see a face that looks like their own,” said Penny Smallacombe, head of Indigenous at Screen Australia.

“Whilst overall diversity on Australian screens clearly has a very long way to go, what the indigenous experience shows is when you have indigenous decision-makers within funding bodies and broadcasters, coupled with initiatives that support indigenous writers, directors, producers and actors, diversity and good entertainment can be one in the same.”

The study showed that the percentage of Australians with disabilities is more than four times the percentage of characters with disabilities on TV – only 10 per cent of dramas had at least one character with a disability.

The survey results showed “mixed feelings around the ongoing practice of non-disabled people being cast in disabled roles” and a call for more opportunities for actors with disabilities.

Josh Thomas and Arnold Keegan Joyce in Please Like Me - the study also looked at the representation of LGBTQI characters.

Josh Thomas and Arnold Keegan Joyce in Please Like Me – the study also looked at the representation of LGBTQI characters.

Up to 11 per cent of Australians are of diverse sexual orientation or gender identity, but only 5 per cent of characters in TV dramas were identifiably LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or intersex).

“The study period included shows where a character’s sexual or gender identity was central to the plot (eg Carlotta; Please Like Me; Peter Allen: Not The Boy Next Door), however it was also common for major dramas to include characters where their diverse orientation was simply incidental, including Offspring (Kim Akerholt), House Husbands (Kane Albert), Janet King (Janet King), Neighbours (Aidan Foster and Aaron Brennan) and Winners & Losers (Jonathan Kurtis),” the study authors said.

“Although the signs of authentic representation are welcome, the volume is arguably underwhelming.”

The surveys for the study and industry consultation by Screen Australia revealed an “almost universal preference for authentic representations of diversity rather than mandated controls like a quota system”.

“We don’t want tokenism, but we don’t want inaction either. Now we have the numbers, we need to work out a path towards diversity on screens together that is genuine, lasting and both creatively and commercially fulfilling,” Mason said.

You can read ‘Seeing Ourselves: Reflections on Diversity in Australian TV Drama’ here.

This article was first published on The Daily Review.


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