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Is change really in the air for TV diversity?

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08 December 2014

Are we at a historic tipping point in the long and often shameful history of diversity in the television industry?

Judging by a slew of initiatives announced in recent months by the BBC, ITV, Sky and the BFI, there is a sense that times might be changing for black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) workers in the creative industries. (see below for full details).

Of course, things could hardly get any worse. BAMEs make up 14% of the total UK population, but just 5.4% of the creative industries, according to Creative Skillset’s most recent census.  That’s down from 6.7% in 2009.

The dire figures published by Creative Skillset, as well as passionate interventions by Lenny Henry and government support from Culture Secretary Ed Vaizey, have sparked a round of industry activity on diversity.

Veteran diversity campaigners are confident that real change is the air. “I’m telling you, from my experience, this is the most exciting time we have had dealing with this issue…things are changing,” said Baroness Floella Benjamin, who has worked in TV as a presenter, producer and regulator, speaking at an RTS debate on diversity at the House of Commons last month.

Others are more cautious, though. Speaking at a session devoted to diversity at Televisual’s Factual Festival last month Simon Albury, chair of the Campaign for Broadcasting Equality, said there had never been more progress. He added, “Now the new initiatives are great, but they have been overspun and they are far from adequate. There’s much more that needs to be done, but a start has been made.”

Others fear the diversity issue will take a generation to sort, because the TV industry is so deeply nepotistic and continually hires from within a narrow talent pool. It’s self perpetuating too, with an intern culture that favours white middle class kids who can afford to work for free in London.

Albury says that without sustained, external political pressure the broadcasting, film and creative industries cannot be trusted to advance diversity.

Industry execs say that this political pressure has been applied effectively by Vaizey. The Culture Secretary noted, at last month’s RTS event, that Sky’s diversity targets are the most ambitious in the UK industry. Other broadcasters, he added, “could do better”.

Vaizey described ITV’s proposals as “slightly more opaque” and said some regard the BBC proposals as “very unambitious” and that there was “absolutely no doubt at all that diversity will be at the heart of” discussions when Charter renewal kicks off after May 2015’s election. He said he awaited C4’s proposals, due to be published in January “with eager anticipation.”

Vaizey has steered clear of backing quotas and legislation to tackle the issue, as called for by Lenny Henry. But he has pledged not to let the issue fall of the political agenda. If nothing happens, he warned that broadcasters should be “wary of what policiticans might come back with.”

Certainly, it appears that broadcasters genuinely want change – but some are moving faster than others.

Sky has been lauded by many for setting aggressive targets both onscreen and offscreen (see below).

Sky director of entertainment Stuart Murphy says the decision is as much a business opportunity as an ethical issue.  “We want to reflect the world we’re in,” he says, adding: “If we don’t get viewers and subscribers, we go out of business. The fact that 14% of Britain is non-white is a total commercial opportunity for us firstly to make sure 20% of people on screen are non-white by the end of the next calendar year.”

Murphy believes indies should have no trouble hitting the target. “If an indie comes to me and says that out of 60m people (in the UK) and an enormous media industry that's not just on TV, but in film and on the internet, that one of their six senior people can't be non-white, I would not think they're telling the truth, or they have not worked hard enough.”

The BBC, meanwhile, is accused by Albury of “placing its own BAME targets in the long grass, beyond licence renewal, in 2017.”

“The BBC has provided us with a torrent of warm words and some interesting initiatives, but the truth is, that the BBC has failed to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to BAME employment,” says Albury. He argues that the £2.1m set aside for the Diversity Creative Talent Fund is not enough. “When the BBC wanted to drive regional production, it ring fenced money, where it matters. The result was an increase in regional production by 400%.

The BBC’s commissioning editor for religion Aaquil Ahmed defends the corporation’s diversity initiatives, pointing out that its workforce has more than the double BAME staff than the industry average of 5%.

He says progress is happening, but that “it can often take time and there are often other people or things that have priority as well.”

Channel 4’s deputy creative director Ralph Lee says the whole industry has really come together to tackle the issue as never before.  “In the next two or three years, if we get it right, we could bring about lasting change in the industry.”

He adds that sorting diversity is not a quick fix though, and says C4 will publish its guidelines in January after consultation with its indie suppliers. “We have to consult them, and we also have to put in place training and guidance that will help them bring about the change, not just say there’s the problem, there’s the target, over to you.”

In particular, C4 and others are concerned about the legality of implementing targets to boost diversity. The Equalities Act is seen, ironically, as a barrier to positive change because it prohibits employers from making hiring decisions based on ethnicity.

Broadcasters are now asking politicians to provide guidance for how they can navigate the Equalities Act to lawfully implement positive action.

In the meantime others want money, not just targets, to sort out the problem. Simone Pennant of the TV Collective says: “We’ve been having this conversation for years and years and years…we’ve had various different schemes and initiatives. What we need is some money to jump start an industry.” She backs a significant ring fenced fund for BAME production companies, as outlined in the Lenny Henry plan.

Pennant worries that the momentum of recent months could peter out, as it has done in the past. “There’s a real concern that we’re going to continually have this conversation,” she says. And that could be disastrous for the industry too. “What’s happened is [BAME] people are no longer looking at the broadcasters to get their content away. They’re recognising that there's digital, there’s online, there’s various different places. The world is getting smaller.”

Diversity Timeline

July 2013: Creative Skillset releases industry workforce survey, showing that the participation of black, Asian and minority ethnic workers in the creative media is down from 6.7% to 5.4%.

November 2013: Oona King chairs Diversify event at Bafta, a one day forum on diversity launched in response to Creative Skillset figures. Speakers include Lenny Henry, Gurinder Chadha, Amma Asante, Pat Young, Kwame Kwei-Armah and Danny Cohen.

January 2014: Culture minister Ed Vaizey hosts diversity summit for UK creative industries. 30 senior execs attend the two hour meeting, where Lenny Henry calls on broadcasters to ringfence money to increase BAME people on screen and behind the scenes. His proposals are dubbed ‘the Henry plan’

March 2014: Lenny Henry delivers the prestigious annual Bafta television lecture, calling for new legislation to boost diversity.

June 2014: BBC director general Tony Hall announces package of measures to boost diversity, including a £2.1m Diversity Creative Talent Fund, a senior leadership training programme for six execs from BAME backgrounds, and a new Independent Diversity Action Group to be chaired by the DG. Existing targets are for on-air BAME portrayal to increase from 10.4% to 15% by 2017 and off air from 8.3% to 10% in 2017 and 15% by 2020.

July 2014:
BFI says UK film productions that receive money from its Film Fund must adhere to new diversity quotas. The BFI’s ‘three ticks’ assessment requires films to demonstrate commitment across three areas: screen diversity, off screen diversity and employment opportunities.

August 2014: Sky announces targets to improve BAME representation. By the end of 2015, all brand new, non-returning shows on Sky entertainment channels will have people from BAME backgrounds in at least 20% of significant on-screen roles. All original programmes will have someone with BAME background in at lest one senior production role. 20% of writers on all shows will be from BAME backgrounds.

November 2014: ITV director of television Peter Fincham writes to producers to launch its Social Partnership programming, asking them to make sure programmes visually reflect the diverse make up of Britain and to think about broadening the diversity of their workforce.

November 2014: C4 reveals that it is on the brink of revealing its diversity initiative to be launched in January. Commissioners will be expected to meet clear diversity objectives, with their bonuses linked to performance on the issue.

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