“Let’s just get it done”: Is Diversity improving on Australian TV?

4 years after networks all pledged to improve Diversity, what has been achieved? Benjamin Law discusses.

In 2017 Australian TV networks joined the Screen Diversity Inclusion Network, pledging to promote diversity both on screen and behind the camera.

ABC, SBS, 10, Seven, Nine, 10 and Foxtel were signatories to a Charter seeking to “reflect the diversity of Australian society at every level of our workforce, by gender, age, race, sexual orientation, nationality, religion and disability or geographic location, both in our employees and the stories we tell.”

But 4 years on 10 copped claims of racism on Neighbours by actor Shareena Clanton, Nine was criticised for an “all-white” vaccination promo, Seven News has come under fire over highlighting “black” football players and Foxtel has quit the group altogether.

Is Australian TV making any progress and how is this being measured?

Former SDIN Co-Chair Benjamin Law, who along with Jo Dillon recently handed over the reins to Kelrick Martin and Michelle Cheng, spoke to TV Tonight about web app The Everyone Project, which launched in December.

This asks new productions to submit data to help paint a picture of staff demographics on sex, age, gender, cultural / linguistic background, plus LBTQI, First Nations and disability status. Cast and crew are invited to complete a survey with the data and the user is given the choice to remain anonymous. Over time SDIN hopes to build up a tapestry of those who are making TV, uncover progress and discover where change is slow.

“It will give us really valuable data to see how we’re tracking and what we can improve on,” Law explains.

“We’ll have a really good snapshot of where we are.”

“I’m sure after the first year, we’ll have a really good snapshot of where we are. After 5 years we can actually see patterns. After 10 years we’ll see trends.

“I think the longer The Everyone Project runs, and I hope that it runs in perpetuity, we’re going to see the value because then everyone can have the same conversation. The ABC or SBS might be able to have their own internal conversations, but now we can have an Australian industry conversation that’s ongoing and nuanced, and complements the data that Screen Australia’s already harvesting.”

It isn’t mandatory for every new show to submit information but it is already standard practice for projects funded through state and federal bodies such as Screen Australia, Film Victoria and Create NSW.

As well as TV networks, SDIN members also include Free TV Australia, the Australian Film Television & Radio School, Screen Producers Australia, the Australian Directors Guild, and the Media RING.

Law believes the overwhelming sentiment both from industry and audiences is to get on with the changes needed to better reflect Australia’s multicultural mix in the screen sector.

“I think we’re beyond the question of whether we want diversity and whether we want a more inclusive industry, on screen and behind the camera. I feel like the overwhelming sentiment both from industry and audiences is: ‘we know we want it, let’s just get it done.’

“For a really long time, there were parts of the industry that were delaying all these kinds of strawman arguments about ‘Does it get in the way of meritocracy? (Shouldn’t) the best person get the job?'” he continues.

“Now, I think we’re having a more sophisticated conversation”

“Now, I think we’re having a more sophisticated conversation about ‘Who’s missing from the picture? Who has been structurally and traditionally excluded from participating and how can we make sure we get people in the picture, whether it’s behind the scenes or in front of cameras?’

“So that’s a good thing.”

But he acknowledges that sometimes there are those still getting it wrong.

“The good thing out of this is the willingness to listen to those stories and to take them seriously.”

“For instance with Neighbours, people have now been reflecting and realising, the way they were treated on a set doesn’t sit well with them, or it never sat well and they want to share their story. These are really painful stories and lessons. But the good thing out of this is the willingness to listen to those stories and to take them seriously.”

Law is encouraged Fremantle has hired an Indigenous consultancy firm, Campfire X, to review its protocols.

“When they’re actually hiring people from First Nations consultancy industries to look into an audit of systems, that’s a shining example of good practice, and one that others can follow. That’s what’s changed,” he remarks.

“I think what Neighbours was really good at was saying, ‘Fair enough, let’s do something about it.’ They weren’t going to be defensive. They weren’t going to put the heat back on the actors speaking out, either, because that’s been done in the past before. They got on with it.”

Elsewhere, while Nine’s community campaign on vaccinations was a positive step, it became an ‘own goal’ for its “all white” casting of personalities.

Law believes it spoke to a wider issue within the network.

“The commercial’s one thing, but I think it’s reflected on something that’s more structural and needs to be addressed in an ongoing and meaningful way. Brooke Boney can’t be the sole face of First Nations people for that network,” he insists.

“People didn’t see what was staring everyone else in the face.”

“When commercials or campaigns are made, it involves many, many people behind the scenes, in front of camera, and people signing-off things. The fact that it got through shows that there is a whole gauntlet that people had to run through … people didn’t see what was staring everyone else in the face. That’s the worrying thing to me. That it could get past so many checks and balances.”

While there are shows on all networks that demonstrate change –MasterChef Australia, The Unusual Suspects, Big Brother, Amazing Grace, Wakefield, The Amazing Race, Hardball, Living Black, Australian Ninja Warrior to name a few- others are slow to embrace change.

Farmer Wants a Wife is dominated by cookie-cutter singles, with no female or same-sex farmers. Seven indicated the women were all chosen by their single farmers and declined to comment on casting further, despite being a signatory to the SDIN Charter.

Law says progress takes time and while public broadcasters have made diversity a priority, he hopes commercial networks will see the economic benefit of better reflecting their audience.

“It doesn’t have to be just a conversation about community duty and altruism, but an opportunity, especially when Australian TV’s struggling because of competition. People want to see themselves and there are still nascent markets and demographics that haven’t been tapped into.”

“You don’t have the excuse of saying ‘Where are they?'”

Following on from NAIDOC Week, he also has a direct message for those who could be more inclusive of First Nations talent.

“We have literally an entire network of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders presenters on air constantly, through NITV. They are all broadcast-ready. You don’t have the excuse of saying ‘Where are they?’ They are literally on the television around the clock.”

He adds, “Look at News Breakfast and Tony Armstrong. You cannot tell me that he does not deserve that position.

“Look at how audiences have responded already. He’s built such an audience and a cult following and thirst amongst certain demographics of people who just love him as eye candy, as well!”

The Screen Diversity Inclusion Network, now under co-chairs Kelrick Martin and Michelle Cheng, is continuing to take stock of data through The Everyone Project, which is one of its advocacy initiatives.

“SDIN doesn’t tell its members how to do things or how to get to something,” says Law. “When we want to roll out something like The Everyone Project, it’s all hands on deck, obviously. But in terms of diversity and how we get there, I am confident that every member is actively thinking about it.”

7 Responses

  1. RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under was woeful. Only 2 POC drag queens out of 10, and both eliminated within first 3 episodes. They bring back a white drag queen (second eliminated) to the show in 4th episode without an explanation and they didn’t even asked both POC drag queens to come back. I suspect the decision was a producer’s, not RuPaul’s.

  2. I’m sorry I have to take umbridge with Big Brother being used as an example of a show that’s doing diversity right. In week 1 of the 2020 series. 3 POCs left in the first week. Also both the 2020 and 2021 series had 5 Pocs out of a cast of 20 and 26. That is hardly representative of a diverse Australia when compared to Masterchef or Amazing Race.

  3. There’s definitely a demographic or target audience difference for shows like Farmer Wants A Wife. Most regional and rural towns and communities where most of the farms are would usually not be as culturally diverse compared with places closer to the big cities, especially for foreign heritage or background casting. It naturally may not be as diverse as MasterChef just on the industry or location demographics. Like Landline isn’t overly diverse except for the seldom and rare migrant farmer, 2nd generation migrant family farmers or the occasional interview with an agricultural scientist that is probably more city based.

    Despite the negative stories about workplace discrimination recently, I think there has been a noticeable increase in diversity on television. It may also indicate that shows like Farmer Wants A Wife may have to make more effort to have diverse casting.

  4. Forcing creatives to always include age, gender, LBTQI, First Nations and disability status into their projects – that’s neither progressive nor sophisticated. That’s fascism.

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