Small screen, big gains

16 February 2017

The signs are good for increasing diversity on TV (if you know where to look)

Pressure has been piling up on UK broadcasters in recent years to better represent the diverse reality we live in.

Our own on-going work to address BAME under-representation at senior levels at the BBC, for example, came in response to high-profile criticism from the likes of Lenny Henry over the 31% decline in BAME workers in the UK TV industry between 2006 and 2012.

On screen, ageism is an issue that continues to disproportionately affect women: despite 36% of women in the UK being over 50, only 23% of women on TV (and 18% of regular on-screen TV presenters) fall in this age bracket. As a result, men are twice as likely to appear on screen at prime-time as women.

 

Project Diamond
Credit: Acteon Communication and Learning.

 

But the signs are there. In 2015 the five major UK broadcasters – BBC, Channel 4, ITV, Sky and Channel 5/Viacom – created Diamond, an industry-wide system for Diversity Analysis Monitoring Data, designed “to reflect audiences, enhance creativity and increase world-class programming”.

Diamond’s diversity data monitoring will look at both ‘Actual’ diversity on a given TV project, on-screen and behind the camera, and how audiences ‘Perceive’ the diversity of the final product. The data itself will be captured across six characteristics: Age, Disability, Ethnicity, Gender, Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation. These match up with six of the nine characteristics protected under the Equality Act.

 

The Golden Age of Television – A New Age for Diversity?

As viewers, we’re lucky enough to be living in the Golden Age of Television. Gone are the days of ‘To Be Continued’ cliffhangers and the jangling wait for next week’s episode. The rise of online providers has opened up an overwhelming array of high-quality global content for us to watch whenever we please. Even airlines – once the ultimate purveyors of the exclusive and the exotic – are cottoning on to the fact that their on-board entertainment systems now pale in comparison to their passengers’ own phones, tablets and laptops. And with the shackles of traditional scheduling off, this trend is also ushering in a New Age for Diversity.

 

TV Diversity Kima Greggs in The Wire
Sonja Sohn in The Wire. Credit: HBO.

 

I’m sure entire essays have been written about the pioneering on-screen portrayals of diversity in HBO’s crime drama and box-set sensation The Wire (2002-08). For me at least, this was the first time I’d seen characters with multiple levels of diversity, and whose multiple levels of diversity weren’t their defining factor. Kima Greggs is a ‘street police’ who happens to be a woman, played by the daughter (Sonja Sohn) of an African-American father and Korean mother, whose relationships happen to be with the same sex. Omar Little, played by Michael K. Williams, is a Black hold-up artist of city-wide notoriety, whose first name is enough to put fear in the hearts of men. He’s also gay. In 2008, President Obama named Omar as his favourite character in his favourite TV show, a winning endorsement if ever there was one. No tokens here, then.

More recently, one area big gains are being made is in the world of comedy. Go back to the mid-90s, when Friends ruled the world, and everything now looks so warm, cosy and very, very unrepresentative of real life. Those inexplicable Greenwich Village apartments. The sitcom sets and endless coffee bill. The lesbian jokes. These days we use it as comedy for distraction, a reminder of simpler times, and it works.

In the post-9/11 era, however, the lines between screen and reality are becoming more and more blurred. Watch Curb Your Enthusiasm (2001-) and you’ll see arch-comedian Larry David playing arch-comedian Larry David in a blown-up, improvised version of his life in LA. Watch Louie (2010-) and you’ll see real-life divorced father-of-two New York stand-up comic Louis CK playing a stand-up comic who’s divorced with two kids, in New York. And in doing so, Louie (and Louis) forces us to take long hard looks at society’s malfunctions and inequities. If people are laughing, as they say, they’re listening.

 

Comedy is the perfect platform for advancing the diversity agenda

Since the days of yore, comedy’s been used as a social corrective. Today’s comedians are now riffing on and exploring multi-tier diversity, making us laugh along the way. In Master of None (2015-), co-writer Aziz Ansari stars as an actor and American son of Indian parents, desperate for a role that isn’t a shop owner or terror suspect. And with episodes like ‘Indians on TV’, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ and ‘Old People’, the show hits home its point around racial inequality, the gender gap and ageism in a compelling, accessible and non-aggressive way.

 

TV Diversity Master of None
Aziz Ansari in Master of None. Credit: K.C. Bailey/Netflix.

 

TV comedy is also making real waves when it comes to discussions of mental health and wellbeing. In drama, stories around depression and anxiety are still few and far between. Even the otherwise acclaimed US drama Friday Night Lights (2006-11) jettisoned a brave storyline about bipolar disorder without any explanation.

But comedy is taking on the challenge. BBC Three recently filmed and screened a live stand-up show by Luisa Omielan called ‘What Would Beyonce Do?!’, which features a heart-rending sequence all about her younger brother’s suicide attempt after an ignored battle with depression. Maybe comedy works as therapy for the teller, but it’s also a coping mechanism for the told – for anyone affected in a similar way. And surely the fact that the biggest killer of UK men under 45 is being talked about openly and honestly on our screens can only be a good thing.

Last but not least, an experiment. Try typing the word ‘please’ into Google and see what the first suggestion is. Please Like Me (2013-16) is an Australian sitcom, created by and starring Josh Thomas. Josh is gay, but Will & Grace this isn’t. Past the pilot episode, the lead character’s sexuality is barely touched on. It’s not the joke. It’s normal and therefore normalising. All surprising enough for a country with well-documented conflicts around homophobia and same-sex marriage. But the show also gives great weight to Josh’s mum Rose (Debra Lawrance) and her diagnosis with manic depression. To even touch on the subject is bold; to do so as the basis for comedy (and succeed) is truly ground-breaking, and deserving of as wide an audience as possible.

 

TV Diversity Josh Thomas in Please Like Me
Josh Thomas in Please Like Me. Credit: ABC.

 

Here’s the rub. At the moment, in the UK at least, this sort of on-screen diversity comes at a premium. You’ll need Sky Atlantic to watch HBO. Netflix for Master of None. Amazon Prime for Please Like Me. All require monthly subscriptions. The danger is that diversity-embracing shows get cut off from the mainstream, consumed only by the affluent liberal audiences who already agree with their message. The next challenge, then, is to break out of this echo chamber and push diversity into the terrestrial primetime. If we look to film, and the promising swing away from #SoWhite monotony in this year’s Oscar nominations, more big gains are definitely there for the taking.