Is Australian TV diverse enough? It depends who you ask, and what you watch, and possibly whether you like Waleed Aly or not. Compared with fifty years ago – or even twenty – we can see a much greater variety of faces and stories on our screens. Redfern Now, Black Comedy, The Family Law, Here Come the Habibs, the upcoming Cleverman – there’s a lengthening roll call of programs about, and starring, non-white Australians.
But there is a noticeable division between those shows that follow the traditional “white Australia” template, and those shows that present the “multicultural perspective”. Anyone who spends any time in a modern Australian town or city can’t help but notice that Erinsborough and Summer Bay seem to be situated either in a bizarre foreign country, or the 1930s. From a viewing perspective, the goal of efforts to increase diversity can be boiled down to this: we want the places people live in on TV to look like the places we live in in real life.
And yet, as we puzzle over how to make our dramas and comedies look as diverse as our lives, there is one sector of TV that is way ahead of the game: reality.
Say what you like about reality television – and pretty much everyone does, loudly and at length – but if it lags behind scripted entertainment in terms of art, social value, emotional truth and spiritual uplift, it has for some time been beating its more highbrow cousin genre into a cocked hat when it comes to assembling casts reflective of the nation.
Australia has just been represented at Eurovision by Korean-born X Factor star Dami Im. Last year our chosen champion was Malaysian-born Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian, and the year before that Indigenous/Indonesian-Australian Idol runner-up Jessica Mauboy was a guest performer at the Eurovision final. As far as international song contests go, at least, the face we present to the world is one that is simultaneously non-white and sourced from reality TV.
And this isn’t surprising when you look at the makeup of the average reality TV cast. In the first season of culinary juggernaut Masterchef, Malaysian-Australian Poh Ling Yeow was runner-up, and has gone on to be one of the most successful and visible reality alumni in this country (ahem… partly due to her fantastic show on SBS Poh & Co.). Masterchef season two was won by half-Malaysian Adam Liaw, now also a prominent name in the celebrity cooking scene (again, also on SBS in Destination Flavour Scandinavia).
Other Masterchef stars have included Saudi-born Muslim Amina Elshafei, Lebanese-Australian Samira El Khafir, Indonesian-Australian Reynold Poernomo, and myriad others from every corner of the globe. Of the current series’ top 24 contestants, 13 have some non-Anglo ancestry.
The latest season of the even more popular My Kitchen Rules was won by Indonesian sisters Tasia and Gracia Seger, who along the way knocked off rivals with ancestries traceable to Italy, Poland, Montenegro and Malta, among others. Past seasons have seen contestants with backgrounds from India, China, Greece, Bangladesh and New Zealand.
And it’s not just cooking shows. The aforementioned singing contests produced not only Sebastian, Im and Mauboy, but stars – of varying longevity – such as Casey Donovan, Cyrus Villanueva and Paulini Curuenavuli. The second Bachelor was of African-American heritage, and there was always more variety in Big Brother’s cast than in anything actually happening in the house.
The question is: why is reality TV so much better at diversity than drama or comedy? What makes that genre, so despised by serious connoisseurs of the medium, so progressive in this one area?
It’s easy to know who’s who
There are various theories: one is that having a range of ethnicities on a reality show simply makes it easier to differentiate one contestant from another. On a show like Masterchef, where the first month or so of every season is a whirlwind of “who’s that?” and “were they on the show before?” This has a certain ring of authenticity – and if you’ve ever tuned in to Neighbours and found yourself quite unable to tell which beautiful, toned young fashion model is which, you can only wish that soapie producers would pick up on the policy.
A variety of backstories makes for interesting TV
But assuming there’s more to it than simple visual differentiation, there is also the matter of characterisation. Perhaps the reality contestant’s greatest weapon is the backstory, and producers are always on the lookout for particularly fascinating or tearjerking ones.
Picking a cast from various cultural backgrounds makes it more likely that each contestant’s backstory won’t be a facsimile of the last. On a cooking show there is the bonus that different backgrounds means different “specialties”, and different cuisines to showcase.
They’re looking for characters, not trying to fit a mould
There could be an element of basic freedom in there too. Every reality producer will tell you that what they look for are “characters” – people who can intrigue, fascinate or even infuriate, as long as they hold the public’s interest.
A producer of a scripted series isn’t looking for characters – the characters have already been created for them, what they’re looking for is someone to fit the description on the page. Without writers moulding their characters in their own image, producers are free to cast without preconceptions. Furthermore, the genre of reality is still young enough that the great bulk of history, all those decades of establishing what TV stars “should” look like, doesn’t weigh it down.
Are reality producers smarter than their counterparts in the scripted genres? They seem more attuned to audience desire for relatability, to viewers who’d like to see something of their own experience in the shows they watch. But then, maybe it’s just that relatability is a more urgent concern for a reality show. Other shows have stories, action, adventure, jokes to capture the imagination: reality lives or dies on its casting.
Or maybe it’s just a simple numbers game: applicants for reality TV come from all kinds of backgrounds, and they get through in numbers proportional to the applications.
There’s a little truth in all these explanations – the diversity of reality is a mixture of open-mindedness, business savvy and happenstance. But it seems certain that reality TV, more than any other genre, is capable of looking at Australia in the 21st century and seeing it as unremarkable enough to show honestly on screen. If all the other genres can learn to do the same, we might reach a point where we can go back to not caring about the Logies. The way it should be.