Why Screen Australia’s report is so important.
By
Michael Ebeid

24 Aug 2016 - 12:09 PM  UPDATED 24 Aug 2016 - 3:32 PM

“Put more beautiful people of colour on TV and connect viewers in ways which transcend race and unite us.”

A sentiment so elegantly expressed by Miranda Tapsell at the 2015 TV Week Logie Awards and echoed further by Waleed Ali in his Gold Logie speech this year. It’s not a new conversation but one that has increasing presence in the Australian media – and so it should.

Screen Australia’s findings today into cultural diversity, disability and LGBTQI in Australian television drama are timely. Whilst the research indicates some positive progress, it reinforces the growing national discussion about a lack of diversity in media and the need for change. We still have a long way to go if we want to truly reflect Australia.

As media organisations in a country where over a quarter of our population was born overseas, we have a responsibility to our audiences to represent our nation’s diversity. It's also just good business. But we must move past our consideration of diversity in its simplest form and embrace its full spectrum – from ethnicities, cultures, sexual identities and disabilities, through to the presentation of varied ideas and perspectives.

Our sector has no doubt made inroads and certainly at SBS our intent is to position ‘difference,’ in a positive way, at the forefront of what we do. However, when I look at Australia’s media offering, and those afforded the opportunity to work in our sector, I feel the weight of the changes we still need to make.

We still have a long way to go if we want to truly reflect Australia.

Operating in a competitive media environment, where we all need to attract audiences and create a commercial return is a challenge in itself. It is also essential that programs resonate with all Australian audiences, otherwise how do we maintain our relevance?

For over 40 years, driving cultural understanding and promoting the benefits of diversity through our programs has been at the heart of SBS. We are motivated by our belief that connecting communities and inspiring greater understanding can shift perceptions of ‘difference’ and normalise diversity within our society: The Family Law, The Principal, Deep Water and First Contact are programs to which diverse Australia can relate.

Nearly three quarters of actors surveyed revealed their experiences differed between Australia and overseas, noting more “colour-blind casting” abroad. We have to ask ourselves whether we are creating a sustainable and competitive domestic environment to grow diverse media talent, on and off screen.

It is however heartening to see we’ve made progress in Indigenous representation, with five per cent of main characters, Indigenous.

It is however heartening to see we’ve made progress in Indigenous representation, with five per cent of main characters, Indigenous. Launching NITV as a free-to-air television channel has been instrumental to the continued growth of the Indigenous production sector and the sharing of stories created by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Other network series’ Redfern Now and Love Child are great examples of progression of Indigenous actors in mainstream television, but we can all still do more. 

As a sector, we also need to address the lack of opportunity for actors with disabilities. Storytelling serves to break down stigmas in society and we must look to be actively making decisions that increase disability representation in our programs and our creative workforce. 

At SBS, diversity is much more than a buzzword; it’s our way of operating. While the diversity of programs reflect our purpose; we strive to reflect diversity in all its forms: 42 per cent of SBS employees are from a non-English speaking background, 48 per cent were born overseas and 13 per cent identify as LGBTQI, which places SBS above national diversity measures, but more importantly, this diversity guides our content. 

[SBS is] working on a new program to provide opportunities for “behind-the-camera” talent from diverse backgrounds in SBS productions, with our independent production partners.

Four per cent of SBS employees are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and 1.1 per cent of employees have a permanent disability, the latter still severely underrepresented in the media as the Screen Australia research shows.  

We need to do better, because without this diversity in our media organisations, we can't expect tangible change to the diversity of our creative output. SBS is pursuing ongoing improvements to our commissioning and production frameworks, together with strategies to even further diversify our organisation. We are also working on a new program to provide opportunities for “behind-the-camera” talent from diverse backgrounds in SBS productions, with our independent production partners.

Authenticity is the most important thing in storytelling and the engagement of creatives from diverse backgrounds can only enhance the richness of our Australian stories. We need to actively tackle barriers to diversity both on and off screen to create a future industry that is properly representative of our people, communities and cultures. This is the collective responsibility of policy makers and program makers.