Our TV screens don't reflect us - New Canadian Media

Our TV screens don’t reflect us

Film and mainstream television programming in Canada does not reflect its cultural diversity and no serious efforts are afoot to make our screens “look and sound like its audience.” That is the stark conclusion of…

Film and mainstream television programming in Canada does not reflect its cultural diversity and no serious efforts are afoot to make our screens “look and sound like its audience.”

That is the stark conclusion of a recent research report initiated by Professor Charles Davis of Ryerson university’s RTA School of Media.

Co-authored by Paul de Silva, a film and TV producer and a doctoral student in the Communications and Culture Program at Ryerson and Co-director of the International Diaspora Film Festival, and Jeremy Shtern, a University of Ottawa communication professor, the report found that even in our publicly-funded and mandated broadcast industry, minority media professionals face a host of unique structural and cultural obstacles.

These barriers ultimately affect the stories and images seen on Canadian screens and the very identity of the country, the authors said. Under threat is the integrity of a growing and powerful economic and cultural sector that shapes the aspirations of youth and newcomers, and contributes to social cohesion, says the report and action plan of the Roundtable on Cultural Diversity in the Toronto Screen Media Production Industry.

The accurate portrayal of our increasing diverse society is critical to our sense of belonging and inclusion, said de Silva. As he put it, way before our own Marshall McLuhan pointed out the importance of the role television storytelling has in shaping both our collective and personal identity, the ancient Greek philosopher Plato had phrased it more succinctly:  “Those who control the stories, control society.”

“Currently, research shows there is less than one per cent representation of visible minorities in senior management positions involved with program decision-making at the CBC. This is particularly troubling as this lack of diversity at senior decision-making levels at one of our key cultural institutions is contrary to long-standing diversity policies in hiring at the CBC and impacts on both the content of the programming and the culture of the organization, which is mandated by the Canadian Broadcast Act to represent the multicultural reality of Canada on screen and in its employment practices, and is primarily supported by Public funds,” de Silva told New Canadian Media yesterday.

Lack of ethnic diversity

Another research, co-authored by Davis with Michael Coutanche and released this month, also reveals a lack of ethnic diversity in the industry.

The 2012 Report on Canadian Screenwriters says visible minorities are under-represented.  Only 4.1 per cent of screenwriters who responded to the survey are visible minorities – about one-quarter of the representation of minorities in Canada’s overall population.

They have less industry experience than white screenwriters and 36 per cent of them report having experienced occupational discrimination due to their ethnic or racial background, the report said.

When asked to elaborate on discrimination, one screenwriter referred to being “pigeon-holed because of my gender or ethnicity and deemed not appropriate for certain … jobs.” Another said: “I think gender and ethnicity has only helped me get jobs. I think gender can play a role once you’re in a [staff writer’s] room and I think there are a lot more barriers to overcome once you’re on the job …”

Diversity Smokescreens

The roundtable research found that the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission’s (CRTC) strategy to increase minority participation in screen media is not enough. Dr Rita Shelton Deverell, a veteran broadcaster and educator, has said that many broadcasters construct “diversity smokescreens” by organizing diversity “workshops and training initiatives”, and creating short term internships and mentorships. These are poor substitutes for more substantive steps that would create meaningful jobs for people of colour in the screen media industry, she said.

A key reason for the apathy appears to be the lack of clear and transparent requirements for the representation of cultural diversity, the research said. As a former broadcast and media fund executive explained at the roundtable, “without specific requirements and targets from the CRTC or from senior management, and no consistent measurement, monitoring and enforcement practices in place, it is left up to the goodwill and personal commitment of the commissioning executives to ensure there is cultural diversity in the programming.”

In 2002, the CRTC charged the Canadian Association of Broadcasters to conduct a Task Force on Diversity, which did not include the CBC, and examined issues dealing primarily with on screen representation.  The Task Force laudably did bring some attention to this issue and there has been an increased presence of racially diverse individuals in the television news area, particularly in Toronto.

These increased “on screen” presence however tends to provide a false image of the media’s actual diversity. It does not address the issue of employment equity in the film and television production industry or of prime time television storytelling, which is by far the most watched, and financially rewarding for its creators, as well as being the most influential genre of television in terms of messaging of identity and inclusion.

Research shows there is currently not a single person from a racially diverse background in any senior management level responsible for television production in mainstream screen based media institutions, including the CBC, or in federal funding agencies – a shocking fact in itself.

Troubling track record

This is even more troubling when it comes to the CBC, as it is primarily funded by Canadian taxpayers and has very specific mandates in this area. This has occurred in spite of several “diversity initiatives” over the past 30 years.

Along with other recommendations, the report says that an organization similar to the Cultural Diversity Network in Britain would help provide a voice to those affected by this issue and make the required changes.

Research undertaken recently in Britain has indicated that without inclusive reflection on television, immigrant communities will seek programming from their “home” countries and essentially bypass local and national media with both short and long term effects on the economy, as well as on issues of equity, inclusion, national identity and social cohesion. Several initiatives undertaken by the private broadcasting companies and the public broadcasters to address this issue have had very positive results.

Strong business case

In the U.S., where film and television programming is primarily driven by market factors, as a result of pressure from organizations such as the NAACP and various unions and advocacy groups, most U.S. television networks have appointed senior level executives with responsibilities for instituting diversity programs for both in-house and independent productions, with specific targets and goals.

In Canada itself, the example of the APTN (The Aboriginal People’s Television Network) is worth noting. The network was launched in 1999 to serve the specific needs of the First Nations communities and provide opportunities for creative artists from those communities.

A 2006 application, made by Canada One television to the CRTC for a television channel with a strong cultural diversity focus similar to APTN, was rejected. The CRTC said existing regulations would ensure that cultural diversity would be adequately reflected in Canadian television. The proposal, in which de Silva was a partner, had specified the annual independent programming budget designated for productions that would have key creative personnel from visible minority communities.

Stories by writers and producers from racially diverse communities, if given the resources to tell them in a consistent way and at a quality level now expected by the Canadian public, will undoubtedly attract audiences from these communities and also build new ones.

As the research suggests, a strong business case itself is enough for increasing the diversity of Canadian screen content. But societal goals of equity and inclusion and a sense of belonging for all Canadians regardless of race, colour or ethnicity need to be met for the benefit of society as a whole.  – New Canadian Media

Editor’s Note – Some of the opinions expressed in this article attributed to Paul de Silva were first published in Media Development 1/2013, the international quarterly journal of the World Association for Christian Communication (WACC).

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