Changing the Face of Factual

According to Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, the titular anchorman from the '70s (as portayed by Will Ferrell) believed diversity was defined as, 'An old, old wooden ship, used in the civil war era.' Actually, diversity, as it's seen today, is a broad concept. It encompasses people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, females and people above 60 years old.
March 1, 2010

According to Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, the titular anchorman from the ’70s (as portayed by Will Ferrell) believed diversity was defined as, ‘An old, old wooden ship, used in the civil war era.’ Actually, diversity, as it’s seen today, is a broad concept. It encompasses people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, females and people above 60 years old. Increasingly in TV, there is movement to create a diverse corporate world, which will hopefully create a trickledown effect of diverse representations of both cast and crew.

The UK has taken a proactive approach in its quest for TV diversity. The Cultural Diversity Network (CDN) works with its over 200 members to ensure there is fair representation of ethnic minorities on screen and in the UK broadcasting industry. The CDN has drawn up a pledge for production companies and broadcasters alike to commit to various actions including recruiting or training people with disabilities; funding additional training for people from under-represented groups to make the difficult jump from AP to producer/director or producer/director to series producer and encouraging the casting of diverse people from the outset of a project.

According to the CDN, broadcasters BBC , Channel 4, Sky and ITV expect its suppliers and production partners to sign up to the pledge. The BBC’s senior diversity executive, Sue Caro, says via e-mail that the BBC has signed up to the CDN Diversity Pledge for both in-house and independent productions. BBC Vision is also involved with the CDN mentoring scheme and the BBC’s in-house Mentoring and Development Program.

‘Many senior managers now have specific diversity objectives and have to report on progress,’ says Caro. ‘There are the BME (black and minority ethnic) staff targets – 12.5% of all BBC staff and seven percent of senior management to be met by 2012.’

The Beeb also has its own corporate diversity strategy and BBC Vision has a Vision Diversity Action Plan, of which progress is reported on a quarterly basis to the Diversity Board, chaired by BBC director-general Mark Thompson.

Mary FitzPatrick was until recently the BBC’s editorial director for diversity, and had directed and produced programming for the BBC before moving into that role. She’s now the head of diversity for the UK Film Council. While she was with the BBC, she told realscreen that she still sees challenges with proper representation in factual because of time, effort and money. ‘Initially it can take longer and involve more effort to source diverse contributors [which] can be problematic when there are always pressures on budgets,’ she says. ‘It is achievable and becomes less labor intensive as production teams themselves become more diverse and more culturally adept.’

At Channel 4, diversity and talent manager Ade Rawcliffe makes sure that the public network features alternative voices. ‘The British society is changing and we need to feel that we’re in contact with that,’ she says.

Rawcliffe believes it’s easy to make progress with diversity on screen, especially in factual entertainment. She says it’s the area where C4 has been the most successful, and is easy because you’re able to cast a wide range of contributors. ‘You’d never see an all-white Big Brother house,’ she says.

At the same time, Rawcliffe says, ‘The enemy to everything I do is tokenism. If you’re just putting someone in because of their disability in a very tokenistic obvious way, viewers see it and they hate it.’

The biggest challenges are offscreen, namely in having people from diverse backgrounds at the senior decision-making and editorial levels. And although inroads have been made in showing more ethnicities on air, she says the next hurdle is to normalize disability on TV. She says she’d prefer it if any cast member’s disability was regarded as ‘sort of incidental.’

According to the BBC’s Caro, groups that are still in need of better representation on UK television include Chinese people, the Roma and Travelling community, Polish and other Central/Eastern Europeans, disabled people, older women over 60 and the LGBT community.

From a production standpoint, realscreen talked to two self-starters who have taken it upon themselves to create their own opportunities. Adrian Bracken, founder of Marbella Productions, launched his Spain-based company at the age of 60. He has no complaints about doing so, although the reaction to it was that he was ‘mad, stupid and rich.’

‘I don’t think age is a factor necessarily, it’s about the ability to make contact, to sell and to sell yourself and that’s what you have to do in all businesses,’ he advises.

Meanwhile, Off the Fence’s CEO and founder Ellen Windemuth says she hasn’t seen much change for women since she started the Amsterdam-based company in 1994. According to Windemuth, running a distribution and production company was rare for a woman then and there aren’t many doing it now.

‘I think this industry requires a certain lifestyle,’ she reasons. ‘It’s a high pressure job, demands a lot of travel and is often an on-call 24/7 situation. I think many women are not attracted to that.’ The gender gap on the broadcast side was addressed in a recent study commissioned by Channel 4, which found that in the UK, men outnumber women on TV two-to-one, and out of every 10 women onscreen, only four are over 40.

‘I wish we were a little less ‘white bread’ about our documentary business,’ she adds, ‘and that there were more different ethnic backgrounds [seen in] on-air hosts. I wish I could speak to more programmers and commissioning editors who are not all 35, male and white. I wish there was more of a diverse world in the business sector in documentaries to reflect the reality of what they should be all about.’

Over in the U.S., the National Association for Multi-Ethnicity in Communications (NAMIC) has had 300 alumni go through its leadership development programs. NAMIC’s president Kathy Johnson believes that progress has been slow. ‘As the business and the technology have evolved, you’re seeing more people of color in the various disciplines and in the new delivery platforms,’ says Johnson. ‘But for perspective of leadership at the top, the changes have not been that dramatic.’

Johnson believes that a lack of diverse leaders results in a dearth of mentors or sponsors from a senior level, which NAMIC’s mentoring component aims to address. Johnson cites Comcast and Cox Communications as networks that are doing well on the MSO side, while on the programming side of the business, she says ESPN, MTV Networks and Scripps Networks participate in NAMIC’s programs to a high degree.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) Hollywood bureau has campaigned extensively for greater minority participation in the entertainment industry. Since 1999, the NAACP also has had agreements with the four major networks, NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox for diverse hiring practices.

Ultimately, all of these policies, pledges and strategies serve as reminders that diversity in hiring and promotion practices still needs to be seriously addressed.

‘People in general, no matter who they are, have a tendency to hire and promote people that they’re comfortable with and that are like them,’ says NAMIC’s Johnson, who hopes to see more instances of ‘people willing to take a chance and hire someone different than they are.’

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.