The inaugural virtual edition of the Edinburgh International Television Festival kicked off yesterday (August 24) with penetrating examinations into issues of diversity and inclusion impacting the television entertainment industry, via both its opening panel and its annual MacTaggart Lecture.
The panels at Edinburgh are known for their provocative, no-holds-barred discussions of critical issues facing the UK and international television business, but this year, given the renewed focus on representation and racial equity in media and elsewhere, panelists and presenters are noting an added sense of urgency around the topic during this year’s program.
This was apparent in the opening session, “Does TV need a Black controller?”, moderated by CGTN Digital chief international editor Marcus Ryder. Addressing the various headline-grabbing missteps that emerged in the British TV sector over the past year — from the reaction to Channel 4 series The British Tribe Next Door to the BBC’s handling of the Naga Munchetty controversy — the panel was united in its assertion that having a Black controller overseeing a network or network group is not enough, but that representation needs to exist through all strata of the organization.
“It’s not just about having a Black controller,” said Jacqueline Baker, co-founder of the BAME TV Task Force. “Where are the Black SPs? Where are the Black EPs?
“It’s not just about being at the table, it’s about having a voice at that table,” she added.
BBC head of creative diversity Miranda Wayland agreed, and said that placing diverse staff across departments allows for diversity of thought, and ultimately better decision making.
“Not all Black people think the same, not all Black people have the same experiences,” she said, adding that expecting a BAME (Black, Asian, minority ethnic) controller to make decisions without informed input from a diverse staff would be “problematic.”
The panelists maintained that it isn’t just the broadcasters that need to ramp up their efforts in the area. The independent production community was also cited by the executives as an area sorely lacking in diversity at a senior level.
“Of [network controllers'] 10 dream directors, how many of them are diverse?” asked Lucy Pilkington, managing director of Milk and Honey Productions. “Of the production companies that they have lunch with and give the big commissions to, what does their senior team look like?
“It’s not just about all the bad things that have happened that could’ve been prevented, but it’s also about all the good things that haven’t happened because we haven’t got diverse leadership teams in television.”
Talent executive and managing director of My First Job In TV, Michelle Matherson, agreed, and said that broadcasters who are now calling for more pitches from diverse production companies as a matter of policy need to take a closer look at the company rosters, to ensure that diversity is apparent throughout.
“You have to ensure you have got senior diverse people within these companies as well, otherwise you have a bunch of runners and interns and [the policy] is not doing what it’s supposed to do,” she said.
Duane Jones, co-founder of UK prodco Renowned Films, emphasized the need for access and opportunity for younger creatives, as ultimately it will be their content that might offer a lifeline to a medium — broadcast television — that is shedding young audiences.
“There are so many young creatives who seem to be more knowledgeable about how to grow audiences… how about consultancy roles? Young audiences want diverse programming and we need to provide them with content they deserve.”
While Ryder quipped that the discussion resembled Groundhog Day in that it seems to recur year after year, Jones, with his closing comment, summed up what may very well emerge as the overriding theme of this year’s TV Fest.
“It’s hard to pinpoint one thing that can effect change. It’s the whole system that needs changing.”
That sentiment was also the centerpiece of this year’s MacTaggart Lecture, delivered by historian and television presenter David Olusoga (pictured). The MacTaggart Lecture historically is seen as the opportunity to cast a sharp, uncompromising eye upon the television industry and what needs fixing, and judging by reactions in the UK press and across social media, Olusoga delivered.
“I have spent over 20 years in this industry and I have – I hope – a distinct perspective,” he said during his virtual address. “I have seen it seen from both behind and in front of the camera, from within the BBC and from the indie sector. I’ve been given amazing opportunities, but I’ve also been patronized and marginalized. I’ve been in high demand, but I’ve also been on the scrapheap.
“I’ve felt inspired, and convinced that our job — making TV and telling stories — is the best job in the world. But at other times I’ve been so crushed by my experiences, so isolated and disempowered by the culture that exists within our industry, that I have had to seek medical treatment for clinical depression. I’ve come close to leaving this industry on several occasions. And I know many Black and Brown people who have similar stories to tell.”
Olusoga honed in on the issue of retention and how it has impacted senior executives and those hoping to enter the business.
“In their submission to the digital, culture, media and sport select committee, Film and TV Charity reported that even before the current crisis 73% of BAME production talent had considering leaving the TV industry,” he said.
“In the time I have been in television the vast majority of the senior black industry figures I have come across working within the UK broadcasters have moved to the indie sector or left the industry. Some of this is normal churn but much of it is not and that exodus has the left the industry exposed. One of the sessions at this year’s Edinburgh television festival asks when will television have its first black channel controller. Twelve years ago the festival ran a similar panel asking the same question. Will the festival of 2030 have yet another panel asking that question for a third time?”
While highlighting the current attempts of broadcasters to address racial equity, Olusoga echoed the event’s first panel by drawing attention to the indie production sector. “It is not just the broadcasters who need to be held accountable,” he maintained. “The part of our industry in which most people are employed is independent production. The independent sector need to do better, and needs to want to do better. All companies but particularly the larger ones need to champion careers and spot talent. They need to recognize that many of the young Black and Brown people who have got a foot in the door of our industry have already climbed mountains of disadvantage that their more privileged peers have never encountered and know little about.”
To read Olusoga’s MacTaggart Lecture in full, click here.
The Edinburgh International Television Festival continues its virtual edition until August 27.