Screen Australia releases new diversity report
One day before my 32nd birthday, I made contact with Graeme Mason, CEO of Screen Australia, and proposed that we meet to come up with a way the national peak funding body for screen productions can make an influential change in diversity and inclusion in Australian TV & Film.
After a year of consultation, advising and spreading surveys amongst networks, Screen Australia released their findings in the report titled Seeing Ourselves: Reflections on Diversity in Australian TV Drama.
A copy of the report from Screen Australia can be found here.
If you're not white, straight and able-bodied, the chances of seeing yourself reflected on an Australian television screen aren't great – unless, that is, you're Aboriginal.
That is the key finding of Seeing Ourselves, a ground-breaking five-year report into diversity in Australian TV drama conducted by Screen Australia and released on Wednesday.
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And in news that may come as a shock to fans of the so-called "golden age" of television, the rising quality of small-screen drama is one of the reasons for the shortfall in diversity of characters, actors and storylines.
"TV drama is an increasingly high-cost and high-risk enterprise," say the report's authors. "With the high production values pioneered by US networks such as HBO and Netflix setting new audience expectations and trends towards binge viewing, Australian broadcasters are investing higher budgets in shorter-run series."
Although the broadcasters still see Australian drama as important for building their brand and relationship with audiences – and while it generally rates well for them – they are producing less of it as costs increase.
In the decade to 2010, there was an average of 480 hours of Australian drama screened per year; last year, it was just 284 hours.
"This tends to mean that there's less capacity for the networks to take risks on new writers and lesser-known actors, as the pressure is greater on each program to succeed," the report states.
"An unexpected impact of the so-called 'golden age' of higher-quality TV production may be that work is more likely than ever to go to experienced creatives, and there are fewer opportunities for new talent to be tested out."
Miranda Tapsell's success in Love Child has shown that mainstream audiences will embrace an indigenous actor, and character. Photo: Steven Chee
The report looked at the main characters in the 199 Australian TV dramas that had their first airing on free-to-air or pay TV between 2011 and 2015, and at the actors playing them. It surveyed writers, producers, directors, network decision makers and actors on their attitudes and experiences.
And while the screen agency's findings will surprise few, it hopes they will provide a benchmark against which to measure change – or lack of it – in the years to come.
Using the 2011 census data, the report claims 67 per cent of Australians come from an Anglo-Celtic background, 12 per cent European, 17 per cent non-European and 3 per cent indigenous (the other 1 per cent disappears due to rounding).
On that basis, the only groups who could reasonably claim to have enjoyed their rightful share of screen time were those from Anglo-Celtic and Indigenous backgrounds, who scored 82 per cent and 5 per cent of main roles respectively (though, perversely, Anglo-Celtic actors might claim to have missed out: they landed only 76 per cent of those main roles, suggesting a small trend to "colour-bind" casting).
LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, and intersex) characters accounted for 5 per cent of main roles, versus 11 per cent of the general population; characters with a disability 4 per cent (versus 18 per cent general population); while just 18 per cent of main characters were from a non-Anglo-Celtic background (versus 32 per cent of the general population).
A main role was defined as one that features in most episodes. There were an average of eight main roles across the series examined, except for Neighbours and Home and Away – which collectively constitute more than two-thirds of all drama on Australian TV – where the average was 36 main roles.
The report noted that while there have been some significant incursions into mainstream dramas such as Love Child (indigenous character), House Husbands (gay, Lebanese) and A Place to Call Home( LGBTQI), diversity on screen is still seen in some quarters as equalling "worthy" TV.
"There's a perception amongst some network executives that audiences are less willing to engage with … content you watch because it's good for you rather than for entertainment – colloquially known as 'broccoli TV'."
However, the opposite view is also slowly gaining ground – that there is what the authors call a "diversity dividend", seen in stronger-than-expected ratings for shows such as Redfern Now (indigenous storylines, actors and characters) and The Code (a main character with a disability), and the ability to reach new audiences (younger and LGBTQI viewers for Please Like Me, for instance).
Still, there's a long way to go.
Though shows such as Offspring cast the net more widely, the typical face of Australian TV drama remains resolutely white.
Half of the actors who responded to the survey had worked overseas and of them, more than three-quarters said they felt there was a difference between Australia and the US and UK in terms of diversity.
The authors also reported that actors from European and non-European backgrounds "noted a level of discrimination in the Australian industry that often isn't as prevalent in overseas markets – both in terms of the number of roles written for culturally diverse actors and opportunities for colour-blind casting".
One actor of Asian descent claimed "Australia is about 20 years behind the US" in terms of colour-blind casting for main roles in which ethnic background is not a key factor.