Who’s Missing From Our TV Screens?
31 August 2016 at 10:44 am
People with disability are significantly underrepresented on Australian television, along with people of diverse sexual orientation or gender identity, according to a new industry report.
Television and film industry funding body Screen Australia has released what it said was the most significant study of diversity on Australian screens since television began in 1956.
The study, Seeing Ourselves: Reflections on Diversity in TV Drama, analysed all 199 fiction dramas (excluding animation) that aired on television between 2011 and 2015.
The study found that only 4 per cent of main characters had an identified disability compared to an estimated 18 per cent of the general population, while 5 per cent of main characters were identified as LGBTI, even though this group is estimated to be up to 11 per cent of the population.
According to the research, the percentage of Australians with disabilities is more than four times the percentage of characters with disabilities on TV. Only 10 per cent of dramas had at least one character with a disability.
The study said some disabilities were not outwardly visible, so parity in representation was not necessarily a practical goal. Nevertheless, the study said: “Australians with disabilities have lacked opportunities to be involved with behind-the-scenes decision making, such as a presence in writer’s rooms or on set, which in turn can flow onto a lack of diversity on screens.”
The survey results showed mixed feelings around the ongoing practice of non-disabled people being cast in disabled roles, and a call for greater opportunities for actors with disabilities.
The study period included shows where a character’s sexual or gender identity was central to the plot (eg Carlotta, Please Like Me, Peter Allen: Not The Boy Next Door), however it was also common for major dramas to include characters where their diverse orientation was simply incidental including Offspring (Kim Akerholt), House Husbands (Kane Albert), Janet King (Janet King), Neighbours (Aidan Foster and Aaron Brennan) and Winners & Losers (Jonathan Kurtis).
“Although the signs of authentic representation are welcome, the volume is arguably underwhelming,” the study said.
Another 18 per cent of main characters were from non-Anglo Celtic backgrounds, compared to 32 per cent of the population. The study found however there was a notable exception to this trend with Indigenous representation making a dramatic turnaround in screen presence.
A 2002 study entitled Broadcast in Colour found that in 1992 there were no Indigenous Australians in sustaining roles on Australian TV, and by 1999 there were two. This latest study reveals a large shift, with 5 per cent of main characters being Indigenous, despite making up 3 per cent of the population. “You cannot underestimate how powerful it is for Indigenous people to turn on the TV and see a face that looks like their own,” head of Indigenous at Screen Australia Penny Smallacombe said.
“Whilst overall diversity on Australian screens clearly has a very long way to go, what the Indigenous experience shows is when you have Indigenous decision makers within funding bodies and broadcasters, coupled with initiatives that support Indigenous writers, directors, producers and actors, diversity and good entertainment can be one in the same.”
CEO of Screen Australia Graeme Mason said the study could become a springboard for change.
“Diversity on screens has been a hot topic in recent years locally and abroad, so in undertaking this milestone study, Screen Australia sought to empower the industry with a baseline of data that could become a springboard for change,” Mason said.
“Throughout the year-long process of completing this study, it is clear there is an appetite for change within the industry and for that change to be authentic rather than tokenistic.”
The surveys and industry consultation sessions revealed an almost universal preference for authentic representations of diversity rather than mandated controls like a quota system.
“With 94 per cent of Australians watching TV regularly, the medium remains powerful and influential, so the need for greater diversity is essential and we have been buoyed by the industry enthusiasm to engage with this study,” Mason said.
“We don’t want tokenism, but we don’t want inaction either. Now we have the numbers, we need to work out a path towards diversity on screens together that is genuine, lasting and both creatively and commercially fulfilling.”