Diversity is a hot button issue following months of racial equality protests in the US. Broadcasters have announced a raft of new measures aimed at promoting diversity, but are they doing enough? Manny Pham investigates.

David Edinburgh

David Olusoga: “The truth is, the BBC just wore me down with hopelessness.’’ 

Diversity continues to be a headline topic of discussion panels and press releases across the media and broadcast sector. This alone is evidence that it remains a challenge for broadcasters, despite years of promises and initiatives. 

Diversity has again become a prominent subject after the tragic killing of George Floyd, which rekindled the Black Lives Matter movement, and waves of new initiatives have been announced across the media and entertainment sector regarding race and diversity. 

In TV and film, actors, writers and directors from the UK and US penned powerful open letters to their industries calling for “active engagement to tackle structural and systemic racism”.  

Famous names who have thrown their weight behind the cause include the likes of Michaela Coel, Meera Syal, Noel Clarke, Colin Firth and Emilia Clarke.  

The topic was passionately explained by British broadcast veteran David Olusoga, when he delivered his speech at the agenda-setting Mactaggart lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival last month. 

Due to the Covid-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, Olusoga reflected on his 20 year-long career to an lonely Bristol City Hall, unintentionally illustrating his time as a black man in the UK broadcast industry. He described how his tenure affected his mental health, often making him feel isolated, crushed, and disempowered by systemic racism. 

He spoke about himself not as a success story but a survivor of a generation which was beaten down, noting many talented BAME people had left the industry altogether. As an example, he pointed to Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees, who abandoned a career with the BBC before entering politics. Olusoga quoted him in saying: “The truth is, the BBC just wore me down with hopelessness.’’ 

Olusoga cut a stoic figure as he warned broadcast industries must share roles of great responsibility with marginalised BAME communities or risk losing another generation of talent and face obscurity.  

Speaking out 
All voices speaking out on the issue have similar demands: promote and appoint more BAME people to senior and executive positions, provide ring-fenced funding to support talents and be more daring with original commissions to reflect ever diversifying societies. 

According to UK regulatory body Ofcom commercial broadcasters boasted the highest amount of diversity, although still far off from parity. ViacomCBS owned Channel 5 had the highest proportion of BAME representation with 19%, Channel 4 came second with 18%, and Sky with 15%. The BBC had 13% and ITV lagged behind on 9%. 

In the UCLA’s 2019 Hollywood Diversity Report, which analysed film and TV shows from 2016-2017, BAME people remained underrepresented at every employment front. It also found America’s increasingly diverse audience “prefer diverse film and TV content”, with minorities projected to become the majority viewership in the next two decades.  

Diversity camera

Commercial broadcasters: Have all pledged initiatives to improve diversity

So how have global broadcasters looked to tackle its prevalent diversity problem this time? In the wake of George Floyd’s death and amid global protests, broadcasters stepped up with a raft of new initiatives.  

In June the BBC committed £100 million from its commissioning budget to “diverse and inclusive content’ over three years”, starting in 2021. This is supported by a mandatory 20% diverse talent target in all new commissions.  

Speaking in the opening keynote speech at the Edinburgh TV Festival, former BBC director general Tony Hall said the broadcaster had “massively upped” its game with the move, and thrown the door open to more diverse stories and storytellers.  

BBC content director Charlotte Moore added: “If we do not reflect the nation we are making our programs for then we will have failed and eventually that will mean we won’t be able to meet the challenges of the next few years if we don’t make diversity an absolute priority.” 

Comcast announced $100 million will be pumped into Comcast Cable, NBCUniversal and Sky over the next three years to: improve BAME representation on all levels, make a difference in communities impacted by racism, and use its platform to highlight racial injustice.  

ITV unveiled its ‘Diversity Acceleration Plan’ to create more opportunities for those from BAME and other underrepresented groups. It also pledged to increase diversity in its management board and senior leadership teams, as well as creating opportunities for new senior leaders in commissioning and production.  

ViacomCBS Networks UK pledged a ‘no diversity, no commission’ content policy for its suppliers, while also aiming to open a new role on its commissioning team responsible for developing diverse talent behind and in front of the camera, among a multitude of measures. 

Ben Frow, ViacomCBS Networks UK controller, urged rivals at the Edinburgh TV Festival to use its policy, claiming if widely adopted the “inherently snobbish” UK TV industry will see a massive difference.  

In an unprecedented move, Channel 4 recently announced a Black Takeover day in autumn 2021, with the focus on diversifying commissioned content, across multiple genres. Next year will see a whole day of output from Channel 4 showcasing black talent on and off the screen. A new unscripted comedy series will launch, and staple shows: Celebrity Gogglebox, Countdown and Channel 4 News, will feature all black talent.  

To promote its new horror commission Lovecraft Country (produced by Jordan Peele and JJ Abrams) set in segregated 1950s America; HBO sent 300 kits to influencers and press containing clothes, accessories and literature sourced from black-owned or supporting businesses, reported Ad Week. 


Simon Albury: Warns of ”Déjà vu” from broadcaster’s diversity initiatives

Look at the outcomes 
But are these initiatives enough? Speaking to IBC365, former chief executive of the Royal Television Society and chair of the Campaign for Broadcasting Equality, Simon Albury, is sceptical of the raft of initiatives, stating there was a feeling of “déjà vu” from UK broadcasters. 

He makes reference to October 2000, when the UK’s main broadcasters jointly launched the Cultural Diversity Network, pledging to increase ethnic minority faces among ranks, in a bid to stem black and Asian viewership abandonment.  

“Don’t look at the plans, look at the outcomes, plans are not well implemented”, warns Albury.  

Olusoga noted schemes in the last 30 years were largely focused on bringing in BAME people into the industry, but were fundamentally flawed by inertia, labelling them as “failed” and “ineffective”. 

“The fundamental philosophy underlying most of those initiatives was that black and brown people needed to be better trained and better instructed in how to “fit in” and “get on” within the industry, not that the culture of the industry itself needed to undergo any significant structural or cultural change”.  

In reference to the BBC’s announcement, Albury says: “They have a flashy figure of £100 million spread over three years. That’s less than two per cent of their TV spend.  

“It’s not just for BAME, it’s for every protected characteristic of disadvantaged groups. All of these groups are deserving, but when you have such a fuzzy approach you can have no confidence in it, it’s clear it hasn’t been thought through.”  

In a column for the Independent, former BBC executive and chair of the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity, Marcus Ryder, tipped diversity as a key solution to problems the BBC is facing such as: lack of public confidence, haemorrhaging finances, and dwindling viewership.  

He pointed to a study from Boston Consulting Group which showed firms with diverse management have 19% higher revenue spurred by innovation.  

“It [the BBC] is too big for one person to solve. And that is why I believe there is really only one solution to all of the corporation’s ills: increase diversity,” wrote Ryder. 

There are no immediate results from such a complicated issue such as this. As cliché as it is, only time will tell whether broadcasters will truly enforce their initiatives and make progress towards much needed racial parity.  

Olusoga showed hope and acknowledged the response from UK broadcasters to the Black Lives Matter movement had been encouraging, saying “this time it does feel different” from past initiatives, with key fresh determination to drive diversity into senior management and board level, and “critically in commissioning”. 

Olusoga closed his speech, and asked it simply: “So in the end it comes down to this, does our industry have the will to genuinely share power with those who have, for so very long, been marginalised and silenced?”