Screen Australia CEO Graeme Mason and writer Benjamin Law take stock a year on from Miranda Tapsell’s rousing call for more diversity at the Logies. By Caris Bizzaca.
A year ago to the day Miranda Tapsell stood on the Logies stage to accept her award for Love Child and called for “more beautiful people of colour on TV”.
It struck a nerve in the room, causing the cheering crowd to rise to their feet, and became one of a series of signs that the demand for onscreen diversity is gaining more and more momentum, particularly in 2016.
In January #OscarsSoWhite went viral, the same month SBS series The Family Law hit screens with a 90% Asian-Australian cast.
After premiering in February, Channel Nine’s multicultural comedy Here Come the Habibs averaged 1.4 million people (metro + regional)* and was greenlit for season two.
Then in March, Screen Australia launched a comprehensive research project not just into the representation of cultural diversity, but of disability and LGBTQI as well, to gauge how much our TV drama reflects our incredibly diverse country.
By April, the new batch of Logie nominees was released, including, for the first time, two Gold Logie contenders who weren’t white – SBS presenter Lee Lin Chin and The Project’s Waleed Aly – which became a ‘controversy’ widely debated online.
And in early May, ABC’s first female managing director Michelle Guthrie wrote to staff the day she officially started in the job, saying that the public broadcaster needed “more diversity in both our staff and content” to become more relevant and extend its reach.
Ahead of the 58th TV Week Logie Awards on May 8, Benjamin Law, who wrote the biographical series The Family Law, says this momentum is part of the wider, more global conversation that Australians are engaging with.
“We’re even more connected and tapped into discussions as they are happening, so we’re having the same discussions with America when Beyonce’s Lemonade lands, or when #OscarsSoWhite happens,” he says.
“And then we relay that back to the Australian context and talk about things like the Logies diversity.”
For Law, to see culturally diverse Gold Logie nominees was really heartening – and yet telling.
“Australians I think are very good at patting themselves on the back about not being racist, being very egalitarian and I think to an extent, rightly so. In comparison to a lot of western European nations we do multiculturalism really, really well, but the fact that we’re celebrating this in 2016 is really telling of our media landscape.”
There’s a lot that needs to be done. While the Gold Logies recognises TV presenters, and while diversity is commonplace in reality TV and better in factual programming, there is a problem.
“We are lagging behind when it comes to diversity in scripted content in comedy and drama,” Law says.
How much of a problem, is what Screen Australia is trying to find out.
The research project is analysing Australian TV drama and comedy broadcast between 2011 and 2015 to identify characters that are culturally diverse, LGBTQI or have a disability. Surveys have also been sent out to the actors, agents, casting directors, credited writers, directors and producers involved on those titles to explore views, experiences and ideas for the best way forward.
Screen Australia CEO Graeme Mason says the research has been met with wonderful support from all parts of the sector – from industry bodies, to the guilds, the unions, the casting directors, the networks and the producers.
“We all have a view of what it’s like, but what we need is hard empirical evidence,” Mr Mason says.
From that evidence, set to be released in the coming months, it can then be determined what steps can be made and how we can achieve lasting onscreen diversity.
It isn’t about political correctness, Mr Mason says. It is about truthfully reflecting the world we live in.
“If you catch the bus or the train home tonight from work, look around on a train carriage, or if you’re driving, look around at all the people in the cars next to you. They’re not all blonde with blue eyes, looking like they’ve come straight from the beach,” Mr Mason says.
“They are a mix of people and we need to show that.”
Aside from that cultural imperative, Mr Mason says it also makes moral, creative and commercial sense to tell a wide variety of stories that appeal to a huge segment of the population.
“As a sector we are missing an opportunity, creatively and commercially, and we are underestimating what an audience wants to see,” he says.
“It’s essential for television networks and filmmakers to embrace diversity if they want to stay relevant.”
The commercial networks have been taking notice.
Channel 7 is currently filming The Secret Daughter, a show they built around The Sapphires star Jessica Mauboy. Earlier this year, Channel Nine launched Here Come the Habibs and have committed to season two.
And the aforementioned The Family Law was groundbreaking by default – a family comedy about divorce, the characters’ Asian-Australian culture made up just part of the fabric of the story, rather than being the whole story.
Law says the feedback both SBS and he personally have received from audiences has been thrilling, and surprising.
“We got a lot of obviously Asian Australians saying that they felt recognised, which we were expecting, which we were really gratified by, but also a lot of non-Asian Australians who said they could see themselves onscreen in the family story as well.”
On that, Law isn’t entirely convinced Australians, as an audience, have been “allergic to diversity” in the past.
“I do wonder whether it’s a myth that Australians have been traditionally resistant to diversity. I know that Australia hasn’t had diversity on screen for a really long time but I do wonder whether that branches out and means that the audience was resistant to it as well,” he says.
Instead he believes it’s because people in production, direction, casting and writing have been predominantly white. These people created what they felt confident in making – and that was really strong white characters on television.
“I’m not sure it’s an audience problem, I think it’s a production and broadcasting problem,” Law says.
But it’s a problem that needs to be addressed, and particularly in television.
“I think television is in some ways more important because that is what’s in our living room, so that’s what we have dinner over – that’s our intimate engagement with the media.”
Although The Family Law is a good step forward, Law acknowledges it isn’t a revolution. It is just that – a step. Concrete change has not yet happened.
Mr Mason says what it clear, is that feeling of change is in the air.
“This is a moment,” Mr Mason says. “It’s time to seize it.”
A year on and Tapsell’s words are still reverberating.
“Put more beautiful people of colour on TV and connect viewers in ways which transcend race and unite us,” she said.
“That’s the real Team Australia.”
The 58th TV Week Logie Awards are broadcast live on Channel Nine on Sunday, May 8 at 7.30pm.
*Source: OzTAM and RegionalTAM, 5-city-metro, combined markets, total people, 28 day consolidated. Metro viewers totalled 1.058 million. Metropolitan data is copyright to OzTAM and Regional data is copyright to RegionalTAM and may not be reproduced, published or communicated in whole or part without the prior consent of OzTAM or RegionalTAM.