Canadian TV Industry Under Fire for Not Measuring BIPOC Audiences: "It's As If We're Invisible"

Vinessa Antoine stars in the legal drama 'Diggstown.'
Courtesy of Dan Callis

Vinessa Antoine stars in the legal drama 'Diggstown.'

No wonder Canadians of color complain that they don't see themselves on homegrown shows. Numeris, the country's ratings firm, doesn't count them.

The Canadian TV industry since last summer's Black Lives Matter protests has increasingly talked about ensuring people of color in major markets like Toronto and Vancouver and their underrepresented cultures are reflected on screens.

But efforts for expanded on-screen representation have been held back by Numeris, the Canadian TV industry's stats-collector, not measuring BIPOC media audiences. "There are many questions in the Black community about the lack of race-based audience data coming out of Numeris," Joan Jenkinson, executive director of the Black Screen Office, tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Good TV ratings posted by Numeris, which collects data for Canadian broadcasters mostly around broad English and French-language audiences, mean more advertising revenues and production subsidies for homegrown TV series, not to mention multiple seasons.

But if Numeris does not count underrepresented Canadian audiences, BIPOC TV creators say they won't be fully considered for ad dollars and government soft money to get more diversity-inspired content into domestic living rooms. Currently, Numeris and Canadian broadcasters measure local audiences for popular African American-themed series like Power, Scandal, Empire, Atlanta, Greenleaf, Dear White People, Black-ish and Insecure that play to big audiences north of the border.

But Canada's TV landscape has few homegrown shows with people of color on or behind the camera. There's CBC's Diggstown, a legal drama recently picked up by BET+ and Fox stateside.

That joins only a handful of Canadian-made Black Canadian series ever to reach local TV screens, shows like Guns, Shoot the Messenger, Book of Negroes and Da Kink In My Hair. "As well as an overall dearth of race-base data in our industry, we believe there is a direct connection to the lack of racialized content on Canadian screens. It's as if we're invisible," Jenkinson insists.

Numeris execs declined to comment when asked by THR on industry initiatives underway to get the ratings firm to begin collecting specific data around underrepresented communities as TV consumers. The Black Screen Office, an ad hoc group dedicated to expanding the reach of Black Canadian stories onscreen, is following the lead of multi-language and multicultural broadcasters who have long complained Numeris, by tracking a wide audience countrywide, does not measure narrow and diverse audiences.

"We like all Canadian ethnic TV operators have always been marginalized and disadvantaged by the fact that Numeris does not recruit for ethnicity nor for immigrant languages when creating their samples on which Numeris published audience estimates are based," says Aldo Di Fellice, president of the TLN Media Group, which includes the flagship TLN TV for Canadian Italian and Hispanic audiences, while also operating the Univision Canada and Mediaset Italia Canada channels.

But changing a Canadian TV system that rewards bigger broadcasters that target broad English- and French- language audiences with popular American comedies and dramas  in prime time has so far been an uphill climb.

Despite major Canadian cities like Vancouver and Toronto having just over half of their populations coming from BIPOC and other racialized and multi-language communities, the industry has so far passed on having digital TV set-top boxes in cable carrier households offer up return-path data that measures narrow minority and ethnic audiences for better visibility.

An industry working group was launched in 2015 to explore how to aggregate digital set-top data from domestic carriers.  And a final report in Jan. 2021 that has been obtained by THR reports that ETAM, or Numeris’ enhanced electronic television audience measurement system, will be ready for a commercial rollout later this year.

"While development of ETAM has encountered several delays, we cannot understate either its complexity or the significance of multiple parties’ efforts to develop a potentially world-leading STB-based audience measurement system," the industry group told the CRTC, Canada's TV regulator, about its set-top box measurement initiative.

At the same time, the final report from major cable carriers like BCE, Cogeco and Rogers, and leading English and French language broadcasters like Corus and Quebecor Media did not include participation in the industry group from operators of multi-language TV channels.

TLN Group's Di Felice argues ethnic TV channel operators in Canada remain shortchanged because they don't get their fair share of national advertising buys or production funding from key financiers like the Canada Media Fund, which calculates broadcaster "performance envelopes," or public subsidies, using Numeris data.

Valerie Creighton, president and CEO of the Canada Media Fund, accepts that the lack of Numeris data for racialized communities has created a blind spot for the country's top TV financier. "They (diverse communities) aren't being clearly referenced and their audience is not being counted and they're not being represented in the system and I think that's a legitimate and valid point," Creighton tells THR.

But she adds the CMF considers investments in BIPOC creators in other ways than Numeris audience data, including weighing a broadcaster's past performance and their streaming platforms. And Creighton argues her organization will continue to work with the Black Screen Office and other industry groups towards introducing racialized data collection to set a baseline for what is and what is not measured.

She insists an expanding streaming space has shown TV audiences want fresh voices from diverse creators, including with homegrown dramas like NBC's Canadian medical drama Transplant, starring Hamza Haq as a Syrian refugee who gets a job at a Toronto hospital, and Netflix's Kim's Convenience, a Canadian sitcom about an immigrant family running a local neighborhood shop in Vancouver.

"It's long overdue to get out there and have people rally around doing a better job as an industry of breaking down those barriers and serving audiences with that compelling storytelling," Creighton says.