The global television industry has finally got the memo on diversity.
The push to make small-screen storytelling, in front and behind the camera, more representative of the variety in the societies it reflects, has been an activist goal for years. Thanks to several top-down actions by major networks and streamers, it is starting to become a reality, said industry executives attending this week’s digital MIPTV market on international television.
“We’ve started to build up structural systemic changes and mechanisms to give access and exposure to the talent that has been kept out of this business,” said Latasha Gillespie, head of Global Diversity, Equity and inclusion at Amazon Studios, in a MIPTV online panel discussion on diversity, noting the streamer would soon unveil a major inclusion policy impacting production across its global service.
“I’m really one of those believers in systems,” added Christy Haubegger, executive vp and chief enterprise inclusion officer at WarnerMedia, pointing to programs at the studio, such as the equity mindset for creative leaders, which teaches showrunners and senior development executives the importance of having a diverse writers’ room in telling inclusive stories. “This industry historically has seen a lot of what I would call random acts of diversity [now] we are really beginning to build systems and processes. If you want to win once, set a goal. If you always want to win, create a system.”
The BBC, Britain’s public broadcaster and one of the largest and most influential television companies worldwide, has tried to get out in front of the diversity debate by implementing rules enforcing inclusion at all levels. Last June, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protest movement, the BBC pledged to commit $124 million (100 million pounds) of its existing budget towards diverse and inclusive content over three years, starting in 2021. The broadcaster is also instating a mandatory 20 percent diverse-talent target across all-new network commissions from April of this year.
Last fall, ABC in the U.S. introduced its own inclusion standards with new guidelines calling for 50 percent or more of regular and recurring characters on network shows to come from underrepresented groups and the same percentage for the actors who play those parts.
Miranda Wayland, Head of Creative Diversity at the BBC, said by tackling the problem of underrepresentation at its roots, what shows are commissioned and how they are made, the broadcaster hoped to use its “leverage to galvanize real change over a topic that we’ve spoken about for several years in our sector…. We created a series of tools to really help our suppliers grapple with issues around race and privilege to help better support one another so that, together we can change our output.”
Wayland said she has seen a change in how the issue of diversity is viewed in the industry, thanks to programming — like the BBC/HBO Max drama I May Destroy You or the BBC/Netflix limited A Suitable Boy — where inclusivity was an integral part of its creative DNA. While traditionally onscreen diversity was seen “as a bit of a risk in terms of being too niche or not palatable to a wide audience,” Wayland said, the critical and commercial success of these shows demonstrates that making productions diverse actually “gives a great edge to storytelling. It gives creatives a different angle to tell their story.”
Wayland argued that diversity is also a necessity for broadcasters and streamers if they want to compete in an increasingly global marketplace, where programming is made for, and consumed by, a worldwide audience. “Our audience is more diverse than it has ever been,” she noted. “There is no group we can dismiss anymore as being too niche, too micro, to bother about.”
Karen Gray, executive vp human resources at A+E Networks, said she sees the television industry moving beyond the issue of onscreen representation to tackling the deep-rooted systems that have traditionally restricted access to the corridors of power to all but a privileged few from similar, privileged backgrounds.
“The importance now is not just to have diverse representation but to give those people agency,” Gray noted, “because representation without agency: that’s the definition of tokenism. If you’re going to bring people into your organization that have different cultural backgrounds and experiences than the majority of the folks in your company, you also have to give the agency to make decisions [because] you didn’t hire them just because they were a woman or a person of color. You hired them to play a role in changing things.”
There was a degree of self-gratulation and back-patting among the executives at digital MIPTV over their accomplishment in improving inclusion, but most acknowledged the business has a long way to go.
“At our company, we believe that striving for equality is never-ending,” said Paul Buccieri, president and chairman of A+E Networks Group, who received MIPTV’s SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) Award on Thursday for his company’s progress in increasing representation, particularly for women. “We are all on an infinite journey with more to do.”