Diversity helps to keep shows relevant and attract broader audiences.
“Now, nobody’s sayin’ we’re the United f*%ki!ng Nations when it comes to diversity on TV, but it’s not bad considering… Look at me…” so says Shameless’s Frank Gallagher in the intro to the CDN’s diversity brochure.
Okay, so he’s a fictional character, but the philosopher/professional drunk has a point. The Cultural Diversity Network has made great strides in improving diversity both on and off screen. Around 275 companies have now signed up to the Cultural Diversity Pledge and all the major broadcasters are running successful placement schemes for disabled and other diverse candidates.
However, what’s most striking is how diversity has moved from the box marked ‘worthy’ to the one marked ‘worthwhile’. The CDN Awards this week were the embodiment of that change, firmly sticking two fingers up at the idea of diversity as dull but deserving, with an array of stars turning up to a glittering event at the Royal Opera House.
And the work on display lived that out. Here were shows that embraced diversity and, crucially, didn’t play out on the periphery of the schedule but at its heart. A shining example was the winner of the most groundbreaking show, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, which scored 6.4 million viewers, a record for a Cutting Edge doc. Charting elusive characters, it was an enormous challenge to produce and was almost shelved. But the producers persisted, giving an important voice to a much-maligned group of people and prompting Channel 4 to commit to a series.
The soaps were perhaps the best demonstration of how to make diversity connect with a mainstream audience. Emmerdale was the first to introduce a blind character but, refreshingly, Lizzie Lakely, played by Kitty McGeeve, is not defined by her disability. Her character is a fearless, fun trouble maker who challenges stereo types. Meanwhile, Hollyoaks has tackled homosexuality head-on for younger audiences and it joins Coronation Street and EastEnders in making sure diversity in casting decisions is a matter of routine.
However, while the efforts of those attempting to push through change are to be applauded, it’s still true to say that masses more work needs to be done. The TV industry remains the preserve of the white middle class and, for a business built on networking, it’s going to require some brave and radical ways of working to change that. How many times have you offered work experience to the boss’s kids or your mate’s contacts? Privileged kids already, no doubt, who can afford to work for free. Typical creatives now come from the most affluent 25% of families in the UK, so it’s not surprising TV often fails to connect.
Diversity can generate new ideas, keep programmes relevant and attract broader audiences. If your conscience doesn’t get you, perhaps business sense will.
Lisa Campbell is editor of Broadcast