Australian TV & The Lack Of Racial Diversity

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Words By Scarlett Harris
June 12, 2015
American television is slowly but surely getting with the times when it comes to racially diverse television, but Australian TV is lagging far behind, particularly on the commercial networks.

America has experienced a racial revolution in the past twelve months with the apparent “big trend” of “ethnic casting”, as Nellie Andreeva called it in a controversial March article for Deadline, seen all over some of the U.S.’s biggest hits, including Empire, How to Get Away with Murder, black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat and Jane the Virgin.

Though leagues away from holding a mirror to the actual racial makeup of the country, which is much more diverse, still, Hollywood is doing a hell of a lot better in making their TV screens reflect their population than Australia. It seems the bulk of our local content is reality, and the majority of that is home renovation shows: the equivalent to watching paint dry, literally. Or watching other people watch paint dry, as with Gogglebox. There are some diamonds in the rough, like Love Child (featuring Most Popular New Talent and Most Outstanding Newcomer Logie winner Miranda Tapsell), House Husbands (with the Lebanese-Australian Firass Dirani) and Winners & Losers (which tackles taboo subjects such as domestic violence and euthanasia), but on the whole Australian commercial television is a wasteland of haphazard time slots and shows getting pulled off the air all together.

Take, for example, the abovementioned How to Get Away with Murder and Empire. Both enjoyed unprecedented success in the U.S. upon their debuts in September 2014 and January this year, respectively. Being a product of Shonda Rhimes’ production empire Shondaland, the popularity of the Viola Davis-helmed HTGAWM was a no brainer, even outdoing crown jewel Scandal upon its debut. (The current season of Scandal, which just finished in the U.S., is yet to air here.) Empire seemingly came out of nowhere; proving audiences want quality melodrama regardless of who happens to be performing it.

Though leagues away from holding a mirror to the actual racial makeup of the country, which is much more diverse, still, Hollywood is doing a hell of a lot better in making their TV screens reflect their population than Australia

However, in Australia both shows have been given the run around. HTGAWM was performing strongly at the start of the year, however has been replaced by Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares and pushed back later and later upon each scheduled return, the most recent of which was Monday 1st June, a move from Tuesday nights. And who knows what happened to Empire? (A quick look at Ten’s website indicates the finale aired in early May.) This is why I don’t own a TV.

According to a 2009 study, less than 5 million Australians are watching TV regularly. In the six years since, we’ve seen a rise in multi-screen viewing: streaming on computers, tablets and phones; next-day catch up on that network’s website or via DVR; and waiting for the whole series to be released on DVD, Netflix or iTunes so we can binge watch. It’s no wonder Australia is a nation of pirates: when we can’t even get the shows of our American comrades until months (or even years, as with The Mindy Project on Seven, which is now airing episodes that first screened two years ago. Come on!) later, we’re left with slim options of obtaining them.

And where are the other aforementioned runaway and diverse successes on Aussie TV? Airing on cable, of course. Which does nothing to debunk our pirate status. That quality TV is so hard to get in this country on a reliable, accessible, cheap and/or free platform is one of the failings of modern Australia. That and, you know, our stance on refugees.

On the other hand, the reason why such generic fodder as Married at First Sight has succeeded here may be because we’re a nation of lackadaisical, she’ll-be-right-mate types. How many of Married’s viewers tuned in after a long day’s work or school for a geezer and a laugh at these pathetic guinea pigs than were actually passionate about they were consuming? We’re so used to the unbearable sameness on TV served up by a select few apparent “tastemakers” that it’s easy to forget there’s myriad other cultures out there that we’re missing out on in our pop culture. Why should Indian culture, for example, be relegated to Bollywood stereotypes instead of in prime time with something like, again, The Mindy Project? And even then, Mindy is hardly a paragon of progression.

There’s no argument to be made for the over the top soapiness of HTGAWM, Empire and the like being a factor in our reluctance to give them a go: the recently axed Revenge performed much better in Australia than on ABC in the U.S. A lot like Australia’s soaps of choice, Neighbours and Home & Away, it also seldom featured a person of colour.

It’s an embarrassment when people from other countries visit here and realise people who look like them are living their Australian lives, but rarely see representations of themselves in our media. American writer Roxane Gay was in Oz for a series of talks in March and made some astute observations about our lack of diversity, especially in advertisements.

Diversity is not a trend; it’s life. It’s about time Australian TV took a page out of U.S. networks’ books and make it one in an effort to show and normalise diversity.

Scarlett Harris is a writer, blogger, and broadcaster. She tweets from @scarletteharris and you can read more of her writing at scarlettwoman.com.au

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