The whitest thing" in Netflix’s Narcos is "the cocaine", Sir Lenny Henry joked when the actor and comedian gave a speech about diversity to the Royal Television Society conference in Cambridge last September.
Henry, who has been calling on the British TV industry to improve diversity for more than a decade, was making a serious point.
The pace of change has been "glacial" when it comes to improving representation of black, Asian and other minority ethnic people on-screen and behind the camera in the UK, he told the audience of media bigwigs.
By comparison, some of the new breed of US streaming services offer more diverse programming, Henry suggested.
"If diversity makes better TV, which I 100% believe, is it any wonder that UK television is falling behind? People are deserting us for Netflix and streaming services, especially diverse audiences," he said.
Karen Blackett, UK country manager of WPP, who took part in a Q&A session with Henry at
the RTS conference, has commissioned research from Kantar that appears to support some of Henry’s claims.
The Kantar/WPP research examined Twitter activity in the US and UK and found "entertainment preferences amongst the black community differ from the general population in both markets".
There is "more mainstream consumption" of TV by US black audiences compared with "more niche consumption" by UK black audiences, according to the research.
That suggests there is a "wider selection" across TV and film genres for black audiences in the US and "fewer dedicated options" in the UK.
The findings might only be "a snapshot", as Kantar and WPP put it, but they offer an alarming picture at a time when there are mounting fears that the UK’s public service broadcasters (PSBs) are losing relevance, particularly among young and more diverse audiences.
The future of the BBC licence fee is high on prime minister Boris Johnson’s agenda, the march of the US streamers is intensifying, as Disney+ prepares to launch in the UK, and Ofcom has warned it is "worried" about the outlook for PSBs in the face of online competition.
It is not just a concern for consumers and regulators. Shareholders and advertisers will worry if broadcasters fail to serve key audiences, particularly when more than 40% of London’s population is from a BAME background, according to UK census data.
So how much does British TV lack diversity and what might speed up change?
Campaign looks at BAME representation on-screen and behind the camera, how the UK compares with the US, and where more progress needs to be made.
Off-screen talent lags on-screen
Everyone involved in the diversity debate agrees that data is vital. "When we first began reporting on the diversity of the UK-based TV industry, we were clear that broadcasters could not begin to fix a problem they didn’t fully understand," Vicki Cook, director of content and media policy at Ofcom, who leads the regulator’s diversity-related programme of work, says.
Ofcom’s annual figures on diversity in the UK-based TV industry show 13% of staff at five major organisations – the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5-owner ViacomCBS and Sky – come from BAME backgrounds. That is roughly in line with the UK’s working population of 12%.
However, as the regulator pointed out, it is "far beneath" the levels seen in London, the home of all the big broadcasters.
What’s more, Ofcom was "disappointed" that BAME representation at senior levels at the five major TV organisations was just 9%.
Worse, the proportion of minority ethnic talent working in creative and content production – a crucial area when it comes to shaping on-screen output – fell from 9% to 8% across the wider UK-based TV industry last year.
There are also variations within the BAME demographic – for example, people from an Asian background are better represented in the TV industry compared with those from black African, Caribbean and black British backgrounds.
Even calculating the numbers is fraught with problems because data collection is patchy.
Ofcom only has the power to demand information about staff and does not have data on freelancers – a major issue when so much TV work is project-based.
The Creative Diversity Network, an independent organisation that is funded by all the major broadcasters, provides broader estimates in its Diamond reports, although its data is also far from comprehensive.
BAME characters are "overrepresented on-screen", including 36.7% in children’s programming and 25.9% in drama, according to Diamond. However, BAME people are "underrepresented off-screen" as they make up about 8% of those working in important genres such as drama and factual (see table below).
Cook says: "Much more needs to be done [by broadcasters] to retain, train and progress the careers of ethnic minority employees."
Change needs to happen at every level, particularly at the top. "Change who makes the decisions, and that means you can make changes to what’s on screen," Alex Mahon, chief executive of Channel 4, says. "What you really need to do is to bring in senior people. That unlocks everything," she adds, pointing to three key areas: on-screen, inside Channel 4 and the supply chain.
Faster change needs a new approach
There is evidence of growing BAME representation on-screen in British shows such as Informer (BBC One), Man Like Mobeen (BBC Three), Don’t Hate the Playaz (ITV2), Top Boy (originally on Channel 4 and now on Netflix), Chewing Gum (E4), The Big Narstie Show (Channel 4) and Idris Elba’s In the Long Run (Sky).
"In terms of race, it would be churlish not to say there has been an improvement – in some areas, it has been quite a significant improvement in terms of black and brown faces on-screen," according to Pat Younge, managing director of production company Sugar Films, who was previously one of the most senior black executives at the BBC.
However, "that doesn’t mean there has been a significant improvement in the stories that people are telling", Younge continues. "Fundamentally, most of the stories haven’t changed. You’ll see these occasional tentpoles – the BBC is doing a big [forthcoming] piece with Steve McQueen and a series with Michaela Coel. But there hasn’t been a systematic change on broadcast television in terms of, ‘Whose stories are you telling?’ and ‘Who is telling them?’"
Younge believes speeding up change requires a new approach. "I’ve worked in TV for 30 years and I’ve met very few people who are racist. There’s a very liberal, anti-racist mindset," he says. "But there is a groupthink in our industry. People at the top – the commissioning class – tend to all go to the same colleges, all read the same books, all go to the same plays, all watch the same things in the cinema."
He says "it is a real challenge" to find commissioners and broadcasters who are "sufficiently open-minded" and willing to "give up some control". They need to trust programme-makers to produce something different that "they may not fully understand" because it is outside their cultural comfort zone, he adds.
Henry has suggested several ideas, including ring-fenced funding and tax breaks, to support BAME programming. Better training is not enough, he argues. The PSBs’ investment in the nations and regions outside London has shown that ring-fencing cash for specific programming can produce results.
And there could be "repercussions", as Blackett put it at the RTS, if broadcast organisations fail to meet such targets – just as there would be if an ad agency chief executive missed revenue and profit targets.
"I don’t see that you’ll get any substantial change until you ring-fence funds," Younge, who moved Sugar Films from London to Wales to capitalise on regional investment, says, adding: "Policy drives behaviour."
One commissioner acknowledges the logic of that argument but adds a note of caution: "I fear if we ring-fence a pot of money, BAME shows might never get out of that ring-fenced pot."
The way into the mainstream
Audio-video entertainment is changing radically because social media has "democratised" access and led to an explosion in short-form content.
Jamal Edwards, founder of SBTV, an online urban music channel, which he started on YouTube, says: "It’s true that new technology has allowed many creators, including myself, to be less reliant on the traditional routes but our feeling is we should always pursue all outlets [including the established broadcasters]."
Edwards set up SBTV in 2006 because "mainstream media wasn’t supporting the artists I was listening to" but now this genre of British urban music is attracting much bigger audiences. He points to talent such as Rapman whose YouTube series, Shiro’s Story, led to a cinema release, Blue Story, which was backed by BBC Films and Viacom’s Paramount Pictures.
He also praises ITV2’s music quiz show, Don’t Hate the Playaz, which has featured an all-BAME cast, as another example of progress on-screen (although he hates using "BAME" as a word). Such a diverse line-up "makes a massive difference", Edwards says, adding with approval, "that’s the first time I’ve ever seen that" on a mainstream, British show.
Still, online creators can struggle to persuade a big broadcaster to back them because of fears about a lack of mainstream TV credentials when it comes to making long-form content. "Good ideas but you might not be able to deliver" is a "big stumbling-block", according to Edwards.
He suggests that a co-production between a BAME-led production company and a more established TV production outfit might be the way forward. Then, greater experience would allow BAME talent to take more control behind the camera, he says, citing Top Boy as an example where the production team has hired a more diverse crew as the show has been recommissioned and gained momentum.
Are US broadcasters and streamers serving BAME audiences better?
Some people working in British broadcasting have developed an inferiority complex because of the rise of Netflix, Amazon Prime and other streaming services, and the WPP/Kantar research shows the US TV and film industries offer more range and depth for BAME audiences, in particular.
However, the US has a 330 million population that is five times larger than the UK, with a far greater proportion from ethnic minorities – about 40% compared with about 15% in the UK.
Younge, who has worked in the US, does not think established US broadcasters have improved their output for BAME audiences significantly in the past decade but Netflix and the streamers are another matter as they are increasingly global, which makes it easier to serve defined audiences.
"I can’t work out if Netflix looks blacker to me because the algorithm is promoting all of its diverse stuff or whether Netflix is actually blacker," Younge says. "It certainly gives the impression that it is blacker because the algorithm, having cracked my interests, is going to serve more of that [diverse] stuff to me and less of the other stuff."
British TV may lack the breadth of BAME content that the US produces but Edwards thinks that is, in part, because "the Americans have been doing it for a lot longer" and created more "hero moments" with shows such as Power, She’s Gotta Have It and The Black Godfather. By comparison, the UK is only "beginning" to produce its own hits such as Top Boy and Chewing Gum, he says.
Industry leaders with knowledge of the global TV market argue that the UK deserves some credit. "Looking across the 180 markets in which Viacom operates, I can tell you that when it comes to using data to advance critical aspects of diversity and inclusion, the UK is leading the way," Marva Smalls, the US-based global head of inclusion at ViacomCBS, told the Creativity Diversity Network in a speech in London last year.
Smalls pointed to UK regulatory requirements such as the publication of the company’s gender pay gap and the disclosure of diversity statistics about its local workforce. There is "nothing else" around the world to match the Diamond report in terms of industry-wide collaboration, she said.
"Initially, there were misgivings at Viacom about the ethics, perhaps even the legality, of surveying our employees for this type of data. But we have come to see this level of transparency as a net positive, and as an approach we can adapt and roll out in other countries, too."
However, for those in UK broadcasting, there is little room for complacency. "We know that there is more to do" was a constant refrain from all of the broadcasters that spoke to Campaign.
Even that well-intentioned tone does not match the level of impatience and frustration felt by some leading figures from BAME backgrounds.
When Coel gave the MacTaggart Lecture to the Edinburgh TV Festival in 2018, she told a story about filming her show Chewing Gum on location overseas and having stones thrown at her by four men in the street.
"The producers saw shooting in ‘that place’ as a low-cost haven," she said. "They didn’t consider the experiences of the brown and black cast to meet the morals of their diversity compass, because they didn’t think to see things from our point of view." Her white colleagues who worked on the show weren’t racist but they might have been "thoughtless about race", she suggested.
Or as Younge puts it: "We have to think differently. What we’ve been doing before [as an industry] hasn’t been working."
The message is resonating beyond the entertainment world. It "simply cannot be right in this day and age" that diversity still requires improvement, Prince William told the Bafta film awards earlier this month after all 20 acting nominees were white.
More work and collective action are needed for the media industry to speed up the glacial pace of change.
Staff from a BAME background: how the UK broadcasters compare
Each key BBC leadership group is to appoint two new advisers, with at least one on each group expected to have a deep understanding of BAME issues. The Corporation also runs a commissioner development programme which offers TV professionals with a disability or who are from BAME backgrounds the opportunity to develop commissioning skills.
The BBC will host an inaugural Creative Diversity Festival in spring 2020, led by June Sarpong, the BBC’s creative director of diversity, which will specifically focus on BAME talent. "We are committed to ensuring it will deliver real results and change," the BBC says. Forthcoming programming includes a new Michaela Coel drama, provisionally called January 22nd, and a Steve McQueen-directed series, Small Axe. BBC One is "the most popular channel in the UK amongst BAME audiences", the BBC says, but the annual report warned: "BAME audiences gave lower scores than white audiences for the extent to which the BBC caters for a wide range of tastes and reflects what is relevant to them."
ITV has the lowest proportion of BAME staff compared with the other four UK-based broadcasters but it also has the highest proportion (16%) who don’t report their ethnicity, according to Ofcom’s diversity monitoring report. Chief executive Dame Carolyn McCall has set a target that 15% of managers and staff should be from a BAME background by 2022.
ITV’s social purpose report shows it has a median "ethnicity" pay gap of 7.8%. The FTSE-100 company has been focusing, in particular, on improving the intake for entry-level roles as it aims to attract "individuals who may not have previously considered ITV as a potential employer". Among apprentices, 27% came from a BAME background in 2018/19. Coronation Street welcomed the Bailey family as black characters last year, Gurinder Chadha wrote and produced a six-hour, prime-time drama Beecham House and ITV2 quiz show Don’t Hate the Playaz broke fresh ground with an all-black, all-female panel. ITV also runs Original Voices, a scheme to support BAME writers.
The state-owned, commercial broadcaster has diversity written into its remit by Parliament and has a strategy called "4 All The UK". Channel 4 launched commissioning diversity guidelines in 2015 and 89% of programmes met those targets in 2018 – the highest level yet. Its Indie Growth Fund is focused on backing production companies that are either in the Nations & Regions (outside London) or BAME-led.
For the first time, Channel 4 last year published pay-gap data for four groups – gender, BAME, disability and LGBT+. Alex Mahon, its chief executive, has set a target for 20% of leaders to be from a BAME background by 2023 and introduced diversity dashboards to track progress. Recent shows include The Big Narstie Show and The Lateish Show with Mo Gilligan, and BAME audience share was up 3% last year. "When you represent society as it is, there are positive commercial gains," Mahon says. 4Sales runs an annual Diversity in Advertising award that offers £1m of commercial airtime for a campaign that highlights diversity.
The Comcast-owned pay-TV and broadband giant claims to have "exceeded" its target for 20% BAME representation for both senior roles and on-screen talent (although it is lower in the broadcast division – 15%, according to Ofcom’s figures). Sky believes shaking up its recruitment process helped to increase the proportion of BAME staff as it refreshed the language in job ads, placed them where they would "attract more diverse candidates" and appointed more diverse interview panels.
Internal initiatives include Fresh Perspectives, a coaching programme for managers from a BAME background. Sky admits there is "an industry-wide challenge" when it comes to "under-representation" of BAME writers and it offers support at a monthly event. The ad sales operation, Sky Media, has been using its ad-targeting service, AdSmart, to appeal to BAME audiences. Ofcom said Sky’s data collection on employee diversity got worse last year and the regulator has been "assured" it will improve this year.
The owner of Channel 5 and MTV has a relatively strong record on diversity, with 20% of staff from a BAME background, Ofcom’s figures show. The UK-based operation has followed the lead of its US counterparts, including ViacomCBS’s cable networks and Paramount Pictures, which have a content creation council that is "required to enhance access and opportunities for historically under-represented groups in the media industry".
Under the leadership of UK director of programming Ben Frow, all productions "must outline how they will help the channel meet its diversity and inclusion goals" and there is a scheme to help BAME production companies, particularly those based in the regions, to develop new show ideas for Channel 5. Other Viacom initiatives include Viewfinder Emerging TV Directors and Nickelodeon Artists and Writing Programmes. Viacom UK also produced its first Diversity & Inclusion Workforce Report. "We know there’s always room to do more," Marva Smalls, global head of inclusion at ViacomCBS, says.