David, Bunmi and I have decided to take it in turns to write a monthly newsletter detailing the latest goings on with regard to diversity, inclusion, representation etc. in the global TV industry.
Future newsletters are unlikely to be this long, I had some time on my hands and got a little carried away! In order to prevent this from being too UK centric, (or too much work for us), please share relevant news from your country, either by posting on our social media pages or by sending us an email.
Normally this will be the news from the last month, but for this first newletter, I've highlighted some of the most interesting TV diversity stories since we last got together at MIPCOM 2019.
The Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity launched in March. You may recall that we invited Sir Lenny to MIPCOM in 2017 and he gave the Diversity Keynote. The Centre named after him aims to critically analyse policies in the media industry with a view to increasing diversity and inclusion, improving policy decisions and spreading best practice. We’ll be keeping a close eye on the work they produce, but for now you might be interested to look at their launch project where they are collating all the UK reports on media diversity over the last twenty years. We have linked to this in the resources section of our website and will update with other reports that we are made aware of on diversity around the world.
At the end of last year BBC Breakfast TV presenter Naga Munchetty was found to have breached BBC guidelines when discussing President Trump’s call for four congresswomen of colour “to go back” to the places “from which they came”. It is well worth spending the 1 minute and 24 seconds to watch the exchange with her co-host here. The BBC said its editorial guidelines "do not allow for journalists to... give their opinions about the individual making the remarks or their motives for doing so" An open letter condemning this decision was signed by prominent Britons of colour, including former speakers at DiversifyTV events Lenny Henry and Pat Younge, where they argued that you can’t be ‘impartial’ about racism. On the same day in which the Guardian newspaper ran a story claiming the original complaint that led to Munchetty being disciplined was also about her white male co-host Dan Walker, the BBC Director General announced he had overturned the decision after looking in to it personally. Munchetty has since said that “very positive things” had come out of the incident “What it has done is raise an uncomfortable conversation that needed to be raised”.
Samira Ahmed took the BBC to an equal pay tribunal for back-dated pay for seven years of work presenting Newswatch, believing that she should have been paid the same as Points of View host Jeremy Vine for equal work. Ahmed was paid £450 per episode for Newswatch while Vine was paid £3,000. She won the tribunal in January and reached a settlement with the BBC, (Marcus Ryder’s blog post on the outcome is well worth a read). In March Ahmed won the Broadcasting Press Guild Award for Audio Presenter of the Year. Accepting the award “on behalf of all the immigrants who raised children like me”, her speech seemed, (to me), to nod towards the Naga Munchetty scandal as she called on broadcasters to “take a stand” against normalising racism in its attempts to be balanced and impartial “it’s time all broadcasters thought long and hard about the right to hold the moral line on not normalising racism and prejudice. It isn’t about compromising journalists values”
Actress Gabrielle Union was not renewed in her role as a judge in America’s Got Talent for a second season, with stories reporting that she had complained about a toxic culture on the show. Union tweeted that she had a productive 5 hour meeting with broadcaster NBC where she was able to “express my unfiltered truth. I led with transparency and my desire and hope for real change.” NBC began a formal investigation in early December and the companies Entertainment Chairman, Paul Telegedy, said the company will respond appropriately when it receives the findings of its inquiry, and indicated that they may be completed by the end of January. At the beginning of May, I was unable to find any further comment from NBC on this matter.
I’m happy to report that the prestigious Grierson Awards have updated their judging criteria to include production diversity and inclusion. Entrants will be asked about the steps they have taken to ensure that diversity and inclusion practices are embedded in the making of their entry. Lorraine Heggessey, chair of The Grierson Trust stated “We hope this will encourage producers and directors to consider the way they approach the content of their films as well as the make-up of the production team.”
Lastly I recommend reading an interview with BBC drama head Piers Wenger. He has commissioned a diverse slate of shows including an adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses along with Steve McQueen’s Small Axe, a period drama about black British history. I like his approach and find his desire to serve all parts of the audience refreshing.
Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY Alliance has partnered with Getty Images to launch four new grants that aim to shine light on authentic visual narratives of underrepresented communities.
The Edinburgh TV Festival will be held online for the first time this August and passes are FREE for freelancers. Sessions from previous years festivals are available to view on their YouTube channel. I’d recommend watching this short video that shows highlights from previous sessions that have tackled representation.
A new film festival highlighting the contributions of the Windrush generation (migrants named after the Empire Windrush ship which first brought families over to help rebuild post-war Britain) is launching in the UK http://windrushfilmfestival.com/the-festival/
As we posted on our socials yesterday, the BBC launched their new creative diversity initiatives on LinkedIn. You can watch the session here or read a report of their announcements here
On occasions we’ll provide a short profile of somebody who is pushing for diversity in the TV industry. Please feel free to send us recommendations of who should be featured. Given that I’ve mentioned Lenny Henry in this issue and he spoke at our diversity programme in 2017, I thought we'd start with him.
Lenny Henry is a British comedian, actor, writer and television presenter. He got his break in 1975, when aged just 17, he won the TV talent show New Faces with an impersonation of Stevie Wonder. Whilst still a teenager he went on to appear in the Black and White Minstrel show, which is now regarded as one of the most racist shows in British history. Lenny has spoken of his regret of appearing in the show and how his appearance led him to a profound “wormhole of depression”. Since then he has been a constant presence on British TV. He starred in the UK’s first black sitcom, presented a cult kid’s TV show for 4 years and a sketch show with Tracey Ullman and David Copperfield. In the 1980’s he was first given his own show on the BBC. In 1985 he co-founded Comic Relief, (a British charity with the vision of creating a world free from poverty, using comedy to raise money and change lives) with film director Richard Curtis. In the 1990’s he created his own production company, Crucial Films, which paved the way for a number of ethnic minority performers to get their break in the business. In the 2000’s Lenny appeared in a number of stage plays including starring as Othello. He has been an outspoken campaigner for increased diversity in the media. He delivered the annual Bafta Television Lecture in 2014, which is well worth a watch as he discussed the deterioration of Black and Asian Minority Ethnic involvement in the creative industries, and how this can be improved to more accurately reflect British communities on screen. The speech can be screened here
You probably won’t be surprised to learn that I'm currently watching even more television than I do normally. I’ve listed my thoughts on a number of shows below:
Tiger King, Netflix – It’s had so much hype, that I’m sure all of you, at the very least, are aware of this crazy doc series. If you haven’t seen it, you really should. I’ve always been shocked by US gun laws or should I say lack of gun laws. However that’s nothing compared to how shocked I was to find out there are US States that don’t restrict or regulate people from keeping exotic pets such as tigers! The shocks just keep on coming. I binge watched and became a little obsessed with Joe Exotic and the other characters in the documentary. So much so that I then listened to the podcast and watched a 2011 Louis Theroux documentary, ‘America’s Most Dangerous Pets’ where Louis met with several characters that feature in Tiger King. I was shocked once again to discover that Joe Exotic was a former police officer. Just when I didn’t think there was anything left to surprise me about this story, I read that Nicolas Cage is set to play Joe Exotic in a CBS drama series.
Love is Blind, Netflix – I had no intention of watching this, I found the concept stoooopid, however lots of my friends were talking about it and I got drawn in for the whole season. I’m not sure if there has ever been a character in reality TV that I have disliked as much as Jessica. Do you need to watch? No. Will you watch the full season after checking out 5 minutes? Probably.
Too Hot To Handle, Netflix – Yes, I watched another trashy reality show. I needed to watch the 1st ep to understand the format for work purposes (honestly), plus the creators of the show had set up a new production label backed by the company I work for. However I again found myself sucked in to watching every episode (it's easy background viewing whilst working from home). Gutted to read that Rhonda and Sharron aren’t still together.
Unorthodox, Netflix – I was fascinated to watch this as I know very little about the Hasidic Jewish community. I ran the NYC marathon in 2018 and it was a bizarre experience to go from packed streets of cheering crowds for the first 11 miles of the race to deathly quiet as I reached Williamsburg home of the Jewish Orthodox Salmar community. This series has been highly praised in every review that I’ve seen, but I have to say I was left a little disappointed by the ending. I hadn’t realised it was only 4 episodes and I expected to learn more about the fate of the characters, especially that of Moishe who was the individual that interested me the most and whose backstory wasn’t explored.
Homeland, Showtime – I’ve watched every episode of Homeland, the premise immediately hooked me - a prisoner of war is rescued after years of captivity, but has he been turned? Is he planning to launch an attack on his own country? The first 2 seasons were gripping, but later seasons were hit and miss. However I’m so glad I stuck with it, as the series finale was close to perfect. It reiterated to me just how underwhelming the finale, of the consistently great, Game of Thrones was. Homeland has courted controversy over the years, particularly with regard to the series being racist. I can completely see where the criticism comes from, the majority of Muslim characters were terrorists or at least sympathisers. I personally feel the bigger issue is the lack of Muslim characters in mainstream programming, it was only last year that we saw the first American sitcom with a Muslim lead character. I have no issue with minorities playing the terrorist, the mugger, the drug dealer etc, we know that these people exist in our communities, however we also know that the majority of us are law abiding and that needs to be reflected. We need to be the love interest, the super hero, the princess and all the other positive roles that you rarely see minorities get to play in mainstream television. I’m all for telling challenging stories, I don’t want TV to shy away from talking about terrorism and I applaud Homeland for acknowledging the criticism levelled at it and taking steps to address it. I certainly noticed an attempt in later seasons to not portray things as being quite so black and white. The show depicted the US state engaging in acts of terrorism that killed innocent people, and showed how this causes hatred towards the US from other parts of the world. We know far right terrorism has killed more people in the US than Jihadists, so I appreciated Homeland season 6 being dedicated to a right wing terrorism plot within the US. Also the series began to illustrate the persecution that law abiding Muslims often face, not just from individuals, but also from the state. Homeland was originally adapted from a Israeli series called Prisoners of War (Hatufim), which has also been remade in Russia and India. I’d be fascinated to watch those to see the differences in their world view, although not sure I’m fascinated enough to read subtitles - I’m generally always doing something else whilst watching TV, (like typing this review). I watched the first 2 episodes of the original Israeli series years ago and remember finding it even more interesting than the US version. After the prisoner of war was presumed dead, the POW’s wife remarried his own brother, which his father pressured him to hide when the POW was found to be alive! However despite my best intentions, I didn’t manage to watch any more.
The Blacklist, NBC – There are very few long running dramas that I have stuck with for every episode and The Blacklist is another. It had the best 30 second on air trail I’ve ever seen, I was captivated and decided I'd watch the show. I can’t find the trail online, but you’ll get the picture from this slightly longer promo. The series of course wasn’t able to live up to the trail and hasn’t been the most consistent of shows, but Raymond Reddington, played by James Spader, is one of my favourite characters in television and has kept me watching. Season 7 has just started in the UK (a few months behind the US) and the first 2 episodes have been pretty strong.
Quiz, ITV & AMC – This 3 part drama is a fact based story of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire (WWTBAM) contestant, Major Charles Ingram, who was found guilty of cheating his way to win a million pounds on the British version of the show. It’s a fascinating story, and although I remember the furore when it happened nearly 20 years ago, the drama reveals that things were not quite as black and white as they seemed at the time. Whilst I can’t say I’m sure that Major Ingram is innocent, there is enough doubt in my mind that I don’t think I could find him guilty. I have spoken to lots of people that are convinced of the Major’s guilt, but it’s interesting that none of my friends of colour have been willing to be that unequivocal, maybe that’s due to us having less faith in the judicial system? Quiz actually started as a theatre play. I took my team to see it, considering we work in TV formats and WWTBAM is the most successful TV format of all time, it seemed fitting. In the play, the audience were given the opportunity to act as the jury via electronic voting after each act, where they will have witnessed the arguments for the prosecution and the defence to decide whether Ingram was guilty. James Graham, the writer of both the play and TV adaptation, revealed in a podcast to accompany the TV show, that virtually every night of the play’s run, the majority of the audience changed their mind and voted not guilty at the end of the play. Interestingly two members of my team were learning about the story for the first time, (one was a baby when it happened, the other not a Brit), therefore didn’t have the preconceived ideas the rest of us did and were never convinced of his guilt. I hate to sound pretentious, but I think the play is superior to the TV series, (in addition to the interactivity, it also has more humour), however the TV series is still excellent and I think everybody working in entertainment TV should watch. With the Major and his wife set to appeal their conviction do you think the they are guilty?
Kate and Koji, ITV – I don’t expect this sitcom to travel, so it’s unlikely you’ll be able to see this outside of the UK, but I felt compelled to watch this when I heard it would feature Jimmy Akingbola playing an African immigrant. I feared the worse, the show is written by 2, (very successful), white male writers who are well in to their 60’s (you may be familiar with their BBC sitcom Outnumbered, which is pretty good). Now I’m familiar with the Ghanaian name Kojo, (means born on Monday), but I’ve never heard of Koji as an African name, had they really made the most basic of mistakes? It turns out that the character’s name was the best joke of the first episode. His passport reveals Koji is teh name he goes by instead of Kojak Columbo Quincy Cagney Lacey Akindele - his father loved American detective TV shows. I read in an interview that the writers were keen to create an asylum-seeker character that was not a victim - Koji is a doctor – good intentions, but it feels like a racist sitcom from the 70’s, just with the black character now getting the last laugh. One episode was enough for me, whether or not it is distasteful, it just wasn’t funny. For a hilarious sitcom with an asylum-seeker as a lead character, check out the Channel 4 series Home, apparently Ben Stiller is remaking the show for NBC.
The Last Dance, ESPN (Netflix outside the US) – I’ve never been a huge basketball fan, the last time I paid it any real attention was when Michael Jordan was still playing, but after watching this amazing documentary series, I want a season ticket. So many people have recommended this to me, even those that don’t like sport. Both the interviews and the editing are done to perfection. This is a must watch.
The Search For Indonesia’s First Wonderkid, YouTube – I stumbled upon this show completely by accident. A tweet was sent to me showing a 20 second clip of two retired English professional footballers berating, (in very slowly enunciated, foul mouthed English), a team of young looking Indonesian boys for not being physical enough. I forwarded it on to a group of friends that I used to play football with and asked them if they had any idea what was going on. One sent me a link to the series on YouTube, which had become his quarantine binge viewing and recommended that I check it out. Interest in football throughout Asia is undeniable, but despite holding over half the world’s population, very few genuine football superstars hail from the continent. Interest in the English premier league is huge, so this series follows a scheme sponsored by the Indonesian state airline to improve football talent in the country. It sees former England Internationals go to Indonesia and scout the most talented teenagers. Those selected are brought over to the UK to create a team, (Garuda Select), receive top quality training, and play against the youth sides of English and Italian professional clubs. These games are shown live in Indonesia to millions of viewers, making social media stars of many of the young players. This series on YouTube features quite a lot of footage from the matches, but also documents the whole Garuda Select experience. If you don’t like football, then it probably won’t engage you, but there are some fascinating insights in to Indonesian culture. I’ve been pitched variations on formats searching for the next football star on numerous occasions. I’ve always turned them down as I felt all the effort had been put in to securing access to the professional clubs/players, but very little thought had gone in to what the show would be and why we’d care about the participants. This series cracked that problem, it wasn’t an issue connecting with the boys from Garuda Select as they went through this fish out of water experience. The camaraderie that quickly developed amongst the team, (they didn’t know each other prior), and with the English coaches is touching, meaning you can’t help but route for them against the teams comprised of bigger boys, playing a more physical, and less skilful, game. Several of the Garuda Select team were really impressive young players, so fingers crossed that some of them will go on to make it as professionals.
This newsletter is published on our website www.diversifytv.com/news where you can comment on the stories above. Next month Bunmi will certainly be reviewing Becoming, Michelle Obama’s much hyped Netflix documentary, what else should we be watching?