Beyond Diversity Smokescreens: On the small screen and behind the scenes

Friday, May 21, 2010

Rita Shelton Deverell, Mount St. Vincent University
Guest Contributor

This blog post is part of the Federation Equity Portfolio’s ‘Equality Then and Now’ series, marking 40 years since the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. Look for more on this topic in upcoming posts and at Congress 2010.

In my 36 years in Canadian broadcasting, I’ve championed meaningful inclusion of the four designated groups. It goes with my professional territory as a black woman that a goal in life is engendering opportunities for women, persons with disabilities, Aboriginal Peoples, and visible minority creators.

Recently I have delivered numerous lectures on ‘Diversity in Media’ where I asked: Who will inherit the airwaves? The key points from these lectures are included below.

First, an ancient story about racial discrimination: Back in 1974, the position of host was available at the CBC newsmagazine ‘Take 30.’ I am told by an executive producer, “Some people at CBC think you’d do a really good job, but the Canadian people aren’t ready to have a black host of a network show.”

All that season I had been a substitute host while Adrienne Clarkson was on loan to ‘Primetime’ (renamed ‘The Fifth Estate’), and had been the researcher/interviewer on a 26 part ‘Take 30’ mini-series on the Rights of Children.

Later conversations with a retired feminist, Anglo-Saxon Dodi Robb, who had been CBC’s head of daytime information programming and had hired Adrienne Clarkson as ‘Take 30’ host, demonstrated that who you see in front of the camera depends on who is in the executive chair.

Fast-forward to the era of the mid-1980s to the end of the millennium, since both you and I would like to say that 1974 was the Dark Ages. Let’s acknowledge how much better things got.

Then I thought that just having places to work for people who looked like me was the challenge. So a number of us got busy building such places in the TV industry:

  • In 1989, VisionTV – a multi-faith, aggressively multi-ethnic channel launched. I emerged 13 years later as both a co-founder and the only black woman to have been VP of a Canadian network.
  • In 1990, The Disability Network, a TV show focusing on issues of disability produced and hosted by people with disabilities, airs on CBC. It is re-invented as ‘Moving On’ in 1997. (And, in what is unfortunately perhaps a sign of the times, the CBC took it off the air last year.)
  • The year 1995 saw the birth of the Women’s Television Network (now known as W), with women as CEO, executive management, and staff.
  • Four years later marked the arrival of the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, with an Aboriginal CEO, primarily Aboriginal board, executive management, and staff.

In that rush to change who was ‘on’ the air, I honestly didn’t notice that the more fundamental change we were making then was in ‘who’ was in executive management and on boards.

But today some might feel that we no longer need to pay attention to the four designated groups because the broadcasting industry will look after all these diversity matters itself.

That is precisely what the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission’s (CRTC) July 2007 application denial of would-be digital channel Canada One said.  Canada One applied to broadcast English-language drama, with visible minority people in key creative positions, ownership, and executive management. Let’s look at the CRTC’s denial – not to assert that the application was perfect or to revisit it – but to highlight the rather curious justification for denial.

The CRTC said: “Canada One TV could launch as early as 2008. The applicant committed to airing original Canadian drama programming in year five (2012, based on a 2008 launch). In the Commissioners’ view, if present efforts by broadcasters continue, by that point, the Canadian broadcasting system will have made more gains in the on-screen and off screen representation of cultural diversity.”

This stands in sharp contrast to what Canada One’s researchers actually concluded: “To catch up to today’s population benchmarks for the whole of English Canada, for primary characters [on TV programs], would take about 10 to 15 years. If you wanted to catch up to Toronto and Vancouver, it would take some 40 years plus.”

The primary reason for the regulator’s rejection is at best questionable.

It’s commonplace to say that media are in the business of making money. If potential audiences are diverse, isn’t it natural to assume that diverse TV personalities and programs will sell?  Other industries get it. Why is that such a difficult concept for media companies to grasp? It all goes back to who is in control.

Instead of fundamental change in terms of who has the power, media companies stir up a lot of activity around ‘diversity’ without actually changing anything. Here are some diversity smokescreens:

Words as smokescreen: Say ‘diversity’ a lot. Mean anything and nothing by it.

Honors as smokescreen: Better to appoint achieving broadcaster members of the four designated groups to symbolic positions, and not make them CEOs.

‘Consultation’ with minority groups as smokescreen: This is actually a joke among Aboriginal individuals with whom I’ve worked.

Training as Smokescreen: By now you would think some of those Aboriginal, disabled, and visible minority folk that have gone through training programs would be ready for real jobs.

Cosmetics as smokescreen: Change on screen portrayal somewhat, without changing who’s in charge behind the scenes.

Exceptions as smokescreen: There remain precious few women who are or have been CEOs of major media companies.

So who will inherit the airwaves? I am speculating that this millennium’s consolidation of owners primarily keeps power in the hands of those who’ve always had it.  I have six suggestions and go-forward solutions:

  1. Solidarity among the four designated groups without asserting interchangeability.
  2. Lobby the regulatory authorities and governments not to sanction the flipping of assets, executive managements, and mandates.
  3. Continue to apply for, and build political support around, TV channels for the under-represented groups.
  4. Lobby for real targets that existing broadcasters commit to achieving soon.  If there is industry will to do it anyway, then achieve the benchmarks now and scrap them when achieved.
  5. Maintain whatever assets the four designated groups have.
  6. Mentor the next generations.

I do believe that with industry will to achieve change, agreeing on solid benchmarks, and solidarity, diversity in media can be achieved sooner than most people think.

But where, oh where, is that will to change?

Rita Deverell was one of the founders of VisionTV, as well as the face of the channel as on-air host. She served as director of news and current affairs for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. She is a journalism teacher, theatre writer, performer and a TV producer/director. Her many honors include a Quebecor Banff Mentorship Award, an Order of Canada and the CAB Hall of Fame. Deverell is the 12th ‘Nancy’s Chair in Women’s Studies’ at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax. 


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