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Scaling Everest: Equity for minorities in broadcasting

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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Felix Fraser, Athabasca University
Guest Contributor

In 1988 I created and chaired a national forum on Multiculturalism in Broadcasting. Held at Toronto’s Four Seasons Hotel, the opening keynote address was given by the Hon. Lincoln Alexander, then Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. All of the major broadcasters, both radio and television, were invited to discuss the lack of presence of Aboriginal people and racialized minorities both before and behind the cameras and microphones. Lincoln Alexander, in a fiery speech, gave CTV, the CBC and Global hell for their ‘foot dragging’ on the lack of representation of minorities in broadcasting. At the time you could count the number of Black broadcasters on your fingers, probably on one hand. I was probably the first, starting in radio in 1951 and Hamlin Grange, now President of DiversiPro Inc., was probably the second.

In the years since then the visibility of Black people on television has changed quite dramatically, particularly on cable news channels. American drama and sitcoms, which spill across the border, now routinely feature minorities. And Black people have always had a place in comedy. The impact on Canadian drama, however, has been less than it should be and there are few minorities on Canadian television. We have a few programs like Little Mosque on the Prairie and Da Kink in my Hair, which are set in minority situations, but there is less minority presence in mainstream network dramas. At the same time, behind the cameras and microphones, Black people and other minorities remain underrepresented.

It is interesting and, perhaps, controversial to note that Blacks who appear on camera, particularly on cable news shows, tend to have certain look-alike sameness. They are, like their mainstream counterparts, always attractive, with similar, nicely symmetrical features. And they all have similar accents – some version of North American broadcast-ese. With the exception of the occasional British accent, you rarely hear the cadences and intonations which mark other cultures. With rare exceptions there is no ‘kink’ in their hair, and their skin tone is an attractive just-beyond-café au lait complexion. No really dark faces with broad African noses here.

It is a fact that one of the most rapidly increasing demographics in Canada and probably in North America is the children of mixed race unions. There is no greater example than the President of the United States. Television and movies, of course, will always feature the beautiful people, no matter what the racial origin. One of the outstanding challenges of our time is to widen the definition of what is attractive or beautiful to include a broader variety of facial types and skin tones. This is already happening, to some extent, with people of Asian ancestry.

So we still have a lot of work to do. While there clearly have been gains in the on-camera and on-microphone presence of minorities, the real challenge is to increase our presence in the boardrooms and executive suites of broadcasting organizations. In the history of broadcasting in Canada there has only been one Black person to hold the position of chief executive officer of a national television network. Denham Jolly is the only Black person to own and operate a radio station in Canada.

The extraordinary consolidation of the broadcasting industry into a very few, very powerful mainstream hands creates an even higher Everest for minorities to climb. It will take education, entrepreneurship and determination to reach the top. The climb is already under way.

Fil Fraser, CM, is an adjunct professor in Communication Studies at Athabasca University, and serves as Chair of the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Arts Awards Foundation.

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Equity Matters