Media

Why are there so few black faces on television?

Television shows rarely cast black actors, portraying Australia as 'white' to the world. Why are Aboriginal actors missing out?

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Black faces missing on television

Anyone regularly watching Australian television might have noticed that its series and soap operas feature exclusively white Caucasian actors. Hardly any Aboriginal faces or stories feature on Australian television outside movies, especially during prime time.

Do Australian TV shows adequately reflect the country's diverse population?

No
53% 
Yes
31% 
Don't know
15% 

SMH poll, 1,494 votes [1]

If Aboriginal actors were cast more they would benefit through improved confidence, pride and a better sense of their identity.

Australian soap operas Neighbours and Home and Away have been branded racist for consistently failing to feature families from different ethnic backgrounds [2], which would reflect the true demographic of Australia.

Viewers might get a wrong idea about Australia. The 2011 Census revealed that more than a quarter (26%) of Australia's population was born overseas and a further one fifth (20%) had at least one overseas-born parent. [3]

No wonder that international students like Nigerian-born Catherine Bassey think Australia is mostly a “white-dominated” country when they watch Australian shows on television. "Unless you are here [in Australia], you may not get the picture of how diverse Australia really is,” Catherine says [4].

By not showing black faces TV stations miss audiences hungry to know more. Especially overseas tourists have a huge interest in learning about Aboriginal Australia and are left feeling starved of access to good information.

Not seeing one's race on television can have a huge impact on a person's self-image and feeling of worthiness.

Torres Strait Islander woman Rhianna Patrick still vividly remembers the excitement she felt when black actress Freema Agyeman was announced as Doctor Who’s first black companion, Martha Jones, in the series' third season.

"What it really meant to me was that my nieces and nephews would now have someone who looked like them in my favourite TV show, which they would love even if they didn’t want to," she says. [5]

"Seeing how excited they get when they meet someone they recognise from a film or TV programme that has someone like them on it is something money can’t buy, but it speaks volumes to me, as their aunty, about how important it still is to see themselves represented in a positive way." National Indigenous Television (NITV) estimated that in 2007 less than 2 hours per week (or just 1.2%) were dedicated to Aboriginal-produced content [6].

Indigenous Australia does not have a high profile on Australian television. — Pat Turner, inaugural CEO of National Indigenous Television [6]

We are not very visible in the media, unless it's via an allegation that the person suspected of a crime was Aboriginal which is an interesting observation from people who mostly wouldn't know us if they fell over us. — Nyoongar Prof Colleen Hayward, Edith Cowan University, Perth [7]

Case study: Brooke Boney's journey to one of the most prominent Aboriginal personalities on Australian commercial TV

Brooke is a Gamilaroi woman grew up in the New South Wales Hunter Valley on Wonnaruah country.

Watching Channel Nine's Today breakfast show as a young girl, she didn't hear many Aboriginal voices on radio or saw Aboriginal faces on television, which partly motivated her to become a journalist. Another motivation was to change the way people think about Aboriginal people and to present more positive stereotypes.

But that journey was not easy.

She is one of six children of a family that couldn't afford much and lived in housing commissions. She dropped out of school in Year 12 like many of her Aboriginal peers.

But Brooke took it as a motivator to work hard. "I really didn’t want to be a victim of the situation I was born into," she says. "I wanted to work really hard to make sure I wasn’t poor ever again." [8]

She embarked on a media career studying journalism at University of Technology Sydney. While still at university she started working at SBS and National Indigenous Television where she was appointed the station's political correspondent. She covered federal politics in the Canberra press gallery, including two election campaigns.

"If young Aboriginal people can see other blackfellas kicking goals, they can imagine themselves doing it too," Brooke says of Aboriginal faces in the media.

Working as a breakfast morning newsreader for radio station Triple J she opened her breakfast news bulletins with a trademark “Yaama”, which is the Gamilaroi word for "hello".

After two years at the station, Brooke joined Channel Nine's Today crew in early 2019 as its new entertainment correspondent.

It set her on track to become one of the most prominent Aboriginal personalities on Australian commercial television.

"I think it’s really important that our media reflects the country we are and there’s so many different nationalities that make up Australia. It only makes us stronger and better when we include everyone," Brooke says. [8]

Brooke Boney
Brooke Boney. Overcoming poverty and dropping out of school, she joined Channel Nine's breakfast show Today in 2019, becoming one of the most prominent Aboriginal personalities on Australian commercial television. Photo: Facebook, used with permission

TV and radio need to do more

The hugely successful TV series Redfern Now is a good example of how contemporary Aboriginal issues can be brought into prime time television.

Apart from showing Aboriginal actors, TV and radio stations should also employ more Aboriginal journalists, not confine them to Aboriginal program units, and treat them just the same as all other news staff—not as an "Aboriginal journalist".

"No, I would not be an 'Indigenous journalist'," demands Sky News international editor and Wiradjuri man, Stan Grant. "I took my place alongside everyone else, rising or falling on my merit seeking no special favour... If anything I probably avoided stories about my people for risk of being typecast." [9]

"Australian television screens... are lamentably 'white'," he says. "Barely an Asian, southern European, Middle Eastern face let alone an Indigenous one."

Casting agent Anousha Zarkesh blames the networks' managerial ivory towers for the lack of black faces on television: "Networks are run by white middle class men in suits – they don’t see the culture we live in because they live in a small pocket. They don’t go to Cabramatta and Western Sydney in their daily, life so they need to think outside their small world." [4] Such boxed-in thinking also impedes financing projects with Aboriginal actors.

Besides Redfern Now, Black ComedyGods of Wheat Street and Cleverman are among the pioneers of more diversity, with Cleverman having been sold to the US and the UK markets. [10]

Aboriginal man and Cleverman creator and producer, Ryan Griffen, can't wait "to see more Aboriginal actors and people of colour on our screens across all networks; and for more smart, sexy genre television to be made in this country, the types of shows that will draw international audiences to our stories". [10]

But he doesn't limit multicultural talent to actors. "Imagine the unique and untold stories we will find when we have more people of colour in the writing room," he challenges.

Fact

In its 27-year history, TV series Home and Away has never featured an Aboriginal character. 30-year-old Neighbours employed its first Aboriginal actor only in 2014 [4].

Fact

The Redfern Now series cast 200 Aboriginal actors [4].

People are sick of just watching white, white, white. — Anousha Zarkesh, casting agent [4]

We moved from black and white television to colour, but forgot to bring the black with us. — Ryan Griffen, creator of TV show Cleverman [10]

What is colour-blind casting?

Colour-blind casting is casting without bias – there is no restriction or tokenism. The leading actor could be of any ethnic background.

Colour-blind casting is always requested by the ABC and SBS in their productions.

Example: The casting of Deborah Mailman as a nurse in Offspring – there is no mention of her Aboriginality.[4]

A good example how to show Aboriginal characters

Broome-based Goolarri TV is an Aboriginal department which produces local television material, corporate or training DVDs, designs and makes media campaigns and advertising for government or corporate clients, and produces documentaries and television series that explore the people and culture of the region.

Watch the video below, created for the Office of Road Safety (ORS). It is a good example of how you can incorporate black faces into something that concerns us all: driver fatigue.

As an Aboriginal man, there is one thing that is glaringly obvious here. At a time when unique stories are in demand, this country holds 60,000 years worth of stories that will blow the world’s audiences away. — Ryan Griffen, creator of TV show Cleverman [10]

References

View article sources (10)

[1] 'The readers' panel', SMH 5/8/2017
[2] The Courier Mail, cited in NIT 27/11/2008 p.29
[3] 'Reflecting a Nation: Stories from the 2011 Census, 2012–2013 ', Australian Bureau of Statistics, abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/Lookup/2071.0main+features902012-2013
[4] [4a] [4b] [4c] [4d] [4e] 'TV needs more colour-blind casting', IN Daily Adelaide News 12/5/2015
[5] 'I can’t explain how excited I was when Doctor Who got a black companion', The Guardian Australia 22/8/2017
[6] [6a] 'Big dreams for new TV service', Koori Mail 396 p.5
[7] 'Leaders told: Don't ignore urban people', Koori Mail 447 p.18
[8] [8a] 'Who is Today’s new showbiz reporter Brooke Boney?', news.com.au, 21/12/2018
[9] 'Where are all the indigenous faces?', The Australian 28/7/2014
[10] [10a] [10b] [10c] 'Imagine the untold stories we'll find with more people of colour on television', The Guardian Australia 13/7/2017

Harvard citation

Korff, J 2019, Why are there so few black faces on television?, <https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/media/why-are-there-so-few-black-faces-on-television>, retrieved 20 February 2019

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