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?

Don’t know

SMH poll, 1,494 votes [7]

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 [1], 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. [2]

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 [3].

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.

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. [8]

“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 [4].

Indigenous Australia does not have a high profile on Australian television.—Pat Turner, inaugural CEO of National Indigenous Television [4]

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 [5]

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.” [6]

“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.” [3] Such boxed-in thinking also impedes financing projects with Aboriginal actors.

Besides Redfern Now, Black Comedy, Gods of Wheat Street and Cleverman are among the pioneers of more diversity, with Cleverman having been sold to the US and the UK markets. [9]

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”. [9]

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, Home and Away has never featured an Aboriginal character. 30-year-old Neighbours employed its first Aboriginal actor only in 2014 [3].

Fact The Redfern Now series cast 200 Aboriginal actors [3].

People are sick of just watching white, white, white.—Anousha Zarkesh, casting agent [3]

We moved from black and white television to colour, but forgot to bring the black with us.—Ryan Griffen, creator of TV show Cleverman [9]

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.[3]

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 [9]


View article sources (9)

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

Cite this article

An appropriate citation for this document is:,
Aboriginal culture - Media - Why are there so few black faces on television?, retrieved 17 December 2018