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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Selected statistics

76%
Percentage of presenters, commentators and reporters on Australian television who are Anglo-Celtic in June 2019; their proportion of the population: 58%.
11%
Share of non-European and Aboriginal news presenters; their combined proportion of the population: 24%.
5
Number of states or territories of Australia where not a single Aboriginal presenter, commentator or reporter appeared on TV during a 2-week test (NT, SA, TAS, QLD and VIC).

Black faces missing on television

If you're regularly watching Australian television you might have noticed that its news, series and soap operas have almost exclusively white Caucasian presenters and actors. Hardly any Aboriginal faces or stories feature on Australian television outside movies or documentaries, especially during prime time, and even panel discussions about Black Lives Matter protests are all-white.

Almost half of the population was either born overseas or has a parent born overseas and Australians speak more than 300 languages. But a report that investigated ethnicity on Australian television in June 2019 found that three quarters of TV presenters, commentators and reporters on free-to-air channels are Anglo-Celtic.

The Northern Territory, where more than 30% of the population are Aboriginal, had not a single Aboriginal presenter during the time investigated (alongside SA, TAS, QLD and VIC). In regional news and media over the time investigated, there were no Aboriginal and only one non-European presenter.

Ethnicity of presenters, commentators and reporters on Australian TV
TV channelAnglo-CelticEuropeanNon-EuropeanAboriginal
Nation-wide76%13%9%2%
Channel Nine88%9%3%0%
Channel Seven72%23%5%0%
Channel Ten67%24%3%5%
ABC57%29%9%5%
SBS1%23%77%0%
2016 Census58%18%21%3%

Some editorial leaders are aware of the skewed proportions, but many believe their networks are more progressive than they actually are. Unconscious bias is one reason – leaders are not aware that they hold bias against some groups.

There is virtually no cultural diversity in regional television networks.

— Finding of an investigation into Australian TV diversity in 2019

Hiring Aboriginal candidates benefits all

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

No
53% 
Yes
31% 
Don't know
15% 

SMH poll, 1,494 votes

Perception of cultural diversity in news and current affairs

Poor
39% 
Very poor
31% 
Fair
17% 
Very strong
7% 
Strong
6% 

'Who Gets To Tell Australian Stories?', Media Diversity Australia report, 314 responses

If Aboriginal presenters and 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, which would reflect the true demographic of Australia.

When Aboriginal singer and songwriter Thelma Plum was young she idolised beautiful women in magazines and TV shows, but she always saw white women. "It really does something to a young person of colour when you have no representation," she says, "it really 'others' you."

And Aboriginal writer Claire Coleman believes that "if you don't see certain people in the fiction you're reading, or in the TV shows or movies you're watching, it's easy to forget that they exist. I want to make sure that no one forgets that Aboriginal people exist."

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.

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.

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.

"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."

When he was a young actor, Aboriginal director Wayne Blair watched a series of shorts that showed Aboriginal topics with Aboriginal actors. It was a pivotal moment for him. "When I watched those five short films that inspired the heck outta me. I just went, 'wow'. My stories were on screen. I just went, I could finally relate to something. They're my stories. It inspired me to try to do well at acting at my college."

There are commercial and economic aspects in showing diversity too. "Most of the diversity on commercial television is in the commercials themselves," observes screenwriter and commentator Benjamin Law. "Advertisers clearly realise that there is money to be made by representing the community; why don’t the production teams? In one of the most multicultural nations on the planet, it just seems financially bizarre that you wouldn’t see this as a growth opportunity."

National Indigenous Television (NITV) estimated that in 2007 less than 2 hours per week (or just 1.2%) were dedicated to Aboriginal-produced content.

Indigenous Australia does not have a high profile on Australian television.

— Pat Turner, inaugural CEO of National Indigenous Television

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
Fact

In its 27-year history, TV series Home and Away has never featured an Aboriginal character. TV series Neighbours ran for 30 years before it employed its first Aboriginal actor in 2014.

The Redfern Now series cast 200 Aboriginal actors.

From 2012 to 2020, 50% of films submitted by Australia to the Oscars' "foreign language film" category were stories about Aboriginal people or people of colour, made by entirely white creative teams.

TV channel ABC's Insiders program featured its first-ever Aboriginal panellist in June 2020 (Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Wurrung woman Bridget Brennan). The program debuted in July 2001.

Story: 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."

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.

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

Challenges of being a black actor

Miranda Tapsell, an Aboriginal actress and co-writer of the film Top End Wedding, has been involved with the film business for many years. But for her, it comes at a price if you don't follow the rules.

"Let me tell you two little rules I learnt if you want to stay employed as a black woman on TV: smile and never complain," she said. Other rules include to "have a face like a squirrel" (probably meant in the sense of Disney, i.e. friendly and harmless) and "don't mention genocide".

It is the opposite of how media usually covers Aboriginal affairs: the bad, the confronting, the ugly. Unfortunately, some companies are focused on profiting from – rather than authentically portraying – an Aboriginal story, and too often choose a story of tragedy. "Tell us your experiences – your trauma especially," as writer Benjamin Law puts it.

Gamillaroi and Torres Strait Islander woman Nakkiah Lui, a screenwriter and actor, found it often conflicting when she was working on scripts. "You're not going to want to speak out against a script that’s giving you work," she says.

And just like other ethnic characters are often encouraged to act more stereotypical, Aboriginal actors hear the same: "Can you black it up? Can you sound more Aboriginal? Can you sound more ‘community’?"

Fact

Justine Saunders was the first Aboriginal woman on a commercial TV series (Number 96).

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."

"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." 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.

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".

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.

It's a view shared by Penny Smallacombe, head of Screen Australia's Indigenous department. "It’s very hard for an Indigenous person to get a story up about an issue once it’s been told from a non-Indigenous point of view," she says. "It’s vital that filmmakers ask themselves, am I the best person to tell this story? Can I tell this story authentically?" She encourages producers to be completely inclusive, mentor people of colour, make writers' rooms safe places and ensure they hire more than one diverse person. "The more people of colour you have on a project, the more confident each become in using their voice."

Tip

The New York Times publishes an annual diversity report detailing its internal demographic breakdown and initiatives undertaken.

People are sick of just watching white, white, white.

— Anousha Zarkesh, casting agent

We moved from black and white television to colour, but forgot to bring the black with us.

— Ryan Griffen, creator of TV show Cleverman

Definition: 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.

Putting an Aboriginal person into your script and then having all the plot and conflict revolve around that characters ‘culture’ and ‘ethnicity’ is not colour blind casting.

A good example of 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

References

View article sources (20)

[1] [1a] [1b] 'Australian television a whitewash as Anglo-Celtic presenters dominate newsrooms', The Guardian 17/8/2020
[2] [2a] [2b] [2c] [2d] [2e] 'Who Gets To Tell Australian Stories?', Media Diversity Australia report, 17 August 2020, available at www.mediadiversityaustralia.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Who-Gets-To-Tell-Australian-Stories_LAUNCH-VERSION.pdf
[3] That the faces of many other immigrant nations are missing as well is another story that's beyond the limits of this website.
[4] [4a] 'From Trump to the ABC: Changing culture of journalism in the call-out age', SMH 12/6/2020
[5] The report did not include National Indigenous Television (NITV). Numbers are rounded to the nearest integer value and might not add up to 100%.
[6] 'The readers' panel', SMH 5/8/2017
[7] The Courier Mail, cited in NIT 27/11/2008 p.29
[8] 'That's just rock'n'roll? I don't think so", Sunday Telegraph, Stellar magazine 7/7/2019, p.15
[9] 'History repeats itself in Claire G. Coleman's The Old Lie', SMH 23/8/2019
[10] '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
[11] [11a] [11b] [11c] [11d] [11e] 'TV needs more colour-blind casting', IN Daily Adelaide News 12/5/2015
[12] 'I can’t explain how excited I was when Doctor Who got a black companion', The Guardian Australia 22/8/2017
[13] 'At last, the work of Australia's Indigenous filmmakers is paying off', SMH 6/8/2018
[14] [14a] [14b] [14c] [14d] [14e] [14f] '‘There are no more excuses’: six industry insiders on Australian TV's problem with race', The Guardian 18/6/2020
[15] [15a] 'Big dreams for new TV service', Koori Mail 396 p.5
[16] 'Leaders told: Don't ignore urban people', Koori Mail 447 p.18
[17] [17a] 'Who is Today’s new showbiz reporter Brooke Boney?', news.com.au, 21/12/2018
[18] 'Miranda Tapsell's Top End Wedding takes the rom-com into new Territory', SMH 4/5/2019
[19] 'Where are all the indigenous faces?', The Australian 28/7/2014
[20] [20a] [20b] [20c] 'Imagine the untold stories we'll find with more people of colour on television', The Guardian Australia 13/7/2017

Harvard citation

Korff, J 2020, 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 26 November 2020

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