Minority reports: TV news fails on ethnic diversity
If alien life tuned into Australian news and TV broadcasts, they may wonder why immigration is an issue for any Australian political leader. They would certainly wonder where all these immigrants are, such is the gap in Australian television between the nation we live in day by day and the Australia broadcast on our allegedly diverse TV channels.
TV news audiences are steadily falling and audiences are moving towards online news providers. Against this trend it seems our news networks’ idea of competition (regarding selection of news presenters) is to retreat into a view of Australia as it was circa 1980. Amongst the 25 National News anchors across the 5 major networks, SBS accounts for 4 out of 6 prominent multicultural presenters, the others being ABC’s Jeremy Fernandez and Juanita Philips.
The three commercial free-to-air networks – Seven, Nine and Ten – account for almost 70% of the national news viewers, according to Throng Media. While there are a few reporters (including Nine’s Tracy Vo) on the front line, most living in major cities would largely agree that the face of Australian news doesn’t map the diversity we encounter at our offices, cafés and restaurants, parks and cultural events.
Before being accused of any sort of reverse-profiling, it’s important to note the (fair) argument that news should be about the stories themselves rather than the ‘talent’. However, the marketing emphasis our major networks place on the image of their presenters (integrity, honesty, ‘hard hitting questions’ etc) makes the distinction between the news and the ‘faces’ that report it inseparable. They become less objective reporters and more colour commentators – we’re told to trust in their reports of our society’s daily happenings.
Back in the real world, there are examples of mainstream audiences embracing our multicultural identity. There’s the recent success of Ahn and Khoa Do (a former Young Australian of the Year) and Indian-Canadian comic Russell Peters, whose most recent Sydney show pulled the biggest Australian crowd of all-time for a comedy show. Fear not Packer, Stokes and Falloon, Australians are ready to truly move onto colour television.
The realm of TV comedies and dramas don’t seem to have changed much since the early days of A Country Practice and Cop Shop (not to take anything away from these shows). All Saints, a darling of the Bogie (sic) awards, was quite possibly the whitest hospital in Western suburban Sydney, although I do recall seeing one Australian-Indian doctor and one orderly of Chinese background, both with about 3 lines of dialogue between them.
Having said this, recent shows including Underbelly and Masterchef have disrupted the status quo with a broader mix of cultures and personalities, but (paradoxically) this only serves to highlight the difference between reality (or ‘true’ stories) and the Australia of fictional programming.
Although industry pundits complain that local audiences favour American TV, nobody is really asking ‘well, why wouldn’t they?’ Successful shows such as Big Bang Theory, ER and 30 Rock actively promote and even discuss – shock! – their nations’ ethnic populations. Arguably, these characters are largely cultural stereotypes (e.g. the Indian IT geek, the Chinese take-away guy, middle-eastern cabbie) but it still much better than avoiding their existence.
Where immigrants are mentioned it’s more often than not at a distance (in ‘lighthouse terms’), as if we watch these strange peoples from a metaphorical observation deck. If it’s not cultural festivals or Maeve O’Meara exploring Asian cuisine it’s just not worth producing.
The other extreme occurs in tabloids where we witness alarmist headlines such as the Herald Sun’s ‘Australia’s Asian Migrant Intake Soars’ where the ‘us and them’ distinction practically jumps from the page, over-simplifying the complex issue of immigration.
I wouldn’t go so far as to posit wild conspiracy theories of why our media world is so glaringly homogeneous, nor is this gap between the Australia we live in and the one screened in HD necessarily an example of overt racism. It is more likely that decision makers in the industry are still insulated in their well-appointed cottages in the good suburbs, and perhaps implicitly represent the only Australia they know.
I think it’s time for our news organisations and TV producers to go back to the drawing board and this time and buy some coloured markers. Trust me, it’s refreshing, more fun and I’m sure it’s one reason why we like seeing Waleed Aly on Q&A so much.
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