IF you think Australian TV is dominated by white faces, you’re certainly not alone.
When Samoan actor Jay Laga’aia recently criticised Australian TV for racism and not casting multicultural actors after being cut loose from Channel Seven’s long-running soap Home and Away, the blogosphere, talkback radio and newspaper comment forums went into overdrive.
Actor Firass Dirani also weighed in, telling an interviewer ”major networks did not create roles for people from a broad range of cultural backgrounds”.
The overwhelming message is that opportunities for actors who are, or look like, ”ethnics” are significantly lower than for whites and that Australian TV networks are failing to represent the racial and ethnic make-up of what is one of the most culturally diverse countries on the planet.
For its part, Seven rejected Laga’aia’s comments as ”offensive” and ”insulting”, noting that after 18 months on the show his character needed to be rested.
The comments of Dirani and Laga’aia were welcomed by Marea Jablonski of actors’ agency BGM, who believes Australian TV does not reflect its audience and that commercial TV is very conservative in its casting.
Within the industry, there is certainly a heightened awareness of the sensitivity and reactions the ”whitewashing” accusation provokes.
A recurring issue for Actors Equity, the union that represents actors, is when roles that do not require a particular ethnicity – the policeman or the hospital surgeon, for instance – end up being played by Anglo actors and, conversely, when the drug dealer or crooked car salesman is played by someone of, say, Middle Eastern appearance.
The union has long lobbied for TV producers to cast roles colour-blind, arguing that TV has a responsibility to reflect the diversity of the Australian community – not just in terms of race and ethnicity but gender, sexuality, disability and so on.
The benchmark for the practice of ”colour-blind casting” Actors Equity would like to see become commonplace in Australia is Deborah Mailman’s roles in The Secret Life of Us and the current Offspring.
The producer of both shows, John Edwards, says he ”has never received from on high any prescription to be more Anglo or anything else. As early as Police Rescue, Sandra Levy and I cast Leah Purcell as a character.”
In the case of Mailman, Edwards didn’t cast her because of her Aboriginality but her presence.
”Sometimes you do that when you’re casting. You think, ‘Who do you want to see on TV?”’
Ironically, he reflects, casting Mailman in The Secret Life of Us ”created other problems, because you thought, ‘What’s this Aboriginal person doing without Aboriginal friends?”’
Edwards insists that accomplishment and suitability rather than prescriptions of ”types” should drive casting decisions. ”I would hate it if you patronisingly cast people for ethnicity when they’re not good enough.”
One drama on screen now presents a reversal of the apartheid of which many shows are accused. In The Straits, the ABC’s far north Queensland-set crime drama, white actors are in the minority.
However, while initially earning encouraging ratings, the series has failed to maintain audience levels. Last week it slumped to just 460,000 viewers nationally.
Producer Penny Chapman, who also made the similarly undervalued RAN for SBS, says she is drawn to stories about parts of the country that Australians don’t know about, ”not because I’m a do-gooder”.
She believes, however, that there is an element of truth in Dirani’s observation.
Chapman senses network executives play it safe when deciding who to put onscreen.
”What they aren’t worried about is faces that aren’t white, I think what they’re nervous about is what faces that are not white will say.”
In the case of Dirani’s breakout role as nightclub owner John Ibrahim in Underbelly, what made the character interesting wasn’t just that he’s Lebanese but what he got up to.
”What it’s about is if you are going to cast people of non-English-speaking backgrounds, what are you going to do with that character?” Chapman says. ”What you have to do is think, ‘How do I make the life experience of this character resonate with people out there?’
”There is a tendency to go with the lowest common denominator but the funny thing is … in 40 years we will be mainly Eurasian.”
She, too, is nervous about prescriptions for populating the screen with ethnic faces, arguing ”the trick for us as program makers is to find ways to make it work for networks, find creative ways for networks to go out there with a more interesting mix of drama that people will find compelling.”
Chapman notes the large number of ”sensationally good actors” of indigenous and non-English-speaking backgrounds who have emerged from the ranks in recent times, such as Mailman, Dirani, Aaron Pedersen and Don Hany.
Neighbours executive producer Richard Jasek believes there is more sound and fury about this issue in the media than among viewers.
Jasek, who took over from long-time executive producer Susan Bower earlier this year, says Neighbours is acutely aware of the need to reflect the diversity of the community.
The stalwart soap has long been criticised for its Anglo-centricity, though Jasek notes that subtle changes are taking place.
Those changes, he says, aren’t a tokenistic response to controversy but are driven by the requirements of the storytelling and what audiences respond to.
Most notably, an Indian-Sri Lankan family, the Kapoors, recently took up residence in Ramsay Street and there’s a handful of guest roles, some of which are ongoing, played by actors of Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Greek and African descent.
”Our instincts as storytellers is to tell a story about the world as we know it,” Jasek says.
”There’s never been pressure that we should or shouldn’t have any kind of story,” he adds, recalling a storyline about a wheelchair-bound character in 1995 when he was a director of Neighbours.
”It’s in our interests to keep the accent of the show current. It would be stupid to cast Anglo characters only. It’s not a numbers game, it’s about remaining in line with contemporary reality that has been put through our perspective.”
Jasek denies that British audiences are leading the charge for a more diversified cast, Neighbours and Home and Away having been targeted by equality campaigners in Britain for their whiteness.
It’s not just the shows we watch on television that have drawn scrutiny of late. Diversity, or the lack thereof, is a significant issue in advertising agencies around the country. An advertising industry creative contacted by Green Guide says there is regular encouragement to present some kind of diversity when there’s a group of people in a commercial. However, when there is only one or two featured, they are almost always white.
”It’s not spoken about but I guess it’s a reflection of trying to reflect the audience back at themselves and a possibly outdated assumption that most people are white. I have sat in a casting session for a fashion brand where a client referred to a model as ‘too Asian’.”
The record is better in reality and non-scripted shows, which generally tend to be more broadly cast than scripted shows. Think, for example, of Mo and Mos, the Muslim couple in The Amazing Race Australia, and the racially diverse contestants ofMasterChef and My Kitchen Rules, and any number of younger-skewing talent shows such as Young Talent Time.
A notable exception is The Block, which was criticised last year by Multicultural Arts Victoria.
When the Green Guide published a front-cover image last June featuring the show’s cast of 16, the section received a cluster of letters from readers disappointed by the lack of diversity.
Producer Julian Cress has consistently maintained that there is no agenda to exclude non-whites.
He says that while the number of applicants increases with the popularity of each return season, the demographic is remarkably similar; white 24-year-olds who are recently married or in a relationship, desperately hoping for a foothold in the property market and think The Block could be the ticket.
”I respect the opinion of people who say we should reflect a wide ethnic cast but we can’t go out and search for specific people,” he says. ”We are accused of racism but to do it another way would be equally racist.”