Making black lives matter in the TV industry

Making black lives matter in the TV industry

Monday, 12th July 2021
(credit: BlackStageUK)
(credit: BlackStageUK)
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One year after UK broadcasters announced their new diversity initiatives, Marcus Ryder gives his verdict on their impact 

When Television approached me to assess the success, or otherwise, of the British TV industry policy announcements related to diversity over the past 12 months, I was going to resort to a standard journalistic approach: pick a few of the big announcements, look at what they promised to deliver and then conveniently conclude by saying something like “...but careers take longer than 12 months to build and systemic racism cannot be dismantled in a year. So, it is still a case of ‘wait and see’.”  

But as I looked through them, I realised that there were two key points I wanted to get across: we need clearer policies and a more grown-up conversation around diversity. Let me explain.  

In the past 12 months, after the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests, British television broadcasters have rightly announced a number of promises and policies. Here are four of the most prominent:  

  •  Sky announced a £30m racial injustice fund, and a “redoubling” of efforts to increase black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) representation, both on-screen and behind the camera;  
  • Channel 4 committed to being an “anti-racist” organisation, doubling “the number of BAME-led independent producers that we commission from by 2023”, and announced “Black to Front”, a day dedicated to black representation on both sides of the camera;  
  • ITV made various commitments, including increasing general diversity at management level, increasing the diversity both behind and in front of the camera, and creating a more inclusive culture that better understood issues around racism; 
  • The BBC announced it would be “investing £100m of its TV budget over a three-year period to produce ‘diverse and inclusive content’”. And that “the BBC has set itself a mandatory target – 20% of off-screen talent must come from under-represented groups” in the next three to five years.  

At the time, I and many others welcomed these announcements, especially since they were going beyond the usual “we’re rolling out more unconscious-bias training” or “we’re introducing a new mentorship scheme”.  

However, we all were a little cautious, because nearly all the announcements had two points in common: a lack of detail over programme finances being used to address the lack of diversity, and a lack of specificity about whom they were targeted at.  

So, how has this played out, you ask? Let’s take the first commonality – programme financing.  

As someone who has worked in both addressing regional diversity and ethnic diversity, the difference in approach is stark. When it comes to money, it feels as if the conversation around finances and ethnic diversity is relegated to the “children’s table”, while discussions around regional diversity take place between “grown-ups”.  

To illustrate why this matters let’s take the BBC’s announcements, because they really were the ones that elicited the most excitement in the industry, due to the potential scale involved.  

While the £100m “diverse content” fund may sound impressive, in reality it has remained very difficult to work out what this policy really means in practice.  

For instance, Ofcom, in its annual diversity report, said that the BBC had “ring-fenced” £100m over three years, implying that programme funds had been separated from other commissioning funds for exclusive use on diverse-content programming. But this is not accurate.  

Why? Well, I had the opportunity to publicly ask the BBC’s head of creative diversity, Miranda Wayland, about the £100m at the Edinburgh International Television Festival in August 2020. Her response – the BBC’s corporate response – was unequivocal; “This is not ring-fenced money”.  

So what does “investing” money mean if it is not “ring-fencing”? We currently have no idea. And, having had multiple private conversations thereafter with other industry insiders, I am still none the wiser.  

And this lack of clarity leads to some fundamental questions: how much of the BBC’s existing productions currently meet the criteria of “diverse and inclusive content”? We have no idea.  

Will the £100m be in addition to the current amount that is already invested in “diverse and inclusive content” or will it include existing commissions? We simply do not know.  

The bottom line is: what is the additionality of this new investment?  

The BBC is still not clear, despite the announcement having been made more than a year ago.  

By way of contrast, here is an example of what a clear, grown-up commitment involving programme finance looks like. Just a year earlier, in February 2019, the BBC launched the BBC Scotland digital channel to address specific concerns around regional diversity.  

In the press materials proceeding the launch, the corporation said the Scottish channel would have a budget of £32m a year. Approximately £13m would be taken from the BBC Scotland division’s existing budgets and £19m would be additional funding.  

Surprisingly, “grown-up” conversations are incredibly easy to understand compared with conversations at the “children’s table”.  

And there was a complete lack of any mention of programme finances in ITV’s statements around its Diversity Acceleration Plan, published on 9 July 2020, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests.  

(credit: Misan Harriman)

If someone asked me how much the BBC values increasing its Scottish programming, I could have answered very easily: £19m a year more than it did previously for the indefinite future.  

There is the possibility that the BBC’s £100m diverse content fund over three years might be the equivalent of an additional £33.3m a year. But it may literally mean the equivalent of zero extra funding. I suspect the answer is somewhere between zero and £33.3m, but, for a publicly accountable organisation, it has been incredibly opaque about where the real number lies. The BBC is far from being the only broadcaster that is less than clear about its programme finance commitment in its policy announcements following the global Black Lives Matter protests.  

For example, while Channel 4 said it would double the number of diverse­led indies it commissions from, it gave no indication as to whether there would be a doubling in programme spend on the diverse-led indies. Whether you have made the cake bigger or are simply dividing the original cake up among more people is important (as my five-year-old son would point out from the children’s table).  

And there was a complete lack of any mention of programme finances in ITV’s statements around its Diversity Acceleration Plan, published on 9 July 2020, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests.  

Now to the second commonality – and the other reason to be cautious about the announcements – they were not specifically targeted at black people. George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests had a very specific focus; anti-black racism. These were not protests about inequality in general, or even general racism. And yet, while all the broadcasters acknowledged the importance of the reaction to George Floyd’s death, in instigating their policy announcements they did not seem to recognise this central point.  

We see this in Sky’s policy announcements, for example. All of its three stated policy goals – to improve black and minority ethnic representation at all levels, to make a difference in communities impacted by racism, and to use the power of Sky’s voice and platform to highlight racial injustice – address issues broader than anti-black racism and black under-representation.  

Similarly, the BBC’s £100m fund was not targeted at addressing anti-black under-representation. Productions are able to be classified as “diverse content” if they meet criteria around socio-economic diversity, disability and non-white representation (of which black is obviously just a part).  

This means that it would be possible for all the production companies to meet the criteria set out by the BBC for “diverse content” without employing a single black person – for instance, by meeting socio-economic diversity behind the camera. Again, while this is as unlikely as the £100m fund meaning zero additional funding going into additional diverse ­content, it serves to highlight the wooliness around the policies.  

It also seems to highlight the broadcasters’ lack of understanding of what the 2020 protests were really about. And it reflects the current dissatisfaction that many black people have around the term BAME, as it enables companies to enact policies that do not address their specific concerns while at the same time announcing that they are fighting racism.  

The only exception was Channel 4’s “Black to Front” day, about which I should confess a vested interest. As the head of external consultancies for the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity, I advised Channel 4 on its Black to Front day and recommended that it focus on black representation, as opposed to broader “BAME” diversity, in response to Black Lives Matter.  

So, how do I answer Television’s seemingly simple question: How effective have the broadcasters’ responses to the Black Lives Matter protests been over the past 12 months?  

It would be churlish of me not to recognise and applaud the fact that the vast majority of them rolled out new policies. There seems to be a genuine desire to shift the dial when it comes to diversity in general, and there has been a substantive change in the level of conversation around diversity.  

However, most of the policies have been unclear about the most important aspect of the television industry – programme finance. And the policies are not focused on the fundamental issue raised by the protests – anti-black racism.  

So, I guess I will need to resort to the journalistic cliché of “we will have to wait and see” after all, because I hope this coming year will see the wooliness removed, the grown-up conversations begin, and clarity provided.  

Only then can these policies begin to be effective in ensuring what the press releases purported they would be – making sure Black Lives Matter.  

Marcus Ryder is the Head of External Consultancies at the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity and Chair of RADA.