Broadcaster Magazine

Beyond Tokenism

Canadian television moves into the age of diversity

Film producer Don Peuramaki believes that Canadians with disabilities should start taking their rightful place on the country’s television screens. After crusading for more than 10 years, Peuramaki and others like him may finally see their dream become reality in the not-too-distant future.

With firm prodding from the CRTC, the broadcasting industry is taking dramatic steps to ensure that Canadian television will enter a new era by sharing this country’s oft-stated role as a global leader in cultural diversity. Strategies are being developed to ensure that Canada’s rapidly growing population of visible minorities and first nations people, as well as those with disabilities, will be reflected in television programming that not only avoids stereotypes, but also strives to reflect the proportions of these groups in our population.

The spark was ignited by specific directives from the CRTC in 2001, which led to formation by the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB) of a nine-member Task Force on Cultural Diversity. Its goal was to develop a strategy for greater representation of visible minorities and aboriginal peoples in the medium. Canada’s visible minority population was listed at close to four million in the 2001 census. The aboriginal population was just under one million.

The initial report of the CAB task force is due for release late this spring after close to a year of intensive research and consultation focusing on how Canada’s visible minorities and aboriginal populations are represented on-screen and how they are portrayed in news and information coverage and in dramatic productions. Meanwhile, a separate committee has just begun a consultative process, prompted by a more recent CRTC directive, to address the need for reflecting the five million Canadians with disabilities in the country’s television programming.

The cultural diversity research project, launched 15 months ago, has been a massive and unprecedented undertaking, says Madeline Ziniak, co-chair of the CAB task force. “It’s a very ambitious project and I think it’s high time it should be happening. It’s a huge task … no one has really done this before.”

Kaan Yigit, study director for Solutions Research Group of Toronto — which was commissioned by the CAB for the multicultural study — explains the project components include consultation with major decision makers in the television industry, along with actors, writers, producers, and leaders of Canada’s ethno-cultural and aboriginal organizations. Twenty focus groups from widely diverse backgrounds were assembled in major centres across the country to review best practices in cultural diversity, and case studies of Canadian, U.S. and European companies, within and outside the broadcast industry.

Canada has shown itself to be a global leader when it comes to promoting diversity, says Ziniak who is vice-president and general manager of Toronto-based OMNI Television. She believes a review of how our broadcasting system has kept pace with that progress is long overdue. “My feeling is that Canada’s culture is miles ahead in looking at diversity and doing its best to be reflective of that,” she says, pointing out our traditional commitment to maintaining the identity of the many groups within its ‘mosaic’ society. “Canada has an appreciation of the word ‘diversity’ which includes so many ethno-cultural groups. The United States doesn’t really appreciate the smaller groups and doesn’t look at ethnicity in that way.”

While she believes much progress has already been made in reflecting visible minorities through television, it is essential that all aspects of diversity be examined, including not only visible minorities and first nations, but also Canadians with disabilities.

“At the end of all of this, what we want to do is come forward with best practices that are very practical for the industry, that the industry can accept and move forward,” Ziniak says. “We know that all broadcasters are under an economic crunch and our prime objective is to make this practical and doable.”

Both Ziniak — one of five broadcast representatives on the task force — and Bev Oda, its co-chair representing the multicultural community, agree on the need to persuade the industry that a strong business case exists for ensuring Canada’s increasingly diverse society is accurately and fairly reflected in programming.

That must go beyond having an Asian or black news anchor on camera, which can be seen as tokenism. Who makes the decisions as to what stories get covered, how they are covered and who covers them, are equally important. The same applies, as well, to what actors are cast for dramatic productions.

Paying lip service to multiculturalism by sending reporters from visible minorities to cover ethnic festivals does little to further true diversity goals. Focusing on coverage of crime stories involving certain ethnic or racial groups is looked on as another form of stereotyping or racial profiling that must be avoided. Both Ziniak and Oda expect the outcome of the current research will enable television to have a positive impact on public attitudes towards minorities.

“Many forces have to come together and the media has a very important and very large role to play in changing attitudes,” says Oda. “The broadcasting system has to serve and make people aware of the country they live in and who makes up Canada. As a broadcaster, you have to reflect the fact that Canada is made up of very different kinds of Canadians and that this is an integral part of our country.”

Fifteen years ago the same kinds of issues were debated related to the role of women in television. It took years to demonstrate really significant progress, Oda notes, adding she is optimistic that the same gains can be achieved in better reflecting racial minorities, aboriginals and people with disabilities.

“It’s important that the community, on balance, should be vigilant in their demands on the system, but they should also balance that with realistic expectations. We’re going to come up with some best practices, but many of these things take a long time.”

Oda points out the need for a new pool of young broadcasters from minority communities. Much work will have to be done with colleges and universities, as well as within these communities, to ensure skilled broadcasters are available to meet the anticipated demand for talent. “The community may say there are no role models, but there will have to be pioneers,” she adds.

Valerie Morrisette, along with husband, Pierre, who owns Pelmorex, parent company of The Weather Network and its French-language counterpart, MétéoMédia, is well-known as a broadcaster already far along this path. She is responsible for the company’s progressive human resources policies which have shown significant leadership in hiring minorities and people with disabilities. Most of its success in recruitment has been through attendance at career fairs targeting those groups.

Morrisette says there is clearly a need for more outreach efforts to encourage young people from all minority groups to pursue television careers and was “delighted” in January when the CRTC called on the television industry and individual license holders to develop corporate diversity action plans applying to Canadians with disabilities.

“That’s the way it should be,” Morrisette says. “Whatever you see on television, that affects people’s perceptions. So if you can show people with disabilities in their day-to-day life, it’s better for society … there’s a huge population base out there that has disabilities.”

Morrisette had hoped to have people with disabilities included in the original mandate of the CAB task force. But as a member of the association’s Joint Societal Issues Committee, she won agreement to kick-start work on an action plan dealing with the role of people with disabilities in television to be presented to the CRTC this summer. (For more on what Pelmorex does, please see page 30.)

Although the Broadcasting Act states that broadcasting should be made accessible to those with disabilities, Morrisett
e points out that it omits specific reference to people with disabilities in terms of employment and programming. Morrisette gives particular credit to Don Peuramaki for his persistence in persuading the CRTC that the five million Canadians with disabilities require regulatory action to bring their role in society into proper focus through the television medium.

“In the early ’90s, there seemed to be some sort of a will for the industry to move forward in this area,” Peuramaki recalls. “But I think a lot of the people who were there and proactive moved on and a new generation of people in the industry never really picked up the ball. It really had slipped off the agenda.”

The definition of diversity in broadcasting also appeared to have changed during that intervening period, with most of the focus on visible minorities. But Canadians with disabilities represent a segment of the population second in number only to women among the four employment equity groups, Peuramaki points out. He welcomes the CRTC decision to revive the disability issue as a priority.

“It’s a very large minority in Canada and always has been and nothing has happened in that area,” Peuramaki adds, pointing out that the Act places responsibility on broadcasters to reflect the society they serve. “They’ve really fallen short in terms of that 17% of the population. I think a lot of broadcasters forget that having a broadcast license is like having a driver’s license — you’re given the license under certain conditions — and they forget that. They have a stewardship role to play in terms of how they represent Canada back to itself.”

Peuramaki echoes the view expressed by the CAB task force members that the television industry must recognize the business case for promoting greater diversity of all groups on the air and in employment, if only from enlightened self-interest. But when decisions are made on what issues are covered and how they are reported, people with disabilities have almost never been represented at the table. Their view should be routinely sought when any story is being covered, he insists.

“When the CBC does their town halls, I’d like to see a lot more people with disabilities in on things like that, because they are part of the population.”

In its latest public notice, the CRTC said that with regards to news and information programming, television licensees should establish ways of ensuring that Canadians from visible minorities and aboriginal groups are used as sources “regardless of whether the issue being discussed is particularly related to a specific community.” In addition, reporters from these minorities should not be relegated to covering stories of principal concern only to those groups. Broadcasters also should ensure that aboriginal and minority actors are cast in leading and recurring roles in dramatic productions.

The Commission made special note of “the presence, portrayal and participation” of Canadians with disabilities as an important matter “very much in need of thorough investigation by the broadcasting industry,” and called on the CAB to file plans for inclusion of persons with disabilities in television within six months.

Martine Vallée, the CRTC’s director of discretionary services and social policy, agrees that its proactive stance was inspired by “very compelling” submissions it received about the lack of on-screen representation of people from minority and aboriginal backgrounds, as well as those with disabilities.

“It was really from there that there was a turning point taking seriously the whole question of diversity,” she says. “It was pivotal where the commission said we have to start now in ensuring that the industry takes some very significant steps to improve the situation.”

The research produced by the CAB’s task force will include statistics on people from minority groups now seen on television and what type of role they play in news coverage. That research, Vallée added, will be “quite revealing” as to how the industry is performing in the area of diversity. The CBC, she explains, is already required to report annually on its progress towards improving representation of ethno-cultural communities and aboriginal peoples, both on air and in the workplace.

Meanwhile, the CRTC is “quite adamant” in ensuring that corporate plans filed by private television broadcasters outline what their commitment to corporate accountability on diversity is, what measures will be taken to reflect diversity in their programming, and what strategies are in place to ensure community consultation and feedback. It also wants annual progress reports from licensees. Corporate plans will be examined in detail to ensure they are concrete and actionable, Vallée adds.

And while there may have been some initial resistance to these requirements, it is now “catching on that this is a serious issue for the Commission,” she says. “As we get statistics, such as what we saw in the last census, it’s becoming very, very obvious that reflecting Canada in its diversity just makes common business sense.”

Ian Sutton is a freelance writer based in Perth, Ont.