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Television must better reflect cultural diversity: CAB Task Force

by Ian Sutton

OTTAWA - A determined effort is needed on the part of broadcasters to improve representation of Canada's racial and ethnic minorities in television, says an industry task force report.

Visible minorities and aboriginal Canadians, in particular, are seriously under-represented in both English- and French-language television news, according to the report of the Task Force for Cultural Diversity on Television. The report also noted that few performers from diverse backgrounds fill leading roles in English-language dramatic productions.

The nine-member Task Force was formed by the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB) in 2002 after the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission called on the industry to develop plans to better reflect and portray Canada's cultural diversity on television.

The eagerly-awaited report, released yesterday, recommends the television industry undertake a number of steps to improve representation and portrayal of ethnic and racial minorities. These are based on a list of "best practices" resulting from research and consultation conducted by task force researchers over the past 18 months. That involved interviews with 54 stakeholders from the broadcast industry, ethno-cultural and aboriginal communities, consultation with 20 focus groups and analysis of 330 hours of television programming.

The 59-page report, titled Reflecting Canadians, does not recommend establishment of regulatory targets or quotas to improve representation of minorities in the medium. These measures, it says, must be initiated by the industry itself.

"Targets or quotas that are imposed from above, rather than designed and implemented from the ground up on an internal basis, are not an effective means of bringing about change. The reality is that effectively changing and improving the dynamic of cultural diversity in Canadian television requires deep, long-term commitment. Imposed targets provide at best an artificial band-aid, and as a result cannot bring about effective, lasting solutions."

Analysis of television broadcasts in English and French markets compared on-air representation of ethnic communities with their presence in the population. Based on the 2001 census, the population comprising Canadians of ethnic, racial and aboriginal heritage is 15.3% outside Quebec. For Quebec, the proportion is 6.9%.

The report identified a "presence gap" between cultural diversity in programming and these population benchmarks. It found three critical gaps in analysis of six English-language and five French-language program categories in representation of minorities. These include numbers of expert news analysts or guests in English-language news, on-screen roles filled by individuals from diverse backgrounds in French-language news, and "very few" primary speaking roles filled by minorities in English-language drama.

Among examples of presence gaps, the report cited:
* Visible minorities represent 9% of all appearances for English-language news broadcasts;
* The presence of experts or guests from all visible minorities in English news programming measures only 4.4%;
* The presence of English news program anchors or hosts rises to 12.3%, but for other information programming it falls to 7.3%;
* In 10 of 11 programming categories analyzed, aboriginal representation comprised less than 1 percent of the total (excepting the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network);
* Canadians of Asian or Southeast Asian background the largest ethno-cultural group are "significantly" under-represented on-screen:
* French-language news emerges as the largest presence gap, with only 1.6% of all appearances by visible minorities, falling to zero percent for anchors/hosts and 0.7% for experts/guests.

However, the report noted better representation of minorities in children's programming in both English and French television.

It includes best practices covering 10 areas, ranging from recruitment and hiring to news, information and entertainment programming that should be implemented on a station-by station and company-by-company basis. The broadcasting industry must commit to improving and advancing cultural diversity on television, the reports says, adding a long-term commitment to change and to achieving success is an essential starting point.

"In applying, and then measuring the effectiveness of the Best Practices, it is important to note that a "one-size-fits-all" approach will not work in a broadcasting system as geographically and linguistically diverse as Canada's," it concludes. "Given the diversity of the system, it is incumbent upon individual broadcasters to develop the tools that will be most relevant for them and to determine the most appropriate and effective ways to use these tools."

Glenn O'Farrell, CAB president and CEO, says Canada's private broadcasters are committed to assuming a leadership role in implementing industry-wide best practices.

"This commitment to advancing the reflection and portrayal of cultural diversity on television is critical to ensuring our television screens are truly responsive to Canadian audiences." he said. "The CAB looks forward to working with our industry partners to implement the Task Force's recommended Best Practices and industry initiatives in order to advance cultural diversity within all sectors of the broadcasting industry,"

Anna Chiappa, of the Canadian Ethno-cultural Council, noted the timing of the Task Force report coincided with a United Nation Human Development report emphasizing the need for greater multicultural initiatives world-wide. "They just reinforced the need to continue to reflect that reality in broadcasting and media," she said. "This U.N. report says we're on the right track and we've just got to do more."

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