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Making a permanent change to the representation of ethnicity on our screens

Sky’s Stuart Murphy explains why the broadcaster has introduced targets to combat the absence of real change in BAME representation.

Floella Benjamin is one of the stars who has given the issue more prominence of late. Photo: Getty
Floella Benjamin is one of the stars who has given the issue more prominence of late. Photo: Getty

This week at Sky we have announced some bold targets on how we plan to help overhaul the representation of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people across our entertainment channels. I found it oddly moving announcing the plans. I feel a moral responsibility, being in a position of relative power, to make this change happen and make it significant and lasting.

The television industry is one that I love; I’ve worked in it for close to twenty years, but in that time the representation of ethnic minorities has moved little from the position it was when I started at BBC Manchester in the 1990s. I’ve lost count of the number of meetings I’ve attended where extremely well-meaning liberal minded TV commissioners hear from increasingly frustrated and mobilised networks of TV professionals from ethnic minority backgrounds.

In these meetings the TV commissioners would struggle to define how the TV output in the UK had reached such a point where the representation of non-white faces was so grossly out of kilter from the nation who watched it. Training schemes were suggested, guidelines drawn up and commitments to shows aimed specifically at a BAME audience were discussed. It was usually tense, incomplete and, frankly, embarrassing. Don’t forget, this is an industry populated with people of an artistic background who celebrate diverse thought and creative endeavour. People at all levels have wanted change for some time. They just haven’t been sure what was the best and least offensive way to do it.

Recently the noise around the issue grew, thanks to the likes of Lenny Henry, Floella Benjamin and David Harewood. Politicians like Ed Vaizey and Jane Bonham Carter took a risk pushing this up the agenda and behind the scenes called broadcasters to task for their lack of nettle grasping. The Cultural Diversity Network, of which Sky is a dedicated member, has been working tirelessly on this agenda for years.

A combination of the above, and an innate sense that for some time we have not been doing what we should, led us at Sky to announce some extremely ambitious targets to make sure we make a difference which, in TV terms, is almost immediate – on air before the end of 2015.

The commitments are threefold:

Onscreen portrayal

By the end of 2015, all our brand new, non-returning TV shows in Sky Entertainment will have people from BAME backgrounds in at least 20 per cent of significant on-screen roles. We want lead actors (and not just extras) from a range of backgrounds, with diverse casting happening front and centre, in the heart of mainstream output.

Production

All of Sky’s original Entertainment productions will have someone with a BAME background in at least one senior role by the end of 2015. And we’ve defined what we mean by senior roles - Producer, Series Producer, Executive Producer, Director, Head of Production and Designer. To meet these targets, we will be working very closely with independent TV companies so we can meet these targets on time.

Writing

20 per cent of writers on all team written shows across all Sky Entertainment productions, in production by the end of 2015, will be from BAME backgrounds.

These are huge commitments and we will need help to achieve them. Targets won’t work for every broadcaster and there are bound to be people who object to such a blunt instrument. But we’ve done it in the absence of real change for years. Our commitment is public, ambitious and achievable and should, we hope, set the pace for great strides in rebalancing the industry. All of us at Sky are responsible for them. The independent production companies that work with us will need to cast their nets wider to uncover new talent pools; casting agents will need to work harder to discover new faces; and those of us who ultimately decide what goes on air will need to support choices that are different from what we and audiences have been used to. We need the production companies’ help, but I know how dynamic this industry is, and I know we can do it. I keenly feel the momentum for change right now, so I’m very pleased we’ve acted with a sense of urgency.

Sixteen months from now I want what we achieve at Sky to be the norm. I suspect targets will remain but to have served their purpose as we see a large influx of BAME professionals at senior level change the game and correct where TV looks for “best talent” on and off screen. The ambition is for our output at that stage to be representing much more accurately the variety of skin colours in the UK. It will make our programming better, make our customers happier and, fundamentally, will be fairer. It’s a massively exciting time.

Stuart Murphy is Director of Entertainment Channels at Sky