Sir Lenny Henry has become one of the most prominent and respected voices challenging the television industry to do better at diversity on-screen, behind the camera and in its executive ranks. The British comedian, writer and actor delivered a MIPCOM keynote today addressing these issues, before being interviewed by journalist Ali May.
“I was incredibly excited when MIPCOM asked me if I would give a speech today because I feel the argument for how and why we need more diversity in television needs to move on,” began Henry.
“In the past few years, since we’ve been campaigning, the focus has been on the moral arguments for diversity. Why more diversity in television is better for society. Why more diversity in front of the camera is needed so that people can see their lives and their realities reflected back at them. I’ve also argued that there is a desperate need for more diversity behind the camera.”
He noted that “women are not just the same as men in skirts. Black people are not just white people with browner skin, and a disabled person is not just the same as an able-bodied person who just happens to be in a wheelchair” before calling for “different experiences, different life stories” to be represented both in front of and behind the camera.
“Without diversity behind the camera, certain stories are not being told. The histories of our disparate society are not being recorded. And in the end, the way we are governed will only favour the people whose stories and concerns the politicians hear about,” said Henry.
“Imagine a world where you never saw people like yourself, never saw your culture or never saw your life experiences portrayed on television, the most popular and influential medium of our age. This is what our industry does repeatedly, through its employment practices and output, it tells those of us who are absent that our lives and our stories don’t matter. It makes all the talk of inclusion and integration and cohesion ring hollow. The need for diversity in front of and behind the camera is urgent for the social fabric of society.”
Henry said he believes this argument is being won, pointing to the BBC writing diversity as a core objective into its charter this year, while all of the major broadcasters in the UK have signed up to better monitoring of their diversity.
“Consequently there will be more transparency, and it will be evident who’s failing and who’s succeeding,” he said. “The campaign for diversity seems to be winning the political argument. We have the moral high ground and people are listening to us. There is just one thing: The lack of diversity and inclusion in television is still a huge problem.”
He cited some facts: just 9.5% of people working for BBC Studios are black or Asian, and that drops to 6.1% for people working in senior positions. But this is not just a BBC problem. Henry criticised broadcasters for not answering calls from trade unions to publish statistics on the diversity of their prime-time TV shows. Why can’t they?
“There are so few black and brown people working on these programmes that it will inadvertently identify them and therefore breach their privacy in law!” he said. “That’s right: the number of non-white people working on primetime programmes in the UK is so low – they can’t even publish the data. In fact, non-white people working in prime time TV are so rare, David Attenborough came across three dodos and a unicorn before he found one. Despite all our victories, diversity in television, is in a critical condition.”
Henry’s suggestion for the next step forward: follow the money. “We cannot make television without money. And if we want diversity to actually work it has to make financial sense,” he said. “I am very aware that all these good intentions and beautiful words are useless if they don’t make a difference to the bottom line. So today I am going to talk to you about one big idea: tax breaks for diversity.”
That means getting politicians to change the business model for how television is made, and concentrate the industry’s attention on the issue of diversity by offering tax breaks related to it, following in the footsteps of an incentive passed earlier this year in New York, with tax credits for TV productions increasing diversity in certain key roles. California is considering a similar piece of legislation.
“But we don’t even have to look to the US… to see how tax incentives could change the way diversity and inclusion is viewed by the television industry. Britain has its own tax-relief system encouraging investment in both film and television,” said Henry, pointing to almost £600m in tax relief paid last year to the makers of films and TV shows that passed a cultural test qualifying them as British-made. That has boosted employment in the British creative industry by 5% year-on-year over the past four years.
“Now I would love to be able to tell you that the number of black and Asian people working in television has gone up 5% year on year since we’ve been campaigning. But unfortunately, that is not the case,” he said. “But there is a way forward; currently in the UK, if you’re a producer, to qualify for tax relief, you have to pass a ‘cultural test of Britishness’. Imagine if instead, your business had to pass a diversity and inclusion test?… This has the potential to change the diversity and inclusion argument overnight.”
Henry suggested that there are two ways to implement such a tax break: if a TV production were to be deemed diverse, it would not pay tax on that investment, or pay it at a reduced rate. Alternatively, a diverse production could pay less tax, in various ways. “Now I would stress that for any production to qualify for a tax break, it must have diversity both in front of and behind the camera, and in key roles,” he said. “A black assistant researcher and ‘exotic’ best friend of the lead actor is not cutting it.”
“Today I’m saying, that TV executives… don’t need more lectures on ‘why diversity is a good thing our industry’. I think we’re all on the same page with that,” he said. “You guys just need a break. Only in your case you need a tax break… I still believe that the broadcasters should ring-fence money to produce diverse television, just as they ring-fence money for other important programme genres such as children’s or news,” he continued.
“We want the same as Peppa Pig, dammit! But I also believe that television is a business. If we want to effect a lasting change, not just in the diversity of content, but also in every strata of production and management, we must look at how productions are funded and taxed.”
May – “he looks like a varicose vein with legs!” joked Henry about May’s purple jacket – then joined Henry for the Q&A. He talked about starting to work at the BBC in the mid-1970s, when “I was pretty much the only black guy in a 10-mile radius. Well, there was me, and the security guards, and the women in the canteen,” he said. “I never had a meeting with an executive that looked like me or you… It’s been a very slow curve. It has improved a little bit, but there’s a mighty long way to go.”
Henry said that “we just have to keep working at it. Water can reduce a rock to dust, but it takes a gazillion years” and hoped that calls for diversity and inclusion will be acted on considerably faster. “In the last couple of years, things are shifting. Campaigning is beginning to make people realise that we have to do something,” he said.
“It is changing, but it’s going to be a while… The people who pick what programmes get made, how they’re cast, how they’re produced… if the demographic of those people changed behind the scenes, you’ll see effortless change on the screens… Rome wasn’t built in a day, although I’ve seen some of the buildings, and it looks like it was!… It’s slow. It’s like turning round an enormous oil tanker. But I believe things are changing.”
Henry called for TV companies to lead by example, including looking for the diverse talent which already exists within their firms: people who may not be getting fair chances either on screen, behind the camera or in planning meetings.
Shortly after Henry’s keynote, MIPCOM also hosted a panel session on diversity, titled Breaking Stereotypes to Connect Global Audiences. Speakers included Alex Okosi, EVP and MD of Viacom International Media Networks Africa; Tanya Lopez, SVP original movies and Lifetime original movies at A+E Networks; and Pat Younge, MD of Sugar Films. The moderator was Rioch Edwards-Brown, CEO of So You Wanna Be In TV?
“How do we create diverse content that crosses country and cultural borders?” said Edwards-Brown. Lopez said that it’s a huge priority for A+E Networks. “It really needs to be the focus on a daily basis, as we’re creating stories, as we’re casting, on every level in front of and behind the camera,” she said. “It makes the programming better. We start with the story and then we start to build on it.”
Okosi talked about Africa, which has the fastest-growing middle-class demographic in the world, with huge and young audiences for TV and video content. “It’s a very young population,” he agreed, adding that Viacom has been very focused on creating authentic African content for its viewers on the continent.
“The key to creating content that travels is it has to still be authentic. Africa is made up of a lot of different countries… there is no way that you’re going to be able to be as local as you want in every single country. So you need to focus on the stories that are going to resonate… But it’s not easy. You need to speak to different cultures in different countries.”
Lopez talked about Project Runway, A+E’s iconic show. “It represents so much about what we want to strive for at A+E Networks and certainly at lifetime. Diversity comes in many forms; in this particular show we’re talking about women who aren’t the image of the perfect model. They’re different sizes… they have different backgrounds, gender,” she said. “It’s also representing something that goes down easy: fashion. Yet throughout the project, there’s a message.” And the show reaches a broad audience, showing that this ethos is no barrier to popularity.
Okosi said that Viacom is keen to “promote the amazing youth culture that we have on our continent” rather than focus on the negative stories that are often seen about Africa. Yet it is also trying to deal with important issues for young people in Africa: sexual health for example, in its Shuga series. “With Shuga we deal with everything from contraception to abortion to a variety of different messaging. What makes Shuga so powerful, and the reason it reaches more than 500 broadcasters, is… when young people watch Shuga, it’s relatable. We tap in to pop culture, and in Shuga we’ve cast some of the most amazing musicians, African talent, to make it relatable… And it does literally change behaviour in young people relating to these issues which it entertains about.”
Younge showed a clip for a show called Should I Marry My Cousin? which deals with marriages between first cousins, in the context of the British Pakistani community. “Should I marry my cousin? If you’d met my family you’d say no!” he joked. But the issue is entirely serious. “The usual thing with a subject like that is just to say ‘no’ and that those people are very bad and backward… but if you step back and allow yourself an open mind, you get into quite an interesting subject.” He praised the young star of the show, who bravely put herself forward to explore this issue on screen, at a time of rising Islamophobia in the UK.
“The fundamental thing is about coming to these ideas and these issues with an open mind,” said Younge. “It’s not just enough to have diverse people in your company, your office. You have to actually listen to them. You have to give them the space to have their say, and then take what they say at face value… the biggest challenge we face is the people who pick what gets made, don’t ted to discuss their biases: they went to the same schools, they go to the same plays… that is a set of biases that they don’t discuss, but which people struggle to break through.”
He added that this is “about the business of the business… If you look at the demographics, whether it’s in America or Africa, the fastest-growing young audience is diverse. And if you’re not talking to them, you’re not in business in five or ten years time… This is about relevance and ultimately survival. If you want to be in business long-term, you have to engage those audiences. You have to look at who you employ and what you make.”
Okosi agreed that diversity isn’t an initiative alone, it’s a “customer need… Africans want African content. They want to see people from their neighbourhoods, their backgrounds, speaking the language they understand,” he said. “The reality is you need to really understand what the audience wants, before you can go out as a creative to create… We’re not as aware of that as we need to be.” Easy, cheap ways to be able to research are key, he suggested. “I don’t think that to appeal to a diverse audience you don’t need to create quote unquote diverse content with black people in it. You just need to create great content.”
“We have to know our audience. We have to listen to our audience,” agreed Lopez. “Women are constantly evolving, and they want different content form us. And I have to be able to listen to how they’re changing in the world… With A+E Networks, a lot of what’s happening now is listening. What does our audience want?.. We really have to be out there in the community and talking to them, and saying ‘what can we bring you?’.. Listening is the priority. And it does start with the story. Women and men alike have stories to tell.”