In a week when the Academy Awards unfold, with the #OscarsSoWhite controversy seeming long past and with the movie Black Panther heading toward Star Wars-type box-office numbers, along comes the bad news: the reality check.
The annual study of the U.S. entertainment industry, from researchers with the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), which reports on representation of minorities and women on TV and in film, does not make for cheery reading. Especially in the matter of mainstream TV.
No such study seems to exist for the Canadian business, but we are probably smug enough to assume that the entertainment industry here is more tolerant and diverse. Not so fast. There's a great documentary from TV Ontario, Stand Up Toronto, which paints a starkly different picture. It's also very funny. We'll get to Canada in minute.
First, a superficial look at U.S. network TV would indicate giant strides. Such dramas as Empire, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder are hits, with diverse casts. The comedies Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat got produced and watched and praised. The UCLA study, which is very detailed and probes ratings success, says that in white households, ratings were highest for broadcast scripted shows with casts that have more than 40-per-cent minority representation.
But it's in the arena of creating, writing and producing that television looks bizarrely restricted. In network TV, creators of new shows in the 2017-18 season were 91-per-cent white and 84-per-cent male. Essentially, in the arena of power behind the scenes and behind the camera, women and minorities are shockingly underrepresented.
We live in the era of peak-TV, when around 500 scripted shows are made each year for network, cable and streaming services. You would think that the sheer expansiveness of TV creates room for creators and directors who are not straight, white males. Not so.
In fact, the TV industry is particularly brutal for women who direct. It actually matters a lot that Ryan Murphy (the man behind Glee, The People vs OJ Simpson and The Assassination of Gianni Versace) set up his Half Foundation two years ago. The purpose is to have 50 per cent of all directorships in Murphy's many projects filled by women, people of colour and members of the LGBT community. Also, to provide a mentorship for female directors. It matters because women find it extremely difficult to get their first job as a director in TV.
The same applies in Canada, I'm guessing. But the larger issue of diversity in entertainment here is woeful. The doc Stand Up Toronto (you can find it on TVO.org), made by Geeta Sondhi, is an eye-opener. It follows a small group of "racialized Canadian comics" who are working Toronto's comedy scene. Some are entering the mainstream of the Yuk-Yuk's circuit and some are independent, basically creating their own careers through their own networks of friends, supporters and fans. All are very funny, not just in matters of race, and all face some kind of reluctance in the entertainment industry here to let some comic voices speak freely.
Danish Anwar, who is 32 and has spent six years doing stand-up, says of the tokenism here: "Being an independent comic in Canada is difficult. There's less than half a dozen major decision makers in Canada and if you're not within their system, if you don't do things the way they want you to do it, you don't get to work with them. I've heard many agents or bookers say, 'Oh, we already have a brown guy on this show, we already have a woman on this show, or we already have a gay guy on this show.' Because to them, 'normal' means straight white guy. They're underestimating their own audience. They think everybody thinks like them. And we just don't want to waste our time trying to please somebody who hasn't evolved in 30 years."
That's a telling indictment from a guy who is very funny. Viewers also watch as comic Aisha Brown (a regular on the Yuk-Yuk's circuit) gets a call about an approaching gig. She is warned about doing material that is "political," but what is meant is anything to do with race. Hoodo Hersi, whose comedy has real bite, explains that it's not just power brokers in entertainment who balk at her comedy career. It's her parents, too.
It's complicated, this issue. But in the matters of diversity in film, television and comedy, nobody can be smug.