Visible minorities still mostly silent extras on Canadian TV screens says report

Visible minorities still mostly silent extras on Canadian TV screens says report
Monday August 25, 2002 – 18:34:11 EST

CP

VANCOUVER (CP) – Mainstream TV drama in Canada still looks overwhelmingly Caucasian, says a new report that analysed nearly 70 hours of broadcasting on five channels. Mysterious Ways, Degrassi: The Next Generation and Da Vinci’s Inquest were among about 20 English-language shows viewed during the pilot study by Simon Fraser University researchers.
Visible minorities made up just 12 per cent of 1,200 characters featured in the sample, and of those most were little more than minor characters, said Shane Halasz, who assisted with the study.

“What we’re seeing with this is a very superficial level of inclusion,” Halasz said. “They are walking on. They are not too central to the over-arching story line.”

Black characters made up about six per cent of characters in the shows surveyed, while South Asian actors represented two per cent and Latin Americans composed one per cent.

The larger number of black characters – despite “the fact there are more Canadians of Asian origin or descent in Canada than blacks” – could be the result of an urban, Toronto-centric broadcasting bias, the study noted.

Aboriginal characters were barely represented in the viewing sample, said Halasz.

The Simon Fraser team watched one or more episodes of 21 dramas that aired on Global, CBC, CTV, CHUM and Showcase networks in 1999 or later; the sample did not represent every show that aired during that period.

For example, the team did not watch Dream Storm, a CBC TV movie that aired last year, based on the old CBC series North of 60, which was set in an aboriginal community.

The team was somewhat limited in what programs it was able to lay its hands on and future studies will likely include a larger sample, said Halasz.

The study also found problems with the way non-Caucasian characters are written into TV scripts. Many did not have realistic ethnic accents and were often presented without cultural context, said the study.

“There seems to be a real mainstreaming element to the way visible minorities are portrayed,” said Halasz. “The workplace seems to be a convenient place to include a person of colour for cosmetic purposes . . . without having the obligation to look at cultural custom . . . or what happens in their house.”

Dhirendra, an Ontario-based actor who starred in last year’s CBC production Jinnah on Crime, said it takes a deft, subtle touch to bring weave cultural background into a storyline.

If a South Asian actor was playing a doctor on ER, for example, “you don’t want him to be telling patients to resort to . . . herbal remedies or yoga,” he said.

He remembered how once, smoking a cigarette for the cameras while working on a movie in England, the production team became carried away with proper cultural presentation.

“The director comes out and this ethnic advisor comes out with him,” he said, recalling that he was told “a Pakistani person would not hold a cigarette like that.”

Nor is there a shortage of non-Caucasian actors looking for work, said Dhirendra. Often, the problem is those behind the scenes aren’t comfortable challenging the status quo.

“Writers do not like to write about things they don’t understand,” he said.

“It starts with creating opportunities within crews, administration staff, the research team and the writers. Then it is echoed eventually in the actors.”

Broadcasters are often afraid to take a risk on an unknown actor, said Rob Bromley, who was associate producer for the Jinnah series.

“In television, it’s big money,” said Bromley. “That’s what it comes down to – having the guts to do something different.”

The Canadian Press, 2002

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