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A Lenny Henry Effect? UK Broadcasters BBC & Sky Announce Diversity Agendas to Improve Minority Representation

A Lenny Henry Effect? UK Broadcasters BBC & Sky Announce Diversity Agendas to Improve Minority Representation

Maybe actor Lenny Henry’s very public, ongoing diversity push across the pond, focusing his attention on the opportunities for black and other so-called “minority” groups in the UK TV and film industry today (catch up on that here), is indeed having an effect…

First, Sky (the UK and Ireland’s leading home entertainment and communications company) announced that the company is stretching new targets to improve the representation of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people across its entertainment channels. The targets are designed to ensure that programs on Sky 1Sky AtlanticSky Living and Sky Arts better reflect the diversity of Sky’s 11 million TV customers in Britain and Ireland. In addition, increasing its investment in original British programming, Sky intends to play a leading role in making the television industry more accessible to talented people from all backgrounds.

Sky’s new targets address the diversity of talent both on screen and behind the camera. To drive real and sustainable change, Sky says that it will work closely with companies from the independent production sector to seek out and nurture new talent.

By the end of 2015, Sky aims to achieve the following targets for the new programs it commissions for its entertainment channels, via press release:

– On Screen Portrayals: All brand new, non-returning shows on Sky entertainment channels will have people from BAME backgrounds in at least 20% of significant on-screen roles. This commitment covers all types of programs, including drama, comedy, entertainment and factual.

– Production: All of Sky’s original programs will have someone with a BAME background in at least one senior production role. This is aimed at providing more opportunities for people with BAME backgrounds to reach senior positions within the production community.  

– Writing: 20% of writers on all shows will be from BAME backgrounds in order to promote a greater diversity of voices in Sky programs and scripts.

– Commissioning: Sky will also be offering a 12-month placement within their commissioning team as part of the Creative Diversity Network’s Commissioning Leadership Program.

Stuart Murphy, Sky’s Director of Entertainment said: “Sky is dedicated to making programs that feel representative of every one of the millions of viewers that watch our content every day, whatever their color. So we have tackled the issue with the same sense of ambition that we show in all other areas of our business, setting ourselves a set of tangible goals that will hold us to account. Our aim is to kick start a sea change in the on screen representation of ethnic minorities on British television. It’s an incredibly exciting time, and I am very proud that Sky is going to be at the forefront.”

Sky invests more than £2.6 billion (about $4.3 billion) a year (more than any other UK content producer/provider in content for channels such as Sky 1, Sky Atlantic, Sky Living, Sky Arts, Sky Sports, Sky Movies and Sky News. It distributes its content broadly over several platforms, including satellite, cable, IPTV, mobile and WiFi.

More than 30 million people watch Sky content each week.

Also making a public statement regarding an increase in diversity is BBC Films boss Christine Langan, who has taken on the challenge, saying that the lack of diversity within the film industry is “increasingly on BBC Films’ agenda.”

Speaking to ScreenDaily last month, as BBC Films celebrated its 25th anniversary and revealed its upcoming film slate, Langan said that diversity increasingly plays a role in the division’s commissioning strategy.

“I can ensure you we are very mindful of it [diversity] and increasingly it is on our agenda. We need to reflect modern Britain and I am engaged in that process,” said Langan, adding that, “The film community needs to create opportunities to pull people through. Commissioning has taken account of it and will continue to do so.”

The BBC, which has a budget of between £10-£11m ($15m-$16.4m) per year, has not replicated the BFI’s move of attaching diversity stipulations to its production grants.

Even Minister for the Arts Chris Bryant called the lack of diversity within the industry “shocking,” speaking at an event last week: “What I think is lacking in the British film industry is that sense of anger and revolution and desire to change and to make everybody see something through somebody else’s eyes,” he claimed.

While the politician said he didn’t believe quotas to be the answer, he called for more public funding to be directed toward improving the situation: “I do think the best way of doing it is through public investment. And some of that should be from the Lottery Fund and some of it should be making sure the BBC and Channel 4 abide by strong support for the industry.”

Langan, who has been at the BBC for 8 years, said she hopes to oversee the BBC Films slate for years to come: “I love what we and I do… I’m very enthusiastic about all the projects on the slate and those that we haven’t mentioned today. I want to ensure a very bountiful future for BBC Films and British film.”

She will have to do better, however, to demonstrate that diversity is indeed at the top of the BBC’s agenda. Among the 15 new projects announced, in terms of diversity, there is a new documentary on Grace Jones from director Sophie Fiennes, described as an observational portrait, that will weave a multi-narrative journey through the private and public realms of the legendary singer and performer, mixing intimate personal footage with unique staged musical sequences. 

When asked by ScreenDaily about the announced slate being short on content, as well as producers, writers and directors from so-called *ethnic minority* backgrounds, Langan explained: “This isn’t the whole slate. There are quite a lot of new commissions that speak to that. I don’t want to single anyone out because I don’t want anyone to stand for anything else than being a talented filmmaker. Film development takes a while so many of these began their process years ago. It’s something that is changing as we speak.”

And just as we’re all watching to see how American film and TV production companies incorporate diversity into their agendas, I’m sure those in the UK are doing the same.

It’s worth noting the just a couple of days ago, after the above interview Langan gave to ScreenDaily, the BBC did order as drama series from Steve McQueen that follows a black community in London, from 1968 to 2014. Also worth noting, former BBC chief creative officer Pat Younge and former Channel 4 executives Lucy Pilkington and Narinder Minhas recently announced that they have teamed up to launch London-based independent production company Sugar Films, which will develop film and TV content with an emphasis on diversity.

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