Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Unbearable Whiteness of Being on Canadian TV

Although I’m edging to the slide side of the demographic, I’m still a middle aged white guy.

And when, as a producer, I put a project into development with a Canadian television network, especially a project that will require Public money to be realized, I have to sign an agreement which includes an acknowledgement that I will “reflect the diversity of contemporary Canadian society” and that I am also “aware of the need to increase opportunities for all those who may have been traditionally under represented in the Canadian television industry”.

And good on the funding agencies for requiring this kind of commitment!

For it makes no sense that at this point in the 21st century anyone should have their employment or creative opportunities reduced because of their race, gender, age, sexual orientation or a physical disability.

And what better way of affirming our intention of reflecting who we are, what we value and the kind of nation we’re becoming than in the stories we tell ourselves and the world.

If the project being developed is still at the concept stage, this commitment encourages writers and producers to explore the many options available to tell our stories in a way few other countries can. And if the project already has a script fairly locked into launch mode, it encourages diversity in casting and cultural innovation with regard to future story arenas if the contemplated production is a series.

To see this process in action, you need to look no further than the recently launched new season of drama and comedy on the CBC…

The Republic of Doyle

republic-of-doyle

18 to Life

18 to Life

Death Comes to Town

kids-in-the-hall

Um….

Wait…

Gee, still a lotta white faces there…huh?

Uh…

Now don’t go getting the wrong idea…

Maybe those shows aren’t really a fair reflection of all the network offerings…

Y’see the CBC has two separate and distinct seasons. And the other one from last Fall featured…

Heartland

HeartlandSeason2Walli

Battle of the Blades

blades

Dragon’s Den

dragons_den_402

Being Erica

being_erica_detail

This Hour Has 22 Minutes

22 minutes

Er….

Wait!

I’m pretty sure there’s an aboriginal face deep in the background of that “Heartland” picture.

And anybody who knows anything about those retired hockey players on “Battle of the Blades” knows that Tie Domi is a Muslim.

And there’s a very talented black actress who turns up semi-regularly on “Being Erica”.

She’s, uh…

Just…apparently…not…featured in any of the publicity.

Okay, but wait. Let’s not go jumping to any conclusions…

Because CBC has a couple of venerable series that are in their third and fourth seasons respectively…

The Border

TheBorder3x1

Now there’s a show that features about as much white liberal guilt as you can cram into an hour of television. They also found an actress from a visible minority to replace one of a different visible minority when the original one departed the show. And I know for a fact that they have a very good black actor in the regular cast.

He’s, uh…

Just…apparently…not…featured in any of the publicity.

But ignore all that because how could anybody forget…

Little Mosque on the Prairie

mosque

The comedy that brought the Canadian Muslim experience to television ---  even if it still isn’t funny after four seasons --- and half the cast remains Caucasian.

All right.

Take a deep breath.

Interesting, isn’t it?

Probably not the sort of thing you’ve taken note of before. But something that a performer “of color”, a writer working hard to create three dimensional characters that don’t come from their personal cultural core or a producer who has signed the affirmation quoted above are all acutely aware.

So what’s going on here?

Is there a subtle form of Racism at work within the Government supported Canadian Broadcasting Corporation?

Are the funding agencies merely paying lip service to their rules? Y’know, one of those government initiatives where it’s implied that everybody gets to play in the sandbox while only a select few actually get the opportunity to build a castle?

Maybe it’s neither of those things.

I mean, there may not be many non-white faces. But you can count the number of Gay characters on one thumb and I don’t see anybody with anything more serious than a lack of comic timing as a disability.

Maybe the executives at the CBC and the six different funding agencies listed in “The Republic of Doyle” end credits were just happy that the show imported an Irish actor in his 50’s, so they could check off the “No Age Discrimination” box on their “under represented” checklist.

Maybe Newfoundlanders as a whole are still considered an “under represented” group, that long list of CODCO and CODCO Alumni shows notwithstanding.

Maybe the confusing brand of “womanizing” lead character Jake Doyle exhibits will soon be explained when we discover he’s Gay --- simultaneously ticking off another of those many “under represented” categories.

Perhaps the whole picture is just skewed by the oddly concocted Provincial tax credit rules that not only boot production out of diversely populated places like Vancouver and Toronto, but also kick them just beyond their nearby suburbs of Burnaby and Brampton where people who look like me are the “visible minority”.

However…

I think the real reason the complexion of Canadian television is as pale as it is comes down to something else.

night heat 2

Because I’m that slide-side middle aged guy, I can vividly recall the late 1980’s, when American studios came here to do such series as “Night Heat” and “Adderly”.

The cast make-up of those series didn’t look much different from the current CBC offerings, and their content usually included one or two “Chinatown” or “Ghetto” episodes a season, meaning the employment opportunities for visible minority talent --- uh --- haven’t really improved in 25 years.

Back then we used to say that our American cultural masters had come here because we were, “Mostly Cheaper. Mostly Spoke English. And most important --- Mostly White!”

It was what American studios thought their audience wanted. And once they hid our quaint multi-hued money and red mailboxes, it was virtually impossible to tell you weren’t really in Kansas.

And maybe that mentality still holds true…

Only this time, it would seem that the executives making that read of the audience are Canadian.

Over the last decade, there has been a slowly growing movement to transition home grown Canadian television from what it has often been to being “more popular” meaning like American shows are popular.

At the same time, there has been a desire to offset the cost of production by pre-selling to an American network and even having them come aboard in the development stages so some of that “popular” stuff rubs off.

So far, that has resulted in one legitimate success story --- “Flashpoint”.

flashpoint

I know, I know, more white people --- and these ones look like they mean business.

The possibility that such success could spread encouraged others to pattern their show models after American series. “Flashpoint” was immediately followed by “The Listener”, a series that coat-tailed the American “detective with special powers” genre, featured lots of white people and pretty much failed both artistically and financially.

Then came “The Bridge”, a derivative police procedural (with mostly white people) which still hasn’t landed an American broadcast slot months after completing filming of its initial season – a malaise now also afflicting “Flashpoint” and other Canadian series that took the “Appeal to the American market first” approach.

And while CBC didn’t have to play the same game, it became clear a couple of seasons ago that they had begun to do just that.

You need look no further than two series which failed to find any kind of audience here.

MVP

MVP_Launch

Wild Roses

wild-roses

The former was a retread of the British series “Footballer’s Wives” and also tried to channel “Desperate Housewives”, while the latter was a Canadian version of “Dallas”.

Both refused to acknowledge their obvious lineage in their marketing campaigns and neither found purchase with audiences far more familiar with the actual reality of their story arenas of Puck Bunnies and Calgary than the people making them.

In the most recent season launches, the CBC fully embraced the derivative pattern of their content by claiming that “The Republic of Doyle” was “Rockford on the Rock” – an assertion false enough to give Jim Rockford and friends grounds to sue for misrepresentation.

They also openly celebrated getting into bed with ABC in developing “18 to Life” casually ignoring the fact that ABC had slipped away before the marriage could be consummated.

And unless the Comedy Gods grant more smiles than they did in the opening episode of “Death Comes to Town”, that series might be revealed as a jaundiced attempt to garner an American sale on the decades old rep of the once funnier “Kids in the Hall”.

In my estimation, the current snowflake invasion on Canadian television can be laid at the feet of TV executives who don’t know what makes a show popular beyond making it look like a show that was popular in some bygone era.

And the reality of those funding agency rules is that these agencies try very hard not to make programming choices for the submitting networks.

CBC just prioritizes their choices and somehow, this season, there’s only been enough money to pay for the white ones at the top of their list. Those being the shows they think they have a better chance of also selling South of the border.

But the really strange part of that thinking is how much it ignores what American audiences are really watching and what their own studios are preparing for them. 

Would any Canadian network have green-lit a series about a prohibition era bootlegger (“Boardwalk Empire”) or gladiators (“Spartacus: Blood and Sand”) or World War II (“The Pacific”)? Would any of them have taken a chance on “Sons of Anarchy” or “Dexter” or “Big Love”?

Not a fair comparison, those titles being cable offerings?

How about  “Lost”, “Heroes”, “24”, even “The Good Wife” or “Human Target”?

Or would they have pointed to the funding agency rules they’re already ignoring and claimed they couldn’t do series that don’t have a clearly Canadian setting or that negatively reflect on a specific demographic?

In my own opinion, they’re already doing that. Because the Canada I see on CBC is not the one I experience when I walk out my front door. And copying somebody else’s style is not the way you create a definable one of your own.

Meanwhile, even with inflated People Meter numbers to help them along, little of CBC’s product garners anywhere near a million viewers. And nobody is mentioning that some of those new shows have lost half of even that diminished audience before the final credits scroll.

So much for winning any popularity contests.

Meanwhile, nobody covering television seems to have put together that, given the 2-3% of the Canadian population that elusive million viewer threshold represents, there’s a chance hardly anybody who has seen an episode is even coming back the following week. At those anaemic audience levels, the CBC could run an entire season of a series and still not have their show seen by half of the country.

Or – close to the percentage of the population that won’t see anybody who looks anything like them should they bother to tune in anyway.

And in the “More Bad News” to come department, the one show the CBC had which did garner big numbers won’t be coming back.

the_tudors-logo

While I’ve never understood how a far from authentic take on the life of Henry VIII got to be classified as Canadian content, “The Tudors” has reached the end of its run. As the producers put it, “We just ran out of wives”.

But, should CBC find a way to replicate this deal, they might get back to big numbers with the consortium’s next offering, “The Borgias”, starring Jeremy Irons.

Yeah, “The Borgias”.

More white people.

41 comments:

deborah Nathan said...

Oh Jim -- I laughed so hard at this. A great stand-up routine. I have noticed that the networks here tend to ghettoize "diversity". The nets create whole shows with a cast of "color" to satisfy their diversity requirements, then feel free to whitewash everything else.

Great post.

Dwight Williams said...

Weird thing is Jim Codrington gets nice place of prominence on the cover dress of the DVD sets for The Border. Both seasons, in fact.

Just far enough back from the others that you wonder if his character is in fact the real mastermind among the series' characters if you've never watched an episode.

Elize Morgan said...

I agree, but I think - to a certain extent - that's been endemic lately to many of the issues in TV. Networks are starting to realize that if they put a person of colour on TV the midwest isn't going to run screaming.

That said, BET is still run by a white guy, so...there you go.

One place where it is starting to turn, though - and this may be because of the American pick ups - is still in tween. You've got Canadian How to be Indie (which is funny), and a variety that are going back on forth on family that are emblematic, more, of the multiculturalism of Canada. This is, of course, tween and teen programming and I think has been the case for longer (as we seem to be more cautiously hopeful in teaching kids)

Michael F said...

I've heard people complain there is just a lack of minority actors.

I've even heard people complain there is a lack of hot actors.

Maybe casting agents are lazy.

David Simon likes to pair trained actors with non-actors and that works great for him. Just gotta take a risk. As he says, he just looks for people who are comfortable in their own skin.

I've always thought a casting agent could spend a Saturday at the food court at Scarborough Town Center and triple the amount of quality, charismatic acting talent in this country.

The White Wolf said...

And ugly...

Hahaha. Never got beyond how unattractive all the actors were to notice they're all white toast.

You know, stale and cold.

Coincidentally, that spec half-hour comedy I have THE GOOD NEWS NETWORK (GNN) has a multi-national cast like we often see on our boxes. Not always qualified, but ethnically diverse.

Any buyers?

Brandon Laraby said...

I've always wondered what the deal was with all the white-washing...?

Maybe I'm two (or three) shades of crazy, but when I envision my characters I think of personalities, not racial traits, etc. with the idea that the best actor gets the part. Black, Yellow, Blue, Green or whatever.

And they'll bring themselves into the role to make it their own.

Essentially, the BEST ACTOR wins.

Period.

That said, it'll probably never fly. 'Cause only white people watch TV, right?

And it's not like there's been any proof that white people will watch non-white leads in their shows.

You know, like The Cosby Show. (a show that's still pretty damn funny today).

But then again, what do I know... maybe its the exception to the rule?

Still, I'm down with rocking the boat.

And hey, maybe while we're at it we can get someone from the First Nations on TV who's not having to chase down their spirit guide - or having to live on the rez.

Or that it even matters that they're First Nations.

They're the best actor, they got the part.

Yeah... okay. I'll stop dreaming out loud now... (not really).

Brandon Laraby said...

On a side note: here's an interesting article from 2000 about how the media makes excuses for their 'white-washed' TV lineup.

http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=1019

Ken said...

As I'm so often the hired gun on a show I can't tell you how many times the issue of "diversity" comes up in casting. More often than not the principal cast are completely gringo and the diversity chattel gets shunted aside to be dealt with on an episode by episode basis. Often that leads to fairly stereotypical casting and worse, tokenism. It's a real problem. As much as we may think we're reflecting the zeitgeist we are really still in the stone age.

At the DGC (where I sit on the Ontario Board) diversity is a hot topic. Those of us behind the camera have noticed that most film and television crews don't accurately reflect the society we all think we're serving (if you could call what we do serving anybody).

But your real point seems to be about where we're taking our cues from. And I think you've nailed it. I've long thought that the US network sale aspirations which have recently taken hold here have gone from slippery slope to full fledged disaster. If anything, Canadian shows should be the "other cable." The more we try to look the same, the more sameness we produce. I'd love to see a network exec in this country with the balls to try something different...anything different, and then stick with it.

I, like you, am a white guy of a certain age. And all those pictures you posted in the blog kind of creeped me out. Kind of felt like I'd fallen asleep in Toronto and woken up in a 1960's NBC sitcom. I know my 13 year old son experiences a very different world than the one he gets on Canadian airwaves. I experience a different world in my day to day life...sadly, less so when I'm working on a television set.

Thanks for the post, Jim.

joeclark said...

The problem with this line of thinking – that television should “reflect” Canadian society – is that nobody actually wants a true reflection. Many cities are mostly white and aboriginal; is that what you want? Many immigrants are FOB, largely unassimilated, and incapable of conversation in English (the language of our discussion today). You want them represented? Some immigrants are a demonstrable threat to Canadian society, like Islamic extremists. You want them represented too? (Where? On Little Mosque?)

OK, next problem. “Diversity” tends to be interpreted, as by female executives of the Kirstine Layfield-Stewart mould, as an excuse to lard up TV shows with more and more and more upwardly-mobile professional women just like themselves. Check nearly the entire 2008 CBC Television drama and comedy schedule. They’re not male, but they’re still white. Diverse enough for you?

Next problem: To paraphrase Irshad Manji (possibly the most diverse person in the country; let’s put her on every show), “My fundamentalism is better than your fundamentalism.” You can publish all the well-meaning blog posts you want about nonwhites and women, and I’ll come back saying “All righty. Where are all the disabled people?” Because the industry’s own research shows those actors face real barriers as opposed to suffering from stereotypes or attitudes (also true, incidentally).

For example, I have a copy of the little-known Screen Actors Guild report on actors with disabilities in the U.S. (from 2006, IIRC; I’d have to dig it up). These actors couldn’t make it onto the set, weren’t allowed into an audition, never got a callback, weren’t given interpreters, and, in general, weren’t taken seriously.

All this was true despite the fact that every single time a de facto job fair was held for casting agents and disabled actors, agents found a perfect actor for one or more roles. Every single time such fairs are held, somebody gets hired. (Famous example: CSI. Do you know which actor I’m talking about?)

When the industry goes slightly out of its way to accommodate actors with disabilities, voilà, such actors turn out to be just right for some roles. What a shock.

So where are they on TV?

There are female, nonwhite, and gay actors on TV. Where are the disabled actors?

Is all of this really a conversation you and advocates of “diversity” want? Because no matter how you slice it, you always get back to the problem of “My fundamentalism is better than your fundamentalism.” Somebody is always going to advocate for their own favoured minority. What’s the argument against actually favouring that minority? It’s quite the can of worms, is it not?

Frank "Dolly" Dillon said...

all that is true but I still remember back in the day on street legal when we would hire any black woman of a certain age who could still swing a gavel to play a judge even though at the time there wasn't a single middle aged black woman judge in canada.

Dwight Williams said...

Mr. Dillon: I'm guessing that the thinking involved was that someone was going to be the first such in the real world sooner or later, but first whoever was going to try for it had to believe it was possible. Like Uhura on ST: TOS?

Am I wrong here?

DMc said...

Risk.

Right? I don't buy that the issue is the same in Canada than the USA.

Okay, I didn't exactly see a lot of "diverse" faces in Edmonton today.

And I certainly know from my experience on the Border that certainly within certain ethnicities, the pool is shallower than you think it is.

But someone once brought up something like Obsidian Theater in Toronto -- that the pool of Black actors was bad in Toronto 20 years ago, but a couple of theatre companies, some work, some building, and eventually it works.

I also think that as Elize said, the tween shows show hope.

But I think it still comes down to risk.

Until it became a cartoon, one of the best things about Grey's Anatomy was the casting of nonwhite actors as main cast just cause...and then following that up with the fact that you don't do "race" stories.

But that takes a desire to risk.

And as we've previously talked about here and in the Canadian scribosphere, chickens...

...Canada? Not so much with the risk.

Couple casting agents bust out of that thinking, couple more non-white creators, as Ken says, get more non-pale crew and we'll get better.

I think that APTN has already done more to increase the pool of First Nations actors in Canada. Some faces I haven't seen. And you know what? They're good.

but it still means selling risk to the network, the prodco, and everybody else. Risk. Boo. What a scary word.

Frank "Dolly" Dillon said...

Hey Dwight: You are exactly right and if I recall I think we often used the Uhuru reference and were fully aware that we were "role modelling" on Street Legal and even to this day I don't necessarily think it was the "wrong" thing to do. What is troubling today is that it is often difficult to portray a person of colour as "the bad guy" unless you supply the show with a "person of colour" to be the good guy as well. When this happens you start your characters start to become "boxes to check off" as opposed to "real people".

Dwight Williams said...

Something to be wary of, I agree.

The White Wolf said...

When watching American shows AND movies, I've pointed out to my GF how they (the Americans) install a black person in a high-functioning position, you know, like the Police Chief, Commissioner; Doctor, Lawyer, Space Chief! therefore eliminating the 'need' for black actors in any other role.

And we can expect the new crop to add President to the above list, making all those Judges, D.A.'s, and Coroner roles back up for grabs for Whitey.

DMc said...

Just as long as you don't default to the Canadian wonder and think that things here are really any better.

Ask an actor of colour.

they're not.

deborah Nathan said...

Agree with you DMc (is that a first?). And as to your previous reply about risk, I remember network execs not approving a person of color in a leading role in an ensemble cast. It was frustrating. And there's a notorious story about a comment years ago from a long-gone network exec who disapproved of a story for a series claiming "There is no racism in Canada." And so it goes.

Brandon Laraby said...

Here's a quick question to the pro writers out there:

Do you really get any say in Casting?

Can you say 'hey, let's open this part up, let anyone apply?'

And yes, I know about time/money constraints, but I mean just saying something like "for the next 3 days or 3 hours whoever walks through that door is going to have as good a shot as the next person".

Be they Black, Asian, White, wheelchair-bound, Blind, Mute or Deaf.

If they honestly think they can do the role... you give'm their 5 mins.

Does that ever happen?

CAN that ever happen?

Or am I just thinking silly newbie thoughts?

Anemone said...

I'm really glad to see posts like this by people in the industry. I did my Inclusion 101 training reading fandom blogs and wasn't sure how things were on the other side of the fence.

I'm a disabled white woman who wanted to act but refuses to do sexualized content and couldn't pass for a scientist or other professional for anything (despite 3 science degrees), so naturally I turned to writing, and am now preparing for pitching.

This post fired me up to pitch two particular projects again. I need all the fire I can get.

Frank "Dolly" Dillon said...

Depend on "who" you are in the process. If you're a showrunner or have a good working relationship with the showrunner, for sure you have a say in the casting. You also have a "say" when you write your character descriptions etc or come up with the story.

While there is the old argument that "i can't find me a damn korean actor to save my life" etc a little work will usually reveal someone who can do a part on your show. Sometimes it is more difficult to find specific ethnic leads but if you can go overseas to get them it is possible.

The elephant in the room is "audience identification" or words to that effect. This may come from distributors ( it's not us but the Australians/Germans etc don't want to see too many of those "ahem well, you know ... people) who are filling in valuable parts of your financing or it may come from the network itself (we don't think the people in the prairies are ready for a...) or from fraidy cat producers who don't even want to bring up the possibility of a black, asian or native canadian lead for a network TV series.

It's two separate things. Series leads in an ensemble cast will usually have an ethnic character (usually following the "car commercial" rule --three white guys for every one black) but a true ethnic lead on a single character "hero" show is rare -- "Jinah on crime" was one, sure there are others but they escape me.

On individual eps multi hued casting of guest characters is more common but you still do have to be on it and remind casting agents to bring in anyone (especially if you haven't denoted special ethnic characteristics in you character breakdown -- if you haven't done that they usually just bring in white folks).

(ps and oh yeah, white wolf, you caught us on the black boss thingee -- yeah hire the black dude, he's the most powerful guy on the show because he's the boss but he only has to be in two scenes -- one at the beginning "go get him, boys" and one at the end "good work guys"

The White Wolf said...

It's good to see a dialogue open up on your comments ain't it Jim?

I'm not beating a drum here (cause I'm not a hippie) but thought the following link would be of interest; amongst other things, it shows how black and hispanic kids in the USA spend waaaay more time viewing media than the marshmallow kids do:

http://www.kff.org/entmedia/entmedia012010nr.cfm

Brandon Laraby said...

@The White Wolf

Marshmallows, Chocolates... uh...

What's the dessert equivalent of Latinos and Asians...?

Anyways, whatever, I say: let's make some s'mores on Canadian TV.

Who doesn't like s'mores, right?!

Trevor Finn said...

Wow, after reading this I feel kinda sick. I knew there were a lot of white faces in TV, but that seems somewhat ridiculous. And i don't agree that it's a "risk" to hire a non-white actor, though it is probably perceived that way. I mean, look at The Wire. Sure it was cable but I don't think the fact that they were a multicultural show affected the ratings. American shows are also predominantly white, but at least they have more variation than we do.

Joeclark, I don't know where you're getting your information that people don't want to see a true reflection of Canadian society. That's just conjecture. We don't know for certain because the networks are too scared to try something new. As for immigrants, most ARE able to speak English, as it's a basic requirement for immigrants to either speak English, French, or both. It isn't easy to immigrate here - you have to be highly educated (though we don't accept those qualifications to allow immigrants to get jobs, but that's another story). There are certainly immigrants that can't speak English but they are a minority. That's why we have so many MD/PhD taxi drivers. Considering that, I think we could do with a little more diversity in our TV. Walk through Toronto or Vancouver any day of the week and you won't think that we're mostly white (or Aboriginal for that matter), and the big cities are where most of Canada's population resides.

As for Canadian shows being uninspired, derivative, and non-representational, I think that has more to do with the network execs than with the quality of our writers. You hear about networks looking to hire US showrunners as if that will solve our problem. What we need to do is hire US NETWORK EXECUTIVES. We need people at CBC and elsewhere with BALLS. I'm certain that there are better and more daring pilots and pitches presented in Canada than are green-lit. I've read some of them. Our problem is we aren't encouraged to forge new ground, to have foresight, to blow away our American or British counterparts with our edgy, inspired, controversial material. Have you ever heard a Canadian TV program described as CONTROVERSIAL?

I think the lack of diversity in our casting is directly related to the lack of originality and edge in our programming. So if one shifts, I think so will the other. I'm just curious which one will budge first.

Trevor Finn said...

Wow, after reading this I feel kinda sick. I knew there were a lot of white faces in TV, but that seems somewhat ridiculous. And i don't agree that it's a "risk" to hire a non-white actor, though it is probably perceived that way. I mean, look at The Wire. Sure it was cable but I don't think the fact that they were a multicultural show affected the ratings. American shows are also predominantly white, but at least they have more variation than we do.

Joeclark, I don't know where you're getting your information that people don't want to see a true reflection of Canadian society. That's just conjecture. We don't know for certain because the networks are too scared to try something new. As for immigrants, most ARE able to speak English, as it's a basic requirement for immigrants to either speak English, French, or both. It isn't easy to immigrate here - you have to be highly educated (though we don't accept those qualifications to allow immigrants to get jobs, but that's another story). There are certainly immigrants that can't speak English but they are a minority. That's why we have so many MD/PhD taxi drivers. Considering that, I think we could do with a little more diversity in our TV. Walk through Toronto or Vancouver any day of the week and you won't think that we're mostly white (or Aboriginal for that matter), and the big cities are where most of Canada's population resides.

As for Canadian shows being uninspired, derivative, and non-representational, I think that has more to do with the network execs than with the quality of our writers. You hear about networks looking to hire US showrunners as if that will solve our problem. What we need to do is hire US NETWORK EXECUTIVES. We need people at CBC and elsewhere with BALLS. I'm certain that there are better and more daring pilots and pitches presented in Canada than are green-lit. I've read some of them. Our problem is we aren't encouraged to forge new ground, to have foresight, to blow away our American or British counterparts with our edgy, inspired, controversial material. Have you ever heard a Canadian TV program described as CONTROVERSIAL?

I think the lack of diversity in our casting is directly related to the lack of originality and edge in our programming. So if one shifts, I think so will the other. I'm just curious which one will budge first.

Dwight Williams said...

We don't need to import network executives to get the ones we need.

Now the implied suggestion of sending casting directors to visit the cab companies to find some of the hidden acting talent of this country...that might be worth doing. The ones who make the cuts that follow from that may still not get into the professions they originally trained for back in their birth nations. But they can serve as role models for the generations to follow.

Robin said...

Wow. That's quite an eye-opener. Especially since I've seen a lot of American-produced shows that film(ed) in Canada over the last couple of decades, several of which included non-whites in their main and recurring casts. (Though, now that I think about it, I don't recall many in which the lead isn't a white dude.)

I think American productions might be partly to blame for the CBC's lack of diversity, not necessarily through emulation, but because we keep running off with the talented Canadians. For example, Tahmoh Penikett, who is half First Nation, got snapped up first by BSG and then by Dollhouse. Heck, we've even been stealing your white folk. I can think of at least half a dozen series regulars that hail from the fair north. For the highest concentration, check out the Syfy channel. Half of their shows are filmed in mighty Vancouver.

DMc said...

Two points: Trevor -- the "risk" that I wrote about was the "perception" of risk, not an "actual" risk. I don't think it's a risk either. Point is, the people making the decisions do.

Also,I think the diversity problem on Canadian TV is a Canadian problem, with Canadian causes and the solutions will have to be Canadian. This is not one of those (hotly anticipated, because they love them so much) opportunities for Canadians to make excuses and talk about how superior they are to Americans.

And further to that problem, another uniquely Canadian spin: the regionalism of this country. You can't type FADE IN without having one part of the country whining -- Nothing set in Vancouver/Why are we watching something about Quebec/ TORONTO AGAIN???!!!

Though there is diversity in Canada -- and lots of it, it does tend to be concentrated in the urban centres of the country. And the viewer war between rural and city in Canada is even greater than the divide in the USA. So there are even considerations to the race issue that have nothing to do with race.

Beware anyone suggesting simple solutions to complex problems.

Dwight Williams said...

Denis makes a good point: the perceived risk is a mirage but those decision-makers who believe the mirage to be real have to get a dousing in the oasis' waters first before they get the true picture.

Once they do, then we can actually walk the talk.

Rosemary Sadlier said...

Through the efforts of the organization that I represent - the Ontario Black History Society, and in cooperation with Jean Augustine then MP, the federal government in 1995 unanimously declared February as Black History Month across Canada effective in 1996.

How timely that during BHM, a time to come together to celebrate all that has been read, learned and experienced all year, that we have this commentary on the state of how our Canadian media, our national reflection of ourselves, our coast to coast to coast way of becoming familiar with each other, that our Canadian reflection as outlined, pales in comparison to the declared focus of the month...Where is the evidence of our presence on our national television?

otbear said...

Join in the movement of Black History Month in Canada to August, when it should be according to OUR history and leave the new, 'Family Day' in February for the politicians.
It's funny growing up Windsor, Ont. and experiencing American discrimination. Then coming to Toronto and experiencing Canadian discrimination. It's against the law in the U S but not here. Just like those Miranda Rights when a suspect is arrested. You know, You have the right to remain silent etc... Don't exist here.
The stories I could tell about being Canadian and Black in the middle Chicago's South side in the 70's wearing my Buds sweater. The warm smiles and drinks I got in Holland because I wore my old Canadian Regiment pin from my militia days in High School. Singing the National anthem in Edmonton when they had the Great One.
Don't have to imagine that. Yet how to tell those Canadian stories in Canada. I'm already a Great, Great, Great, Great Uncle for ten years but that's another story. If I'm Blogging wrong, tell me, I'm a virgin at this stuff.

Len D. said...

Thank you so much for this observation Jim!!! True, true and true! My experience has been primarily in the fashion/image business and looking now to move into television with some sort of lifestyle show which I would host as an 'expert.' I know from my experience the Canadian fashion industry, who is typically chosen to sell what to whom. Early in my days as a talent, I quickly identified the challenge afoot and smartly chose to become a producer, to work behind the scenes. This decision was ultimately made after I had done a 'brilliant' audition for a principal role in a commercial for a major Canadian bank. The casting director wanted me, the director really wanted me but alas the bank couldn't/wouldn't take the 'risk.' As a producer, I could make it up and no one would care what I looked like. I wouldn't be the pitch person. It was the best choice I could ever have made. Fast forward to now and still as a black man, I'm finding it hard to sell a show, even though, I'd 'be great on TV!' Chalk it up, maybe, to not having yet uncovered exactly the right format yet??? But, I know deep down, it's still very much about who the pitchman is, me, pitted against and 'our market' / 'our audience.' Still I keep tying. As Rosemary mentioned, ironic that in this yet another black history month, this is the topic of conversation. Canada continues to show its true colours - or not. Still I keep trying...

Great post!

Peace / Len D. Henry.

BROWN GIRL said...

Unfortunately, I, as a minority, woman and a writer, have been screaming about this for DECADES. Nobody listens. As far as US networks, go, though, I'm going to have to disagree about diversity. LOST has a poly-ethnic cast, and NBC has an East Indian person in every on of its prime time comedies on Thursday's lineug. Granted, on "Community", the Indian guy plays an Arab, but still, it's better than it is here.

And I agree with The White Wolf. Gaggably ugly. It's not the writer/producer/creator's faults, however, it's ENTIRELY a casting directors/director issue, because THEY"RE THE ONES WHO OKAY THE CAST.

I tried to cast something with an East Indian beautiful woman as a character, and the casting director came up with nothing, clearly because she thought minorities were not attractive. And no matter what, whether at work, or personally, I've always come up against the "blonde=better=beautiful" equation. Until THAT changes, why should the 800 year old execs who run things change? Until EVERYONE decides that attractive/talented doesn't equal white, nobody will change anything, ever. This blog post gave me hope, however, that people are starting to speak out. YAY!

chungeh said...

Somehow it sounds more important and makes more sense when a White Guy says it....

Tania said...

I'd love to one night watch a contemporary movie about us, than have to watch my Mississippi Burning tape for the 200 th time because it is the one movie with diversity where the brown faces are so many and beautiful and the characters are genuine

Jani said...

Thanks Jim for your humour in an otherwise not so humourous topic. I am Chair of the Diversity Committee at ACTRA (Toronto and National) and we have been working hard to bring changes to this issue for decades. In fact it all started at ACTRA in 1984. But there is good news south of the border which will hopefully shame our industry here to follow suit. NBC has a VP of Diversity in Casting and Karen King (Productions without Borders) has created a company to also assist in making changes in our Canadian Industry. Unfortunately I think the real issue is that we have no Canadian Industry to make changes to. The networks here continue to purchase second run US shows. If we produced more work here, in Canada, there would be room for everyone.

Mike Barber said...

Great observations and points Jim.

Yes, Canada still very much has issues when it comes to race. Consider the recent all white tourism campaign for British Columbia, which I have criticized for continuing the modus operandi of parading multiculturalism when it suites us to do so, but ignore it when it does not service our needs. Even the opening ceremonies of the recent Olympics in Vancouver have a complex racial backdrop that has been largely overlooked.

I've been facing a bit of a frustrating issue quite similar. I'm an independent filmmaker trying to get support for a feature-length documentary... some more context in a moment...

I submitted my proposal to the NFB who got back to me quickly saying they are very interested in the idea and would have me in for a meeting with one of their producers. Its been over two years, and they have yet to actually bring me in for that meeting. It took just over one year to get the producer to return my calls.

In the meantime I pitched it to CBC as well, considering they had just come out with their Documentary channel and I was told they seemed to be in desperate need of content as they were looping their playlist ad nauseam. I sent it directly to the head of digital programming who said it sounded like a worthwhile subject--wait for it--but turned it down saying "too much history."

Too much history?! What on earth does he mean by that?

Well, the title of my documentary is A Past, Denied: The Invisible History of Slavery in Canada. It's about institutionalized slavery of Aboriginal and African people during Canada's first 200 years and how this has been kept out of Canadian history textbooks and classrooms as well as Canada's collective social consciousness. It explores how a false sense of history—both taught in the classroom and repeated throughout our national historical narrative—impinges on the present in various forms.

It's really more about racism and race relations now than it is about then. So, what does the gentleman from the CBC mean when he says "too much history"? I can't say for certain, but I have some ideas.

johnie said...

It's about money. There is no law in this country like in the U S. that says one can't discriminate without penalty. They've struck down ownership laws so, 'One' company can control Television, Radio, Internet and the Newspapers. Pure legislated profit. They don't need diversity because there is none in their world. No interaction at all with...people unless it's in a controlled environment or being served.
It's not like it's a new story. A good story but not new. The history of friendship, love of country, neighbourhood and family is controlled so much in the media , there is no room for race, creed or colour unless specifically called for. Like I said an old story but when Spam and infomercials count as Canadian content, the back of the Bus is now, left back at the station.
Give up Canadians. The story's you and I exchange everyday while walking, meeting for coffee or on the bus, those everyday intimacy's are invisible to powers who control media. They can't even smile without a committee.
They don't they have to mix in public but they'll take a picture of it and sell it to to the world to show Diversity. As I once penned thirty five years ago when I entered in this biz and why I'm still here. "Never so Blue and White. The Maple Leafs
forever". And don't give me that line, 'there's a chip on the shoulder either' Heard that since I was ten.
It's about money. Making it. Why depend on Americans to give us Diverse content in media?
What our lives are that make us unique individuals and Canadian will never be seen or heard in the media because the people that control it would rather steal a dime than make a dollar because there's no law against it.
I want them to want that dollar so I can spend it on Canadian products and services. I want to be Canadian, truly strong and free and compete with Americans not rely on them to show my face and talent because politicians are on TV and in the Media more than any actors.
See what happens from drinking Kicking Horse Canadian coffee. I'm sorry if I've offended anyone but sometimes you just have to scream to the sky and pray at sunrise. Why? Somebody sent me this Blog.

Devika Singh said...

I've seen a lot of really interesting information and opinions on here, and it's great to see this all in "black and white", so to speak.

I've been in this industry professionally for about 6 years now and have worked very little. I know this isn't uncommon for us actors and, as most actors do, I submit myself for pretty much any role I could find that is looking for "me"=my age/gender/race.

Now, there could be many things that prevented me from getting productions I have auditioned for - but my problem isn't really about getting role from auditions.
I have run into an issue where my auditions are far and few between. I'm talking more along the lines of, as an example, 1 or 2 auditions a month and then nothing for 2 or 3 months. This doesn't really strike me as normal - especially when you're including indie/student productions in the mix for both film and theatre.

This has particularly been the case over the past year where I've found that, for some reason, I haven't been able to find any breakdowns for South Asians, Caribbeans and/or open ethnicity (once again, this is including indie and student productions which has been really shocking for me).

As a side note, however, I have to say that things were pretty good when I began back in 2004 (especially in commercial casting - something I really enjoy). I really only noticed a severe decline in applicable roles for myself in the last couple years.

Thus, I've been finding it difficult to troubleshoot this situation for myself and to come up with a new 'action plan'. I'm really wondering too if this is now a new "Toronto" thing? With that, should I just head out west to Vancouver, I wonder?

I mean, I realize that the issues discussed are about Canadian television in its entirety but that's something I don't know how to remedy.

The only thing I feel like I can control is where I decide to go looking for my opportunities. I guess my hopes now rely on local programming so I could at least be doing what I love until there are more nation-wide/cross-boarder projects open to me. I'm not sure if I could find this in Vancity, per se, but I'm not sure what will happen here either.

Overall, I want nothing more than to audition for mainstream roles. I would love to have my chance at an action movie and a quirky sitcom, as both of these are a part of my bigger picture! With reference to what's been noted in this article, it'd be nice to be considered for mainstream principal roles in mainstream television.

lotta said...

*So sorry about the rudely long post, but like many posters, I've been living with this frustration for my entire adult life!

I've read a ton of good things in these comments and a few questionable things (the blog post was ALL good!). I love the inside scoop from you writers, directors and general business types - thank you. But from us frustrated actors, there's so much more.

Canada includes many areas that look identical to the shots posted? Sure thing, but Canada's population is almost entirely located in multi-ethnic Montréal, Vancouver, and Toronto - heck, Ottawa and Winnipeg have solid multicultural populations, and Calgary is certainly edging in. In a country of Canada's immense size, it's completely disingenuous to speak of geography as if it's an issue here when the numbers easily reveal the truth about Canada's true face. The white majority don't want to watch diversity? Please give this a read http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2010-07-18/old-spice-guy-post-racial-commercial-genius/ Not enough actors of colour in Canada? Please give your head a shake if you believe this. If I want to sell a widget and nobody's buying, I will eventually stop trying to sell the damned thing and get a job flipping burgers. Or driving a cab. Among actors, the percentage who are racialized and available OR WHO WOULD BE AVAILABLE IF THERE WAS A CHANCE OF BEING CAST, is equal to the percentage of the population. I was all keen after finishing an intensive acting course at Vancouver Film School and chomping at the bit to audition. As Devika noted, the auditions were rare - not because we have no talent, not because we've offended someone. Check this and please don't stop until you've at least reached the casting call poster: http://splinterend.tumblr.com/post/749364670/facepainting. It's pervasive and sneaky quiet. I also take exception with the few comments that the USA is diverse in casting. Jaden Smith got Karate Kid because daddy is a powerhouse, one of a tiny handful of black men who are hugely successful DESPITE being black, not because the casting director was suddenly struck colour-blind. Keira Knightly was not the best actor in Bend it Like Beckham, yet hers is a household name while Parminder Nagra languishes for 7 yrs on ER. Beckham could never have been made in Canada or the USA, and if you don't buy that, please re-read joeclarks comments about 'FOB' immigrants for an example of the mind set that ensures this (Fresh off the boat? Really, guy?). Is Lucy Liu really the only actor of Chinese heritage in a country with more than 308 million people?

Every single "black" woman who gets cast with any kind of romantic or sexual relationship in Hollywood is actually bi-racial. Thanks to America's wonderful One Drop Rule, everyone with brown skin and curly hair is 'black'. Fine. But did you take a good look at the casting for Run, Fat Boy, Run? Simon Pegg is the male lead, because he's incredible, and the female lead is Thandi Newton. Because Thandi is bi-racial, her movie mum was black, her movie dad was white, half her family was black, etc. Their son was played by a white boy, because a child 3/4 white usually looks entirely white. A 'black' woman with a 'white' child? SCANDAL!
Newton's character had no reason to be brown. There was no plot devise requiring it and it was never explained. The best actor got the role and the supporting cast was chosen accordingly, full stop. What makes this even more yummy is that AMERICAN David Schwimmer directed, and I'm sure he never would have had an equivilent cast in a film set here. I've never seen casting this true to life in North American TV or film, and at 40, I fear I'll be dead of old age before it ever happens.

lotta said...

I've read a ton of good things in these comments and a few questionable things (the blog post was ALL good!). I love the inside scoop from you writers, directors and general business types - thank you. But from us frustrated actors, there's so much more.

Canada includes many areas that look identical to the shots posted? Sure thing, but Canada's population is almost entirely located in multi-ethnic Montréal, Vancouver, and Toronto - heck, Ottawa and Winnipeg have solid multicultural populations, and Calgary is certainly edging in. In a country of Canada's immense size, it's completely disingenuous to speak of geography as if it's an issue here when the numbers easily reveal the truth about Canada's true face. The white majority don't want to watch diversity? Please give this a read http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2010-07-18/old-spice-guy-post-racial-commercial-genius/ Not enough actors of colour in Canada? Please give your head a shake if you believe this. If I want to sell a widget and nobody's buying, I will eventually stop trying to sell the damned thing and get a job flipping burgers. Or driving a cab. Among actors, the percentage who are racialized and available OR WHO WOULD BE AVAILABLE IF THERE WAS A CHANCE OF BEING CAST, is equal to the percentage of the population. I was all keen after finishing an intensive acting course at Vancouver Film School and chomping at the bit to audition. As Devika noted, the auditions were rare - not because we have no talent, not because we've offended someone. Check this and please don't stop until you've at least reached the casting call poster: http://splinterend.tumblr.com/post/749364670/facepainting. It's pervasive and sneaky quiet. I also take exception with the few comments that the USA is diverse in casting. Jaden Smith got Karate Kid because daddy is a powerhouse, one of a tiny handful of black men who are hugely successful DESPITE being black, not because the casting director was suddenly struck colour-blind. Keira Knightly was not the best actor in Bend it Like Beckham, yet hers is a household name while Parminder Nagra languishes for 7 yrs on ER. Beckham could never have been made in Canada or the USA, and if you don't buy that, please re-read joeclarks comments about 'FOB' immigrants for an example of the mind set that ensures this (Fresh off the boat? Really, guy?). Is Lucy Liu really the only actor of Chinese heritage in a country with more than 308 million people?

Every single "black" woman who gets cast with any kind of romantic or sexual relationship in Hollywood is actually bi-racial. Thanks to America's wonderful One Drop Rule, everyone with brown skin and curly hair is 'black'. Fine. But did you take a good look at the casting for Run, Fat Boy, Run? Simon Pegg is the male lead, because he's incredible, and the female lead is Thandi Newton. Because Thandi is bi-racial, her movie mum was black, her movie dad was white, half her family was white (including her 'first cousin' who was best mate of Peggs character), etc. Their son was played by a white boy, because a child 3/4 white usually looks entirely white. A 'black' woman with a 'white' child? SCANDAL!
Newton's character had no reason to be brown. There was no plot devise requiring it and it was never explained. The best actor got the role and the supporting cast was chosen accordingly, full stop. What makes this even more yummy is that AMERICAN David Schwimmer directed, and I'm sure he never would have had an equivilent cast in a film set here. I've never seen casting this true to life in North American TV or film, and at 40, I fear I'll be dead of old age before it ever happens.

lotta said...

I love the inside scoop from you writers, directors and general business types - thank you. But from us frustrated actors, there's so much more.

Canada includes many areas that look identical to the shots posted? Sure thing, but Canada's population is almost entirely located in multi-ethnic Montréal, Vancouver, Toronto, etc. In a country of Canada's immense size, it's disingenuous to speak of geography as if it's an issue here when the numbers easily reveal the truth about Canada's true face. The white majority don't want to watch diversity? Please give this a read http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2010-07-18/old-spice-guy-post-racial-commercial-genius/ Not enough actors of colour in Canada? Please give your head a shake if you believe this. If I want to sell a widget and nobody's buying, I will eventually stop trying to sell the damned thing and get a job flipping burgers. Among actors, the percentage who are racialized and available OR WHO WOULD BE AVAILABLE IF THERE WAS A CHANCE OF BEING CAST, is equal to the percentage of the population. I was all keen after finishing an intensive acting course at Vancouver Film School and chomping at the bit to audition. As Devika noted, the auditions were rare - not because we have no talent, not because we've offended someone. Check this and please don't stop until you've at least reached the casting call poster: http://splinterend.tumblr.com/post/749364670/facepainting. It's pervasive and sneaky quiet. I also take exception with the few comments that the USA is diverse in casting. Jaden Smith got Karate Kid because daddy is a powerhouse, one of a tiny handful of black men who are hugely successful DESPITE being black, not because the casting director was suddenly struck colour-blind. Keira Knightly was not the best actor in Bend it Like Beckham, yet hers is a household name while Parminder Nagra languishes for 7 yrs on ER. Beckham could never have been made in Canada or the USA, and if you don't buy that, please re-read joeclarks comments about 'FOB' immigrants for an example of the mind set that ensures this (Fresh off the boat? Really, guy?). Is Lucy Liu really the only actor of Chinese heritage in a country with more than 308 million people?

Every single "black" woman who gets cast with any kind of romantic or sexual relationship in Hollywood is actually bi-racial. Thanks to America's wonderful One Drop Rule, everyone with brown skin and curly hair is 'black'. Fine. But did you take a good look at the casting for Run, Fat Boy, Run? Simon Pegg is the male lead, because he's incredible, and the female lead is Thandi Newton. Because Thandi is bi-racial, her movie mum was black, her movie dad was white, half her family was white (including her 'first cousin' who was best mate of Peggs character), etc. Their son was played by a white boy, because a child 3/4 white usually looks entirely white. A 'black' woman with a 'white' child? SCANDAL!
Newton's character had no reason to be brown. There was no plot devise requiring it and it was never explained. The best actor got the role and the supporting cast was chosen accordingly, full stop. What makes this even more yummy is that AMERICAN David Schwimmer directed, and I'm sure he never would have had an equivilent cast in a film set here. I've never seen casting this true to life in North American TV or film, and at 40, I fear I'll be dead of old age before it ever happens.