Sophie Okonedo in the ABC’s 2011 adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’ novel The Slap
Credit: Courtesy of Screen Australia

Results of a landmark survey conducted by Screen Australia released today have revealed that diversity and representation of characters who aren’t cisgender heterosexual men is still lacking on Australia’s screens.

Seeing Ourselves: Reflections on Diversity in TV Drama has been billed as the most significant study of Australian television since it first went to air in 1956 and involved the analysis of 199 dramas that aired on all networks between 2011 and 2015.

The study looked at 1,961 main and recurring characters across all 199 dramas over a five year period and analysed factors including their cultural backgrounds, disability status, sexual orientation and gender identity. Findings were then cross-checked against the backgrounds of the actors playing each character and were further compared with Government data on diversity amongst Australia’s population. A survey of industry professionals also provided a qualitative understanding of the underlying issues against which the data was mapped, with many addressing the obstacles to increasing authentic representations (financial, experiential and otherwise).

In a year when the lack of representation on Australian screens has been addressed in forums both unlikely and through significant initiatives like Gender Matters, Seeing Ourselves found that even though 32% of Australians come from backgrounds other than Anglo-Celtic only 18% of characters represented different ethnicities.

Despite the survey consisting finding onscreen portrayals of other culturally diverse groups like LGBTQI Australians were consistently lagging, Indigenous representation was something of a positive anomaly. In 1992, there were no Indigenous Australians in recurring roles on television; a 1999 study concluded there were two (2!) in sustaining roles. Seeing Ourselves, however, found that a total 5% of all main characters were played by Indigenous actors, despite Indigenous Australians making up 3% of the greater population – a feat attributed to the work of Indigenous Departments at Screen Australia and the ABC, as well as the work of production companies and industry bodies producing critically-acclaimed work such as the series and telemovie Redfern Now, sketch series Black Comedy and this year’s breakout sci-fi drama, Cleverman.

“We don’t want tokenism, but we don’t want inaction either,” remarked Screen Australia’s CEO Graeme Mason. “Now we have the numbers, we need to work out a path towards diversity on screens together that is genuine, lasting and both creatively and commercially fulfilling.”

You can read the full report here. 

Cover image: Courtesy of Screen Australia