Hey TV, why so white?

Sheba Nandkeolyar, advisory board member for Media Diversity Australia, says Australian TV’s lack of diversity is tuning out CALD audiences.

On Tuesday, national not-for-profit Media Diversity Australia (MDA) released ‘Who Gets to Tell Australian Stories? 2.0’, a report on the (lack of) diversity of Australia’s media industry. MDA Advisory Board Member Sheba Nandkeolyar laments the damning findings and implores the industry to do more, given that Australia’s population is more diverse than ever.

Media Diversity Australia’s long-awaited ‘Who gets to tell Australian stories? 2.0’ report has revealed some pretty sad and sobering findings on the indigeneity and cultural diversity of Australian news and current affairs television media including that Anglo Celtic background people are still vastly over-represented on television. Non-Europeans are still the most under-represented, and an audience survey revealed most non-Europeans want more cultural diversity among presenters and stories told. The ABC is the only network to show an increase in non-European on-air talent. On commercial networks the non-European population is 19 times greater than what is shown on our screens.

For those of us in the media and marketing communications industry who are even the teensiest bit progressive and inclusive, this should be extraordinarily difficult to hear. It should also be a wake-up call to all of us to do better when we are recruiting, hiring, planning, budgeting, researching, writing, producing, and… living.

Even the early days of TV used to be black and white – now it is just white, white, white. Where has the colour gone?

Our society is delightfully diverse and achingly beautiful for it – from language, culture and ethnicity to gender diversity, neuro diversity and more. Australia is among the most multicultural nations on the planet, with more than half of us either born overseas or with at least one parent born overseas according to our latest Census. As a migrant woman myself, it saddens me to see that our media lacks cultural diversity, from leadership teams to who is presenting and who is being interviewed.

In five years, India is projected to become the most common place of birth for Australians, outside of Australia, overtaking England for the first time ever. Where are the Indian presenters, news directors and board directors?

MDA’s report has unearthed a yawning gap in representation between those reporting Australia’s news and current affairs and the broader Australian population. Diverse stories are missing. Once again, I ask the question – why, oh why, do we continue to be pale, male, stale (and dull)? We should reflect society accurately on TV. Inclusivity is important because it influences culture and opinions. Inaccurate representation of minority groups reinforces negative racial stereotypes among the general population, according to the Human Rights & Equal Opportunity Commission. Sadly, it also legitimises racism, according to an All Together Now report.

We have an obligation to accurately represent the diverse and migrant-rich society in which we live, but if the cold, hard data about our failings are not enough to inspire change, there is still another language – ratings and engagement.

MDA’s report also found that non-European background viewers were most likely to stop watching a news source and switch to an overseas one they find more interesting. Tired of the lack of colour, Australia’s culturally and linguistically diverse (or CALD) audiences are tuning out and switching.

My experience has been that Australia’s various multicultural audiences actually really love and voraciously consume news and entertainment programming (and the research backs it up too). They also appreciate good advertising. However very often multicultural audiences revert back to their own community news and information because they cannot relate to what they see on Australian mainstream TV. They don’t feel represented, and they don’t feel part of it. The multicultural community media landscape in Australia is flourishing (in part) because of this.

Nobody needs reminding that the post-COVID competitive landscape in our industry is tough – with those in the media and marketing communications industry increasingly looking for ways to enhance profitability and return on investment. The MDA report has found a gap we desperately need to fill with colour. The Australian media and marketing communications sector is poised at a precipice today, with an opportunity to differentiate itself as a trailblazer for diversity, equality, and inclusion and reap goodwill, loyalty, and market share because of it.

All the evidence points to trust being enhanced when there is representation and inclusivity.

Keeping an eye on demographic/ diversity data is a great start towards delivering and better engaging your audience. What is your audience’s ethnicity? Language spoken at home? Country of birth? The answers to these questions shape how they consume media and marketing communications. It influences their purchase decisions too.

The COVID campaign communications clearly showed the divide between mainstream and multicultural audiences. The engagement and message relevance were totally lacking with the uptake of vaccinations and its implications not fully understood by multicultural audiences across the country. The divide between ‘them’ and ‘us’ was a stark reality felt and experienced by many multicultural audiences. There is a strong connection between effective communication and cultural diversity data. Insensitive language translations added salt to the wound.

Fortunately, we are gradually seeing a shift towards increased cultural diversity happening in marketing strategies in Australia, although we still have a long way to go. Positive changes are evident, and they are helping to break down stereotypes. For example, I can see a marked trend in recent years of more people from diverse backgrounds gradually appearing in television advertisements, with businesses clearly wanting to appeal to and target a broader range of people.

It’s great to see a bit of colour, although news media is yet to play catch up to the marketing world. Yet, I also believe that marketers need to think beyond diverse representation when creating an ad. Some questions that they need to be asked include:

Is my concept truly universal, or is it just universal in my culture?

Does the allocation of my marketing dollars reflect the audience around me and outlined in Census 2021?

Does a one-size-fits-all marketing strategy reflect the brand’s diversity vision statement?

More importantly, does it engage with the diversity around us?

Sheba Nandkeolyar is advisory board member for Media Diversity Australia, Founder and CEO of Australia’s leading multicultural marketing agency MultiConnexions Group, global vice president, diversity, equity & inclusion for International Advertising Association (IAA) and President of IAA Australia.


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.