I’m getting tired of BBC.
As much as I bemoan the painfully slow progress America makes in terms of diversity on the small screen, we still do it best. Yes, relative to our neighbors across the pond, who have the most comparable television market, our diversity efforts are far more encompassing.
Why care about the British television scene? Because we still enjoy one-upping the British and proving that the American version of “The Office” can be a hell of a lot funnier. And because shows such as “Sherlock,” “Doctor Who,” “Skins” or “Downton Abbey” have infiltrated the American market and are — you guessed it — dominated by white characters. Britain is an extremely diverse nation — its 2011 census data show that more than 40 percent of Londoners are nonwhite — but if you had to judge it by what it puts out on mainstream television, you would never have guessed it. Only “Luther,” which stars Idris Elba as a pained and intense cop — or, as the Brits put it, a “copper” — is a major program featuring a black lead.
In 2011, African Americans, the United States’ second-largest minority group, made up 13 percent of on-screen portrayals on American television. That 13 percent counts just for acting alone. BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic people) representation in the British entertainment industry dropped from 6.7 percent in 2009 to 5.4 percent in 2012. In television, things are slightly better, with 7.5 percent of BAMEs making up the industry, which includes producing, distributing and “exhibiting,” the British term for performing. Bottom line: In the United States, our second-largest minority group makes up 13 percent of the industry just in acting, while in Britain, all minority groups combined across all occupational roles make up only 7.5 percent of the industry.
A few weeks ago, I lambasted “SNL” for lacking in diversity. Just as “SNL” is an American staple, the wildly successful “Doctor Who” is a long-running British show that is an establishment of BBC. The premise of this sci-fi program, which originated in the 1960s, allows the lead to be just about anybody. When the Doctor suffers a fatal injury, he is able to regenerate and come back in the body of a different person. ANY person.
After 50 years and 11 reincarnations, the showrunners of “Doctor Who” had the opportunity last summer to name a new Doctor. Remember, the Doctor can inhabit the body of anyone. That means he doesn’t have to be a white male all the time. But, of course, tradition happens, and Peter Capaldi, a Scottish actor, was tapped to be the 12th doctor. By the way, BBC, Scotland doesn’t count as diversity.
Last week, Labour Member of Parliament Chuka Umunna criticized the British entertainment industry for driving black British actors out of the country to pursue better roles in Hollywood. “It’s often only after they’ve made it big in the States that black British actors get more — and more varied — roles here,” said Umunna. And that’s not to mention the largest minority group in Britain: British Asians (Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi).
The British notion of keeping calm and carrying on will not suffice when it comes to diversity.
At an event in San Francisco last week, British author Zadie Smith was commenting on the difference between the two nations and their attitude towards literature. She said, “There’s an American drive to always be finding something ‘truly original’ or ‘new’ that I find quite unnerving.” Critiquing the American penchant for jumping into things without considering history, Smith asked, “How can you know if something is new if you haven’t looked at what’s come before?”
Both countries’ television markets can learn from each other. For Britain, well … here’s how you do diversity better. For America, take a look at what’s come before, both domestically and abroad. What’s come before has primarily been a homogeneous story about one group of people. Rinse. And don’t repeat.
Lynn Yu is the arts columnist. Contact her at [email protected].