home Commentary, GLBTQI, Racism Why Public Broadcasters Are Making More Radical Shows

Why Public Broadcasters Are Making More Radical Shows

In a media landscape where calls for diversity are growing exponentially in the US and overseas, and where networks, publishers, and others are starting to slowly respond, one mediamaker is being conspicuously left out. Public radio and television have always had a commitment to significant diversity, and it’s one that continues as networks like PBS in the United States and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in Australia produce dynamic, complex, engaging work by and for incredibly diverse audiences. Their work at the forefront of representation and promotion of creators from marginalised backgrounds is a compelling argument for greater support of public broadcasting, rather than the cuts many such agencies are subjected to.

ABC3, the free Australian network targeting teens and young adults, is currently running Ready for This, a teen drama featuring a group of youths who move to Sydney seeking the next stage in their lives, with a twist: The cast is mostly Aboriginal, and the characters represent different aspects of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experience. For youth from these backgrounds, ABC3 is providing the mirror that allows them to see themselves in pop culture, with representation of Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders in short supply in many other settings.

Ready for This is a coproduction of Blackfella films (Redfern Now) and Werner Film Productions (Dance Academy). It carries an interesting mix of elements, presenting the lives of Aboriginal youth without being ostentatious, self-aware, and preachy — because it’s fundamentally just another teen drama, about young adults settling into themselves and dealing with the rapid life changes that happen upon moving out of the house and trying to establish independent lives. As with Dance Academy, it relies heavily on the premise of exploring what happens when youth move out of their comfort zone and protected sphere and into a highly competitive, independent landscape.

Shows like this one pave the way for similar dramas on network television as well as streaming platforms, illustrating that there is a market not just for programming with diverse characters, but programming in which the actors themselves are diverse, and so are the people behind the lens. The performative diversity seen in pop culture as people identify it as a ‘trend’ often comes with creators in positions of privilege and dominance glomming on to the notion that diversity sells, with diverse creators left in the dust as they still find doors closed to them and opportunities cut off — why pay a trans actress when a cis man will do the job? Why offer Latinas book deals when white men are happy to do the work?

Public broadcasting can afford to take many more risks, as it operates on a fundamentally different funding model and platform. It has a mandate to educate and inform the public, not just to entertain, which drives innovation, creativity, and a focus on programming with a clear public benefit. It’s an important demonstration of why public broadcasting is so important, because this kind of representation wouldn’t be available without it, and it needs to be. Just as Downton Abbey proved to be the spark that lit a thousand costume dramas on networks as they realised that it paid handsomely, so too will programming like this set the bar higher for media — we can hope, at any rate.

On British public-funded broadcasting, Russell Davies explored modern queer identity and culture with Cucumber, Banana, and Tofu. The three interlinked programmes took on heterosexual life in modern Britain, but also explored gender variant and queer people in critically acclaimed programming that definitely laid the groundwork for shows like Looking on HBO. Britain had already made television history on EastEnders with Kyle (Riley Carter Millington), a trans character played by a trans actor. Notably, EastEnders executive producer Dominic Treadwell-Collins stressed that he insisted on using a trans actor for the role — Kyle marked the first time a transgender character appeared on a British soap opera, and it was important to him that he be played accurately.

Similarly, Rebecca Root on Boy Meets Girl, a BBC sitcom, also plays a trans role — and the producers again stressed that they didn’t consider cis actors for the role. It was revolutionary, considering that in mainstream pop culture, transgender roles are typically played by cis people (often to critical acclaim — see Transparent for an example). These programmes challenge producers to include trans characters and to explicitly create space for trans actors.
In Australia, Please Like Me takes a tender, sharp, graceful look at life for young gay men, with the ABC series attracting not nearly as much attention as it should. One of the luxuries of public broadcasting, though, is the ability to give creators a fair shake and an opportunity to build their audience, especially in the case of shows that are breaking boundaries. Call the Midwife is an excellent example — commercial networks would never air a show focusing on the lives, concerns, and experiences of women, but the show, revolving around the lives of women serving in the East End after the war, makes for a fascinating glimpse into a world of Britain in transition. Most commercial historical dramas focus on men (Mad Men) or baroque interpretations of dramatic periods in history (Reign), rather than the lives of ordinary people. Home Fires, revolving around the lives of women in the war and airing in the UK and US, marks another example — women played a vital role in the war effort, and their stories are rarely, if ever, told.

It’s not the fiction side of public broadcasting that provides a space for a wider range of narratives. PBS’ Independent Lens, for example, features a huge range of documentary filmmakers on a variety of subjects, and many come from marginalised backgrounds. Features on PBS can provide opportunities that weren’t previously available, expanding their audiences considerably. Similarly, the BBC has explored subjects like disability (By Reason of Insanity) and open source technologies in the Global South (The Code Breakers). On ABC, recent features have explored experiences like the lives of Jewish orphans smuggled out of Germany during the war (Compass: The Children of Clonyn Castle). Another programme, Hannah Gadsby’s Oz, challenges traditionalist notions about Australian identity by building a more inclusive look at art history that incorporates centuries of Australian experience and artistic expression.

This spectrum of diversity and commitment to public enrichment is a key social endeavor. Yet, as with PBS, ABC and the BBC are facing funding cuts and devaluation. Some sectors of the public question whether public broadcasting serves a purpose, asking why public resources should be dedicated to ‘entertainment,’ but they’re missing the nature of pop culture. ‘Entertainment’ has never just been pablum for the masses, but an important cultural influencer. It has a significant effect on how people think about and interact with the world, and in some cases, it becomes an important cultural bridge to communities and ways of thinking that viewers haven’t encountered.

Whether radio news or television dramas, the anchors of public broadcasting push and challenge viewers in ways that commercial broadcast doesn’t do because it has convinced itself that it cannot afford it. It’s unusual to see radical storytelling narratives and aggressively diverse representation in commercial broadcasting, and there are few opportunities for advancement among the ranks of creators and talent from marginalised backgrounds — when they are given opportunities, they’re typically paid less than their privileged counterparts, they’re provided with less promotion, and they find their achievements ultimately capped. They don’t become studio heads and headlining directors, major film talent and critically-acclaimed screenwriters. The handful who do manage to claw their way into such positions are under constant scrutiny and criticism, and their work is often subjected to standards that border on the unreasonable — they must perform like dancing ponies for the masses in a way that privileged creators do not.

In public broadcasting landscapes, this is not the case. The mandate to create broadcasting for everyone does just the opposite, forcing broadcasters to actively seek and promote diverse talent and creators. Failures lead to censure, in a polar opposite of the convention of raising eyebrows at the shocking notion of radical inclusivity. This makes public broadcasting a form of vital public service, one worthy of more funding, not less, even as lawmakers and conservative commentators scream about ‘waste’ and the like — setting aside the fact that public broadcasting consumes an extremely small percentage of national budgets, the payoff on investment is vast. For youth who see themselves in media, such programming is lifesaving, but it also becomes the foundation upon which careers are built and risks are taken. People reflected in media see fewer limits than those who do not — if a Black woman can be a successful attorney on television, so can any Black little girl. If an Aboriginal runner can be taken seriously as an Olympic contender, so can any Aboriginal youth. If a trans woman can become a successful politician, so too can a trans girl trying to find out who she is going to become.

Should we take this away, it’s not merely a matter of missing out on the latest season of some silly drama. It is in fact a profound disservice to the public, and one that could cost us dearly.