Channel 4’s on-screen diversity executive Ramy El-Bergamy thinks it’s easier for digital companies like Google or Facebook to be diverse businesses than it is for broadcasters because “they are constantly evolving” whereas TV is a “very closed network” that needs to undergo a whole shift in mindset.
Speaking at Maxus Diversity Week, El-Bergamy told attendees that the pressures on TV are very different to those on a digital company, where “you are only as good as your last commissioner in television”. When commissioners are starting a new show they often try and work with the same people who they know can deliver a production on budget and quickly, he expanded. It’s an inhibiting attitude that is compounded by the TV industry’s own struggles with fostering talent from all walks of life..
El-Bergamy said that in order for TV to move on, broadcasters need to encourage more diversity onscreen and offscreen, warning “if you fail to think long term you cease to exist”.
“Think of a company like Google and Facebook, all these companies everyday are looking for and sourcing new people, because they are constantly evolving. TV is a very closed network. We need to change that mindset and that is tricky,” he added.
El-Bergamy, who works with commissioners and talent agencies to ensure Channel 4’s shows are reflecting the diversity of the British public, bemoaned that a job title with diversity in it even has to exist in 2016, and said this sums up that there “is still a long way to go”.
To show that diversity is “not about box ticking”, he pointed to Channel 4’s most popular show Gogglebox and its huge diversity of class, race and sexual orientation as proof that the breadth of opinion is what viewers want. “Trust your audience more,” he advised.
Geoff Riding, inventory controller at Channel 4, admitted the problem is not just with onscreen talent, but lies deep within the broadcaster. This is especially prevalent in the senior management and sales team, he continued, which is predominantly made up of white middle class men.
Damon Lafford, head of agency sales at the broadcaster, said the way to tackle this bias is not by replacing the existing staff but by broadening the net of where you look for emerging talent. "If you just advertise in Media Guardian you will predominantly get white middle class people apply”, he said, instead heralding Channel 4’s recent push to advertise in schools and universities across the country.
El-Bergamy agreed that adopting different recruitment methods is the best way to foster a more diverse workforce, saying “you can’t just get rid of the brilliant white people”, but thinks this “shouldn't come from the bottom up but the top down”.
“You have unconscious bias,” he said. “You hang around with the people you mirror. It’s about increasing that network that you know.”
What’s more, while implementing diversity on screen requires a change in mindset, with off screen it is trickier “because there are less diverse people in the industry”, El-Bergamy argued, “There are hardly any black or disabled producers.”