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Aboriginal people absent from nation's TV screens. (Entertainment).


Canada's Aboriginal population may be on the rise, but you wouldn't be able to tell that by turning on your television set.

Silent on the Set, a recent study prepared by Simon Fraser University's School of Communications, took a look at the prime time programming on the major networks during the 2001-2002 television season. The study found that there are almost no Aboriginal characters appearing in prime time dramatic programming on Canada's major networks.

"We did find that there were no Aboriginal people on the screen. Virtually none. One character, I think, out of all the series that we portrayed," said Catherine Murray, a professor with the university.

Murray worked with a group of fourth year students in the TV Globalization and Cultural Identity research series to conduct the Silent on the Set study.

The situation is a bit better for other minority groups, but only if you are looking at the quantity of roles going to minority actors, not the quality.

"I think producers, directors, and casters are making a conscious effort to represent cultural minorities in Canada somewhat in proportion to their incidence in the general population. So we actually found that the number of visible minorities that you might see on the screen roughly corresponded to the national total from Statistics Canada. But the point is that they were not given much of a speaking part, not given much of a role. Nor were cultural nuances portrayed particularly well. So really, they were presented as just another face," Murray said. "But when you actually tried to figure out what culture means, and how we begin to tolerate cultural differences or understanding, mutual understanding, none of that is portrayed on our screens."

Murray sees a direct correlation between the dearth of Aboriginal characters portrayed on Canadian television and the funding cuts that have plagued the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC) in recent years.

"The reduction of money for the CBC has definitely had a long-term consequence for these kinds of high-end, high-value dramatic productions in this country. And there are none in development that I know of featuring Aboriginal people... That's what I'm concerned of. These series take several years to put together, and there's nothing out there. So that's what's scaring me. The days of North of 60 are well over.

"And this has a profound consequence for networks like APTN (Aboriginal Peoples Television Network) too. Hopefully APTN, over time, as it becomes more viable, will actually trigger and develop its own series for its own audiences, but until it does so, it's dependent on second and third exhibition windows of production undertaken by others. So it's really important to do so, and make sure that that's happening, in partnership with our public broadcaster."

The Silent on the Set study grew out of an earlier study of television drama programming in Canada conducted jointly by Canada and the Council of Europe, Murray explained. The Council of Europe is an intergovernmental organization based in Strasbourg, France, which works to protect human rights and promote cultural identity and diversity.

"As a result of that study, European and Canadian researchers became very interested in cultural indicators of quality and programming. And so our job was to develop an indicator, which we felt would reflect ethnocultural diversity. So we repeated what we call the Euro-Canadian Fiction Project with a larger sample in order to determine the representation of race and cultural identity on Canadian prime time drama. And under the terms of reference of the European study, their focus was mainly on the conventional broadcasters, so CBC, CTV, CanWest, City. We were not able to reflect the specialty channels at this time, but that's what we need to do," she said.

"The issue I'm concerned about is what exactly is happening in the specialty channels, because there is more opportunity for entry for new young creators, more flexibility in format. What we need to do is to find a dramatic formula, that is rich and can accommodate young creators and new ethnocultural sophistication. So I'm hoping, you know, that's in development."

Murray is also hoping to get support from the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, which represents Canada's private broadcasters, to conduct research into specialty channel programming.

While Murray is hoping to continue research into the representation of minorities in Canadian television programming, the results so far point to a problem with the way things are done, she explained.

"This raises a broader question. It's, who's responsible for monitoring and ensuring standards of programming in this country? And the current answer is no one. Not the commission (CRTC), not the CBC, not the private broadcasters," she said.

"In Britain, there is a requirement for every two years to have a major study of, the diversity in television done. So it's a mandated study. And it is independent, and it does involve the various groups-Aboriginal peoples groups, a whole range of people in the U.K. And it's rigorously examined for process, and then it's used, actually in training of new film-makers and so on, as an educative thing, and as a policy instrument. So I think that kind of monitoring model on the British model, or on the Australian model, is really necessary. Australia has a regular commitment, and has recently done some really good stuff," Murray said.

"I think the responsibility for monitoring television and quality of its production is solidly the responsibility of the government, through the CRTC and the CBC. I think that the best way to do it is actually for them to set aside an annual budget for research and development of this sort of thing. And that it ought to be independently conducted and reviewed regularly for the best of its methods. And in that independent consortium, I'd like to see universities, creators, and industry people, as well as policy people."

In the meantime there is something we all can do to address the imbalance of minority representation in the programs we watch.

"Write in a letter immediately protesting," she said, sending the letter to the broadcaster, and a copy to the CRTC.

"People never think to protest absence, but you have to. If you don't see yourself on the screen, you have to protest absence.... We need as individuals to write in and protest when we don't see people that reflect Canadian society broadly, and we need to complain when those depictions are really offensive. And we need to complain again and again and again. Because right now, there is no code on equitable or fair treatment of racial minorities in this country. We need to develop one, and we need to make it muscular."
COPYRIGHT 2002 Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta (AMMSA)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2002 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Petten, Cheryl
Publication:Wind Speaker
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Oct 1, 2002
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