Mercado on TV: Wake-up call about lack of diversity on Australian commercial TV

In 50 continuing serials on TV, only one has ever featured an Indigenous family

Disturbing allegations of racism, sexism and homophobia were levelled at Neighbours (10 Peach) this week by Indigenous cast members Shareena Clanton and Meyne Wyatt. It is a wake-up call for the industry and reveals, yet again, the lack of diversity on Australian commercial TV.

Neighbours currently has the most inclusive cast of any Aussie commercial drama with multicultural, gay, lesbian and bisexual characters. Hearing impaired teacher Curtis (Nathan Borg) and transgender student Mackenzie (Georgie Stone) were both cast after the actors personally approached Neighbours about being included. Neighbours is a show that wants to learn and do better.

Now Neighbours will go through the same reckoning that Hollyoaks (Channel 4) faced last year when several of its black actors (Rachel Adedeji, Trevor A Toussaint, Richard Blackwood and Talia Grant) spoke out about systematic racism at Lime Pictures and the TV industry in general. Hollyoaks is the most diverse soap in the UK, and they have introduced new training and recruitment measures behind the scenes. Expect Neighbours to do something similar.

Meyne Wyatt is right to point out the lack of Indigenous roles on commercial TV and streaming services. There have been over 50 continuing serials on Australian TV, but only one has ever featured an Indigenous family and their mob. That was The Heights (ABC) and it featured, amongst others, Shari Sebbens, Kelton Pell and Callan Tassone.

Home and Away (Seven) has only ever had one Blackfella in Summer Bay over the course of 7,500 episodes. In 2003, a brain tumour-induced dream sequence saw Alf (Ray Meagher) turn into an Aboriginal man (played by David Ngoombujarra). One episode and he wasn’t even real.

Home and Away does have an Indigenous family now, the Parata clan (Rob Kipa-Williams, Kawakawa Fox-Reo and Ethan Browne). They are Maori but behave just like all the Aussie surf gangs in the show, always on the edge of criminality. Compare that to Shortland Street (SBS Viceland) where a third of the core cast are of Maori or Polynesian descent, and when you add in guest roles, they make up 50% of the cast. Most play health professionals and some even drop in the occasional Maori expression. Oh New Zealand, we have so much to learn from you.

Also up for some learning is Law & Order: Organised Crime (Monday on Nine). It’s the seventh series in the franchise and the first not to screen on 10. That means we don’t get to see the proceeding crossover Law & Order: SVU episode that brings back Eliot Stabler (Chris Meloni), so pay attention to the plot-heavy introductory recap.

Stabler is a rule-breaker known for roughing up suspects. He also shot dead six people during his 12 seasons on SVU but now, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, the so-called good cop is trying to control his more violent impulses. Let’s hope he does better, along with the Australian TV industry.

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