While this year’s Mipcom theme, the Big Shift, refers to a rapidly changing media landscape, there is another cultural shift being highlighted at the content market, in an area where a dramatic switch is not so much a fear as a necessity: diversity and inclusion.
These have long been topics of discussion at auxiliary Mipcom events, but this year’s program brings a much greater focus on the issue. Most visibly, the conference’s Personality of the Year title is being awarded to Issa Rae, creator, writer, producer and star of HBO’s “Insecure.”
In addition to a keynote conversation with Rae about increasing opportunities for women and minorities in television, the Diversify TV Excellence Awards will return for its second year and the conference program will also include a panel on how inclusivity begins on a development level.
As with most overnight success stories, the diversity initiative has been a slow burn, growing out of an annual meet-and-greet event put together by advisory board members Bunmi Akintonwa, Nick Smith and David Cornwall. Having attended the conference for more than a decade, the three were discouraged by the lack of representation of minorities in both content and Mipcom attendance.
“I thought, this is a global industry, but what I’m seeing around me doesn’t reflect that,” says Cornwall, managing director of London-based international distributor Scorpion TV. “There was no looking at the bigger picture. I wasn’t sure if anyone cared about that, really.”
In 2015, they organized a mixer with a small group of executives, producers, commissioners and distributors (the cast of the “Roots” reboot even crashed), and almost immediately saw business deals come out of the event.
“If you go into a room and you see people that actually look like you, instead of being in a huge market where there’s just a few people here and there, you feel that there are more possibilities,” says Akintonwa, CEO of media consultancy firm the Little Black Book. “It grew from realizing that people didn’t know each other.”
Their efforts were soon recognized by Reed Midem, and with the communication giant’s support and marketing muscle behind them, the initiative has grown from cocktail hour to a breakfast summit to now, finally, taking center stage.
The awards show is the initiative’s flagship event, unique in that all submissions are judged by charities and organizations representing the groups that are being depicted on screen. “If you’re looking for representation, you need people behind the camera, in front of the camera and even judging events, so that you don’t get misrepresentation,” says Akintonwa.
The goal of the awards show, she says, is to highlight series that are doing a great job at representing the marginalized and draw attention to those that are not in the mainstream.
“If they’re not visible, then they don’t exist, do they?” says Akintonwa. “The awards are really essential because if you get visibility, then the content gets distribution, and they get put in front of the right people, and they get developed to a level where they can be seen by the public.”
Therein lies the greatest challenge with what the board is trying to accomplish long-term: If there is no perceived commercial viability to projects highlighting diversity, then there is no future for this endeavor, regardless of good intentions.
“Change isn’t going to happen within our industry unless it makes commercial sense,” says Akintonwa, who says she recently had to rethink her own efforts outside of the initiative.
“If I’m not proving to myself that it makes sense, it makes zero sense to keep talking about it,” she says. “I’ve started to have a lot more meetings with people who are unrepresented, but who are also really, really good at their job. Because you can’t talk about diversity and inclusion if you don’t talk about excellence. Then it’s just tokenism and there’s no real business sense in what you’re doing.”
Smith, the EVP for formats at All3Media, says when it comes to discussing inclusion it is time to shift focus onto what people are doing right, instead of what isn’t being done — hence a panel about embracing diversity in the development phase on Oct. 17.
“I’ve been to too many talks and panels in the past where it’s people moaning about the state of representation and I don’t think that’s really helpful or effective,” he says. “I think what’s much more helpful is to talk about what is being done and sharing the things that people are doing in different corners of the industry.”
What makes the original board members hopeful that change finally is on the horizon is that the shifting TV landscape appears to be a catalyst for real evolution.
“What’s changed in distribution is, of course, Amazon, Netflix, Apple, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, Spotify — because it’s no longer just national distribution,” says Akintonwa. “They’re going to try to make a program that will appeal to the widest group globally. Which means that if you leave people out, if they’re not represented, you lose money.”
But there is still more work to be done. All three feel that disabled people are still severely underrepresented, and not just on-screen.
“Particularly when you talk about Mipcom, you just have to walk around Cannes and you think, ‘There doesn’t seem to be any disabled people here,’” says Akintonwa.
Smith agrees that when it comes to on-screen representation, more could be done about normalizing the issues that the initiative is trying to draw attention to.
“People include LGBT characters, disability and race when that’s central to the story quite often,” he says. “But they don’t think about it so much where it doesn’t matter. Why can’t a detective have a disability or be gay or be black and it not be a massive storyline?”
Considering lack of diversity in television is hardly a new concern, why has it taken so long for this issue to find a captive audience?
“I don’t actually want to speculate too much on that, because I don’t even care why it’s taken so long,” says Smith. “I just want to take advantage of the fact that there is a light on this now. I don’t know how long there is going to be a light on it, so let’s take advantage and do the out-most that we can and see what difference we can make.”