U.K. broadcaster Channel 4, a network set up in 1982 by Margaret Thatcher with a remit of championing unheard voices and taking “bold, creative risks,” is presenting an industry first on Sept. 10, when its entire schedule — including commercial breaks — will feature Black on- and off-screen talent.
Titled “Black to Front,” the initiative has taken a full year to realize since it was announced in August 2020, just months after the murder of George Floyd in the U.S. The idea emerged amid a disquieting period for the U.K. industry, which was reflecting, necessarily, on its own shortcomings around inclusion.
The major broadcasters committed an array of representation-focused talent schemes and funds and more than 5,000 people signed an open letter demanding an end to exclusive practices. The refrain, however, rang a little too familiar. “It felt like there were lots of conversations being repeated,” Vivienne Molokwu, a factual entertainment commissioner at Channel 4, tells Variety.
Together with Shaminder Nahal, a commissioner for factual and arts, the discussion turned to brainstorming “a giant leap forward” – “Something that would make you stop and think and talk about representation,” explains Molokwu.
They landed on a project that was announced last August as “Black Takeover Day,” but was renamed “Black to Front” in November. Over 24 hours on Friday, Sept. 10, the channel’s programs, including “Celebrity Gogglebox,” “Countdown” and the Channel 4 News, will feature an all-Black presenting and reporting team. Popular long-running soap “Hollyoaks” will be an hour-long special written, directed and performed by its Black talent, and iconic morning program “The Big Breakfast” will be resurrected for the first time since 2002, with comedian Mo Gilligan (pictured) and presenter AJ Odudu hosting alongside original newsreader Phil Gayle.
Crucially, the channel — which consulted with and took recommendations from the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity — is also carving out new programming, with an eye on amplifying fresh on- and off-screen talent that could grow careers at Channel 4. Among the new projects are comedy pilot “Big Age” from up-and-coming writer Bolu Babalola, about four young Black-British friends of Nigerian heritage in their thirties; late-night talk show “Unapologetic,” which will challenge ideas of what Black people are allowed to say and what’s off-limits; and docu-reality show “Highlife,” featuring a cast of trailblazing British West Africans including DJ Cuppy and Kidd Waya.
“The true reality is that when you turn on British television, you’d be hard pressed to see for a few hours, let alone the whole day, only Black faces anywhere,” notes Molokwu. “We don’t have [ViacomCBS-owned Black culture-focused channel] BET… so for [this] to happen on mainstream television felt like it would be huge. It would mean that we’d all keep talking about something we know we can’t fix overnight.”
But the plan has been hard-won.
Of the 14 companies producing the program’s 13 shows, just four Black-owned production companies took part, and only on new titles. “Unapologetic” is from SBTV and Cardiff Productions; digital commission “How Not to Be Racist” is from Acme Films; and “Highlife” is co-produced by Cr8tive Row (with Optomen). The lack of Black or even diverse ownership across the production companies delivering some of Channel 4’s biggest shows is glaring.
To this, Channel 4’s deputy director of programs and head of popular factual Kelly Webb-Lamb assures that the brief was delivered to all Black and diverse-led production outfits. But ultimately, the channel focused predominantly on Black on- and off-screen talent, rather than on the production partners themselves. The onus, she argues, shouldn’t be on Black- and diverse-led companies to diversify the workforce and understand how to find Black talent. “It’s important that it doesn’t always land on Black-owned indies to take that responsibility because all production companies across the sector [should] genuinely engage.”
Meanwhile, there has already been criticism of the basic ethos behind “Black to Front.”
Black British “To Catch a Dick” comedian London Hughes, who is now based in Los Angeles, took to Twitter in July to share that, as a Black creative in the U.K. TV industry, all she’d wanted was a “fair and equal shot as my white counterparts.”
“Don’t just give us ‘Black to Front’ days just so you can feel better about not including ppl of colour in your tv output for the rest of the year it’s insulting [sic],” she wrote. If Channel 4 wants to spotlight Black talent, she argued, why not do so by booking and hiring more talent through traditional routes?
Molokwu, Nahal and Webb-Lamb — for whom “Black to Front” is a swan song before her departure from the broadcaster later this year — anticipated the criticism miles away, before the project was even announced.
“I understand why people are saying the proof is in the pudding,” admits Webb-Lamb. “I get that, because [it is].”
British television is known for certain “seasons” of programming. The BBC, for example, recently marked the 25th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act with a season of shows. The broadcaster also carried out a questionably-titled “Big British Asian Summer” season in 2018, that evoked similar criticism at the time.
“It’s very easy for seasons to be siloed,” with all shows originating from just one department, says Webb-Lamb, “but [Black to Front] requires every single genre and department, beyond commissioning, to be completely involved. The depth of what we’re doing is much, much, much greater.”
But more than that, it’s about sourcing opportunities for talent when “Black to Front” has wrapped.
“Talent whom we’ve found for these projects have now got roles on Channel Four going forward, and some of those talent are in genres where it’s unusual to have Black faces on the screen in this country, in this industry,” says Webb-Lamb.
“It’s always been massively more than a day to us,” adds Nahal.
Though they may be lacking in Black-owned production partners, a significant component of “Black to Front’s” success is its work behind the scenes with off-screen talent. For its new commissions — roughly five programs — Channel 4 asked its production partners “to aim to maximize Black talent, within legal bounds, for 100% Black representation off-screen.” While that wasn’t possible due to a skills gap (figures weren’t yet available at press time), Webb-Lamb says the channel took the unprecedented step of issuing a call-out itself for talent across editorial, creative production and craft roles, and advising suppliers to broaden their networks.
“We will be completely transparent about where we get to, because the learning is in the gaps,” says Webb-Lamb, who says Channel 4 is publishing a “manifesto for change” with its findings.
“We have to take quite large steps,” reasons Molokwu. “And yes, those last steps may end up being controversial. But if we get to a better place, I have no issue with that.”