“We Want People To Feel Something”: Sally Riley On The Importance Of The ABC’s New Commissioning Guidelines

ABC Employee, Sally Riley.
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The ABC has released their new Diversity and Inclusion Commissioning Guidelines, a ground-breaking structure for the Australian media landscape with the goal of ensuring all communities in Australia are represented on and behind the screen.

Sally Riley, Wiraduji woman and the ABC TV’s Head of Drama, Comedy, and Indigenous spoke to B&T to discuss the significance of the guidelines.

Why has the ABC made this commitment now?

The guidelines make what we’re looking for clear to the external producers that we’re working with, but we’re already doing a lot of things that are in there. We really are formalising – codifying – what we already do.

It also reflects the discussions we’re having internally at the ABC. Like all the broadcasters in Australia, we have work to do.

The guidelines form part of the ABC’s commitment under its Five Year Plan: what do you hope the ABC looks like after this?

I hope to see our programming reflect diverse cultural backgrounds, that people of all diversities, in whatever form, are on the ABC every day.

It would be great to have representation all the time, rather than in odd shows here and there. I think we’re doing that really well, but we’ve got a way to go.

For me, the way to do that is getting people from diverse backgrounds in the commissioning process, in the leadership positions, in the positions that make decisions around programming. We are working towards that, and that’s something that’s a priority for us. It’s something that will really help us.

I’d love to be able to switch on the ABC and see different faces, different people on there.

How will the guidelines ensure authentic diversity – why is it important to have this structure in place?

The authenticity comes from having people telling their own stories. The heart of the guidelines is ‘nothing about us without us’, which means that if a project is about a specific community in Australia, you want those people to be part of the creative team, and at the heart of the show.

They need to be the heart of people making the show. For me, that starts at concept, that starts at pitching. When people come to me, and they pitch a show, I will always be asking them, “where are the diverse characters, where are the women?”.

We do that all the time now, but the guidelines will set out to producers want we want before they come to us. We start the conversation where everyone knows what we want and what we’re doing. These guidelines put a stake in the sand for us.

We’re working to change the system, that systemic underrepresentation of some communities on our screens, and in our stories here. That’s the push really – and to do that we have to include them in the [production] process.

For me, that is in the stories we’re telling, and the people who are making the show behind and on screen.

Is this something you hope other broadcasters will follow?

I do. I think that would be amazing.

For me, the ABC is leading in this area, and we want to continue to drive change around this. Around the world, many broadcasters are doing this – BBC, Channel 4, CBC in Canada – there’s a big push for inclusion everywhere.

I’d love to be able to flick around all the channels in Australia and see diverse people across every one of them. That would be amazing. The other thing that would do is grow that side of the industry faster.

If everyone was making content with those stories in mind, then it grows, it gives more opportunity for people to work on shows who have that background. It creates more pathways for people to get into the industry: that’s a good thing all round.

When it comes to diversity and inclusion, what conversations are most difficult to have with executives?

[When talking to heads of boards, and of the channel] I don’t know that they’re difficult conversations. Everyone at the ABC understands the importance of diversity and inclusion, and the people that I work with and my bosses. We have great leadership that totally support this push.

Bringing about change is not easy, but within the ABC, I feel like I’m fully supported to create space for people from diverse backgrounds.

What about with producers on shows?

The industry is certainly taking it on now. I’ve been in this job three years, and I came to it with the purpose of making that change, having come to it from the Indigenous area where we’ve made great strides.

My next thing was, “right, we’ve got to get some diversity on the ABC,” and I’ve been having those conversations with producers from the get-go.

Over time, it certainly has improved, but I guess the challenging conversations are around: “oh, we can’t find anybody, we can’t find an actor for that role.” I really don’t like that conversation, because I have to go, “well, try harder.”

I think it’s giving them an understanding that they have to do work around this as well. It’s not our responsibility to provide those people to them, they have to grow their networks and grow where they source people from their shows.

We take lots of interns here at the ABC, which is a start, but generally for interns, it’s the next step, getting a job on a show. Sometimes, you [producers and executives] have to take a risk, and that’s what this is about. We want the stories, so we have to start building those pathways for people.

One of the things that really jumped out in the commissioning guidelines are the commitments to off-screen diversity and to career progression: is tackling these different to ensuring on-screen diversity?

The principles are the same, it’s about providing access opportunities and the authentic version of that story.

It’s really interesting, coming through and working on developing Indigenous filmmakers. We use a lot of people coming from the theatre, we use a lot of those actors. You do have to take risks with people, which we’ve done, and found some really brilliant actors.

You just have to be aware that you need to put support around them if they need it, and I think that’s the thing that producers need to factor into their budgets, and also their whole concepts.

The goal for this is to get people running the writer’s room, not just being in there taking notes. [We want] to get people in those decisions making processes within teams, like heads of departments. If you’ve got a head writer who’s from a different cultural background, and you’ve got a story about it, they’re going to be looking for other writers, they’re going to be looking for people in the room from that background, or with different perspectives.

It’s about growing people so that they can get to that point where they are the decision-makers.

Is there a specific type of content where you think the need for increased inclusion is most pressing?

I think the whole industry has got work to do. We’re not specifically targeting and specific content or genres, we’re placing diversity and inclusion at the heart of everything we do, across every genre. This also isn’t the only thing that we’re doing. Our content areas have been introducing various measures for diversity and including female representation, as well as geographic and socio-economic representation as well.

It’s about everyone – if everyone can get on board with it, we’ll see a shift, but we’re not targeting any specific genres, we’re targeting all of them.

When initiatives like this come along, they’re exciting because they mean something – seeing yourself reflected makes a tangible difference to the quality of your life as a viewer.

Oh, definitely. It is about audiences. We put audiences at the centre of everything we do as well, and Australia is such a mix of different cultures and sexualities and genders. We have to train those people [to tell their stories]. It’s really important for people’s understanding of themselves, of their communities, and you know – we want people to feel something, we want people to be moved. And to show what that life experience is, so we have a greater understanding of everyone else.

I think that’s how you change people’s minds, if you reach them emotionally. Then they start to think. You want them to feel the pain that the characters feel. That’s what I want – I want them to cry, I want them to laugh – I want them to do all of those things.

What do you hope the guidelines will help achieve?

For me, it always makes the writing much more interesting if you have those different points of view. I always tell producers it will actually improve your story, it will make a better show if you have that diversity in there.

I think the way we should frame it is as a hugely positive thing. I’m excited.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity

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