BBC’s Long-Awaited Update on 2020 Diverse Programming Fund Criticized as ‘Smoke and Mirrors’

The BBC’s long-awaited update on the progress of a 2020 fund set up to improve diverse content on the public broadcaster has been met with scepticism from some U.K. industry leaders who have called it “smoke and mirrors.”

The BBC’s Creative Diversity Commitment — made in the wake of the renewed Black Lives Matter movement in June 2020 — pledged to spend £100 million ($124 million) of its existing commissioning budget over three years (from April 2021 to March 2024) on diverse and inclusive content, which spans racial representation as well as social mobility and disability. That divides into roughly £33 million a year. (The BBC’s total spend on TV in 2020/2021 was £1.4 billion.)

The fund is intended to apply to a range of genres, and commit the corporation to create content with at least two of the following three priorities: diverse stories and portrayal on-screen; diverse production teams and talent; and diverse-led production companies. (Since April 2021, all new commissions at the BBC have also required at least 20% of off-screen talent to come from under-represented groups.)

The BBC revealed on Thursday that, following the first year of the initiative, it has invested £44 million in supporting a total of 67 TV shows across all genres, to increase diversity and inclusion both on and off air. The corporation is now on track to invest by 2023/24 the full £112 million, of which £100 million will go to TV and £12 million will go to radio.

In the fund’s first year, programs were made by 48 different independent production companies, with 73% of those companies having diverse leadership. The BBC says 10% had never been commissioned by the broadcaster before 2022. In addition, £4 million has been invested in supporting 90 diverse radio commissions.

Among the programs commissioned through the initiative are BBC Three’s “Tonight With Target,” the drama “Then Barbara Met Alan,” “Glow Up: Britain’s Next Make-Up Star,” documentary “This Girl’s Changed,” “Young, Welsh and…, Bossin’ It” and “Krept and Konan: We Are England.” Other programs highlighted include live coverage of the “Woman’s Super League,” BBC Children’s “Magic Hands – Black History Songs” and “Snaps – Listen, Dad,” BBC Scotland’s “The Bhangra Boss – The Story of DJ Vips,” BBC Arts film “Salt” and the comedy “Dreaming Whilst Black.”

Variety understands that the BBC won’t be issuing an exhaustive list of all the programs commissioned under the fund, as independent production companies were required to submit individuals’ personal data and protected characteristics in order to qualify for the investment, which can’t be legally shared. (The programs named were included only after producers gave the BBC their permission.)

The BBC said its three main criteria (of which two were required to secure a commission) were discussed at the point of the program’s commission and then measured at transmission. This means that shows counted in the first year of the initiative could have been commissioned prior to April 2021, but are retroactively included as part of the initiative.

Some U.K. industry leaders say the BBC’s methods and criteria for the fund fall short of what’s needed to accurately judge true progress for diverse productions.

Simon Albury, chair of the Campaign for Broadcasting Equality, has slammed the fund as “smoke and mirrors” because it doesn’t provide a baseline upon which the expenditure on the criteria for diverse productions can be measured. Indeed, sources indicate that the initiative is the first time a figure has been applied to the spend on diverse productions out of the BBC.

Albury wrote in a July 2020 OpenDemocracy post that the “pick and mix” approach to the criteria also makes it difficult to hone in on specific arenas, such as racial representation, within the commissions.

“The fund is not just about increasing [Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic] BAME employment — it also aims to improve inclusion for those from a lower socio-economic background and those with a disability — all of which are underrepresented in the media and worthy of support,” wrote Albury. “But with such a broad categorisation and targets, combined with no baseline against which to measure progress, the £100 million commitment may make no difference at all.”

Elsewhere, Marcus Ryder, chair of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and Head of External Consultancies for the Lenny Henry Centre For Media Diversity, discussed similar concerns in a lengthy Twitter thread.

Ryder wrote: “The real question is; is £44m progress? The short answer is; we have no idea. We do not know if this is more or less than the number of diverse productions broadcast in 2021, 2020 or even 2019. And I have it on good authority that neither do the BBC.”

Ryder also notes that because some of the shows included were commissioned prior to April 2021, the BBC wasn’t necessarily using money set aside for the fund. “The fact they are counting programmes that were commissioned BEFORE the fund was announced means it is not ‘ringfenced’ money, and they are not even measuring additionality. But it is more of an accounting tool to measure the diversity of the programmes they broadcast,” said Ryder.

A Variety investigation in November 2021 detailed the issues around the stark lack of diverse producers of color in the U.K. Asked how many shows from diverse-led production companies have been ordered since April 2021, a BBC spokesperson said at the time that the public broadcaster was still “identifying programs” that meet the criteria and would provide an update in April 2022.