How can race-based data collection become integral to real change in Canadian television?

It’s no secret that audience measurement can make or break a TV show. But there is a growing contingent of Canadians who believe the methods behind such data collection in Canada are due for an overhaul—not only when it comes to viewership numbers, but in terms of tracking productions and ensuring actual equity. 

The call for race-based data collection across a variety of industries in Canada, including health, education and environment, has grown louder over the past year. The need for such statistics in Canadian film and television is especially relevant when it comes to dismantling systemic racism and bias, and to integrate real change in programming and content.  

How to actually do that, however, remains an industry-wide problem. And it’s going to take a lot of work and time, not to mention commitment from top-level execs.

The need for race-based viewing data

According to Floyd Kane, creator of the CBC drama Diggstown and a Sandi Ross Award recipient, the collection of race-based viewing data is essential when it comes to seeing who is being served by current programming decisions and where the gaps are. “If there's a portion of Canadians who are not watching [a network] I would want to know why,” he says.

“I would also want to know how I can get people watching. That’s valuable information. And it doesn't mean that you're necessarily programming shows that specifically target that audience, but what it means is that you make the extra effort to market your shows to that audience or to be more present in that community.”

Currently broadcasters rely in large part on viewership data from Numeris, a member of the Canadian Research Insights Council. According to current Numeris president and CEO Neil McEneaney, it would take industry-wide collaboration and the sharing of all data in order to be able to collect information on racialized audiences.

“That’s something that should happen,” he says. “But yet there’s no coordination, no effort underway to ensure that’s a thing.”

He adds that currently Numeris focuses on data that represents Canada’s two official languages, and under the company’s specific auditing standards, a group is only considered “representative” if it makes up at least 20% of the market’s total population. “We do collect data from various communities, racialized communities, but in and of itself there's not enough in that sample for it to be a reportable item,” he says.

“The reality in this country is that when you're looking at the various diverse communities, they don't represent those kinds of numbers [in all municipalities],” he adds. The executive notes that current samples include people from various nationalities and communities, but not in large enough quantities to be able to accurately report on. “The reason for that is because as a service, and what the media pays Numeris for, is they pay us to do these two official languages, and they pay us to drive audience data that reflects against those demographics,” he explains.

The need for race-based production data 

In the Canadian marketplace race-based data collection is equally important in terms of financing and greenlighting productions. The Racial Equity Media Collective (REMC) has called on the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage to start recording such data, arguing the CRTC should be held accountable.

“Money is supposed to go to Canadian creators, and in the BIPOC community, we feel like racialized creators are not getting a fair share of their entitlement to this money as Canadians,” says REMC co-founder Amar Wala. “That's a resounding sentiment amongst our communities. And because there's a complete lack of data from the industry, there's really no way to verify whether all of the pools of taxpayer money that are going into creating content in this country are being distributed equitably.”

McEneaney, Wala and Kane all agree that a push from the top is integral in order for the eventual collection of race-based data to happen with both viewership and production, and it isn’t until such information is mandated by those who control the boards that it will.

“It’s a question for the institutions, Telefilm, the Canada Media Fund, the CRTC, and the broadcasters. They need to create a mechanism by which they can track the state on what they're funding,” says Wala.

“It really shouldn't be that hard. I mean, they track extremely detailed information on all of their productions, from corporate info to all kinds of other info for insurance purposes,” he continues. “So it should be something that they can create rather simply. Telefilm Canada and the CMF have been working with BIPOC communities on the use of terminology, and how that data can be collected safely, and also just distributed safely throughout the community. But the actual mechanism for doing it, they've got to come up with that on their own.”

Addressing systemic racism

The matter of collecting race-based data, or more accurately not collecting it, is a matter of systemic racism, say Wala and Kane. “If we're all making these very pointed statements about how it's important in terms of curbing systemic racism within our industry to know who's watching, then why don't you just use your clout to say this is what we want you to do now?” Kane poses.

“We still undervalue the Black consumer because we have all these assumptions about who that person is,” he continues. “That's the messaging. The messaging is that we don't do it, not because the sample size is too small. But because it's not a priority for us.”

Wala points out that the way the Canadian media landscape is constructed and how it functions is still the root of the problem. “The default position of the Canadian industry, whether it's film or television, for decades now has been that the audience member is white, and of a certain age,” he says. “Well, there's a very significant percent of the population that's racialized, and that consumes a great deal of content. They have just as much of a right to see themselves on screen as any other community.”

He adds that while Canada has made plenty of shows with BIPOC characters over the years, dig deeper and a lot of the major, “diverse” shows have been owned by white-owned production companies and have been created to serve the same white broadcast audiences that have historically been served.

“The data is a vital tool or vital weapon to have in your arsenal, but the data alone isn't going to do anything. You have to act on the data… It's going to take years to convince racialized Canadians that we are making stuff for them, and that they should watch this stuff and they can see themselves reflected on screen,” Wala says. “It's not going to happen overnight; they're not going to just show up because you make a show. You have to make a show, you have to market that show specifically to that community, and you have to spend a great deal of time convincing this community that this is a consistent thing moving forward, that's it’s not a one-off show here or there,” he continues.

“We really have to make things that are for them and that center on their comfort, and not the comfort of what the traditional audience in Canada has been. It's going to take a while because you're going to have to earn their trust.”

Editor’s note: Earlier this year, an in-depth survey of the country’s racialized producers who own production companies was commissioned by the CMF. It paints a compelling picture of the current business and personal status of racialized stakeholders in the Canadian audiovisual industry. Based on the findings, the CMF started collecting basic race-based data in April 2021. The CMF also recently launched a first phase of its self-identification system called Persona-ID. These initiative are part of the CMF’s commitments in its Equity and Inclusion Strategy.

Amber Dowling
Amber Dowling is a Toronto-based freelance lifestyle and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in various newspapers, magazines and websites across Canada and the United States. A previous president of the Television Critics Association and former editor-in-chief of TV Guide Canada, she’s covered all aspects of the platinum age of television and the emerging industry for publications including Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Indiewire, Playback, The Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail. Aside from watching too much boob tube she’s a world traveller and mom with a serious penchant for bold reds and stinky cheese.
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