Everybody needs good neighbours, or so I was reminded each evening of my 14-year-old life, as I settled in for a daily dose of drama on Ramsay Street. But no one ever told me my neighbours might be Indian. Last week Neighbours’ producers declared that an Indian family would become regulars on the program. The Kapoors will become the first non-Anglo Australian family to appear on Australia’s biggest media export after 26 years on air.
Mainstream media outlets were quick to portray the story as a racist controversy, as a small number of indignant Facebook fans publicly posted their outrage at the prospect of Indians on Ramsay Street. These comments were followed by a statement from one of the actors in question, Sachin Joab, who "slammed" the show’s racist fans
I’m loathe to admit it but I was an avid Neighbours follower when I was a kid. Despite my Bangladeshi background, the show’s white bread cast never struck me as incongruous. While the show had little to do with the diverse and complicated Australia I lived in, it was the Australia I was used to seeing on TV.
Commercial broadcast television in Australia has always been overwhelmingly white. It’s not just Neighbours. The highest rating television dramas of recent years are all equally culpable (think All Saints, Packed to the Rafters, McLeod’s Daughters, Home and Away). The mythical Australia depicted in these shows bears little relation to the lived reality of Australia’s diverse cities.
So why this lack of diversity on the small-screen? After all, British shows like Eastenders and Coronation Street have long featured black and Asian characters in regular roles, albeit at times tokenistic ones.
One explanation for this is that the regulatory regime that applies to commercial broadcasters in Australia has very little to say about culturally diverse representation. Since 1992, commercial channels have been subject to local content regulations, requiring them to air a minimum quota of Australian-produced content. In some ways this policy was about ensuring diversity in television fare, but diversity was defined in terms of distinctiveness from American content. The standards have little to do with diversity within Australia. Australian content was defined simply as something that wasn’t American, and — as decades of British programming on the ABC attest — distinctively Anglo.
Interestingly, it’s this policy that’s partly responsible for the longevity of Neighbours: even though the show’s ratings have dropped considerably in the last five years, Channel Ten (and now its digital off-shoot, Eleven) needs the program in order to meet its local content obligations.
There have been a few brief periods of reflection and debate about diverse representation in the media, but strategies for addressing this problem are thin on the ground. When the question was raised in the early 1990s, the Australian Broadcasting Authority felt that it equated to imposing "ethnic quotas" on TV. Reducing the debate to these terms made it easy to dismiss the matter, and the issue soon faded from public view.
Where there are obligations on commercial channels to engage with diversity, they’re usually framed as an anti-discrimination matter — broadcasters are encouraged to avoid offending minority groups, rather than trying to actively promote more equitable representation. There have also been suggestions that the existence of SBS, Australia’s official multicultural broadcaster, lets commercial stations off the hook — commercial broadcasters don’t need to acknowledge ethnic diversity because that’s what taxpayers fund SBS to do. As a result, the Australia we see on TV remains pretty homogenous.
To be fair, though, the Kapoors aren’t the first non-Anglo Australian characters to appear on Neighbours. In 2008 the show began screening visibly "ethnic" extras — the occasional girl in a hijab in the background of a university scene, a Sudanese student at a graduation ceremony — and finally, a regular character, a South Korean exchange student called Sunny Lee. And two of the Kapoors have also appeared as occasional characters in the past year. Introducing a family to the show — rather than a minor individual character — could bring more meaningful depiction of diversity. Viewers might see how the Indian characters negotiate their personal and familial histories with living in a largely white community.
But I’d say that’s unlikely. The ethnicity of these characters is a long way from disrupting the wholesome, hand-holding, white neighbourliness of Ramsay Street. The Kapoors may be Indian, but they sound, act and dress like everyone else — it’s hard to see how they’re actually different.
When the show was launched in the mid 1980s, its premise was family-friendly realism. But the fictional suburb of Erinsborough is a communitarian fantasy. Neighbours belongs to that long and virtuous tradition of TV shows — starting perhaps, with The Brady Bunch — where parents and teenagers get along, neighbours know each others’ names, and life-problems are resolved, all within the purview of a G-rating. It’s a nostalgic yearning for an idealised past where everyone got along because everyone was the same.
In some ways, commercial television has offered more interesting cross-cultural programming on reality TV shows like So You Think You Can Dance and Masterchef. Here, when characters speak about their aspirations, anxieties, families and futures, they are inevitably tied up with their culture. The picture is a much more complex and three-dimensional one.
The kind of sanitised sameness of Neighbours doesn’t acknowledge the tensions involved in living with diversity. What would it really be like for an Indian family on Ramsay Street? The most vibrant, cosmopolitan and interesting parts of Australian cities aren’t necessarily the most harmonious.
The Kapoors’ move to Ramsay Street is a long-overdue step in the right direction. But after being so white for so long it’s unclear whether a little fix of multiculturalism will really change the culture of the show.
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