Some of Britain’s most popular television programmes including the Vicar of Dibley and Who Wants to be a Millionaire have been criticised for being “too white” in a report led by Trevor Phillips, the equality chief.
The research found that Black and Asian viewers felt that despite the growing number of ethnic minorities living in the UK, they still felt under-represented on hit television shows.
When non-whites did appear in dramas and soaps, they said they were often “token” characters who were stereotyped as Asian shopkeepers, such as the character Dev in Coronation Street, and black single mothers like Denise in EastEnders.
Viewers praised reality shows like the X Factor, Strictly Come Dancing and The Apprentice, in which ethnic minorities were defined by their talents rather than their skin colour.
However, they criticised shows such as Hollyoaks, Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, Friends and the Vicar of Dibley for consistently not having enough ethnic minority characters.
Mr Phillips, the chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said that all the evidence showed that television was still “hideously white where it matters”, a reference to those in senior roles.
“Most ethnic minority participants felt the media had a responsibility to reflect Britain’s diversity across all genres and was failing to do so in three main ways: by relying on tokenistic and stereotyped representation of characters; by representing extreme and exaggerated characters; and by failing to reflect the realities of contemporary ethnic minority culture,” he said.
“All these shortcomings were attributed to some extent to the perceived lack of a representative power base within UK media.”
The study was commissioned by Channel 4 following the Celebrity Big Brother race row last year when Jade Goody and glamour model Danielle Lloyd rounded on Shilpa Shetty, the Bollywood star.
Black and Asian viewers said they were concerned that white viewers got the wrong impression of ethnic minority groups because they were often inaccurately portrayed on screen.
Muslim respondents said that a recent episode of Wife Swap featured a Muslim family where the mother was “completely over the top”, while Asian dramas often focused on arranged marriages.
One Indian woman told researchers: “We would like to see a more realistic view of Asians. A lot of Asians are professionals and educated and we don’t just work in corner shops.”
Another black Caribbean man said: “They don’t portray black people doing different roles and in every aspect of every field, like doctors, lawyers and architects.”
The research comes only weeks after Dr Samir Shah, a non-executive director at the BBC, accused broadcasters of rampant tokenism in their programming.
He claimed that a “tick-box approach” to showing non-whites had left minority viewers feeling embarrassed and irritated.
His comments echoed those of Lenny Henry, the comedian, who claimed that television was still being dominated by white faces.
He said that urgent steps were needed to give people who did not benefit from an Oxbridge education the chance to get a job in the industry.
In 2001, Greg Dyke, the former BBC director general, attacked the corporation seven years ago for being “hideously white” and promised to make it more diverse.