Representation in Nigeria Presents Great Opportunities for Content Creators

Bada Akintunde-Johnson 

In a world where pictorial realities on-screen, despite wielding great influence, are not entirely aligned with the every-day-realities people face, content creators must work overtime to capture the essence of societies — not just the idealistic dreams of what could be, but the current (sometimes aggravating) conditions that currently exist.

Content, as we have all come to realise, shapes views and opinions — that are sometimes hard to shake off. Many, without realising it, have formed opinions of foreign cultures not by interacting with representatives of those groups or cultures but through a clip or scene they watched. This stark reality makes it expedient for Content to perform the function of a looking glass and for content to mirror society. A tall order, no doubt, but one that presents a myriad of opportunities for content creators.

Nigeria—with over 360 tribes, about 250 ethnic groups and 6 geopolitical zones— is a melting pot of culture with diverse nuances, many of which are either not properly represented on-screen or are not represented at all.  At Paramount, we recently carried out a survey —Reflecting Me: Global Representation on Screen— to evaluate the general perception surrounding representation and on-screen diversity, the ethos that drives our content production and operations. The results were staggering.

94% of Nigerians, compared to 78% globally, considered it important for TV shows and movies to correctly reflect the country’s different cultural groups and identities, with the majority agreeing that on-screen representation of people and portrayal of their cultures is inadequate. 70% of Nigerians felt there is a need for a more accurate representation of certain groups and identities, while 40% want more types of groups and identities to be represented on-screen.  Amongst those who felt poorly represented, 54% felt people like them are represented inaccurately, while 47% felt people like them are not represented enough. Viewers want to see more inclusion both on-screen and, not surprisingly, off-screen as well (89% agree producers should commit to improving diversity and representation behind the cameras).

Meeting this need for representation requires a multidimensional approach because people are layered. A Nigerian is more than just a Nigerian. He could be a Nigerian who is part Efik, part Yoruba and is also the first child of a family of five. These different facets bring different dimensions that we, as content creators, need to capture as much as we can. This requires us to get close to the cultures we need to portray, understand them and make sure the end result tells their stories in a way that resonates with them. (MT: Please check this rational with Bada) 

Representing Nigeria’s blend of cultures, therefore, requires an immersive approach. Something we adopted for the southeastern Nigeria-inspired reality TV show, The People’s Hero. We ran underground activations in Owerri and Enugu that gave us the proximity we needed to understand the culture to be portrayed through the show and mirror it more accurately. What we experienced, in terms of culture, was vastly different from what we had encountered in the southwest while observing representatives of the culture.

On-screen diversity is as complex as our individual identities are – and the intersectional nature of our lives means that one person could feel under-represented or misrepresented across several of these aspects.

Economic status, an aspect not often discussed in conversations around representation on-screen, came out strongly. While we are aware that most TV shows —particularly scripted series— are somewhat aspirational, with people living in nice homes, wearing nice clothes and driving flashy cars. It was clear from the study that some audiences felt alienated as this did not reflect the reality of their day-to-day living.

As creators that serve diverse audiences, these insights are important in strengthening our content offering. We need storylines that portray real-life experiences. Through ‘Our Content for Change’, a global initiative that aims to counteract bias, stereotypes, racism and hate through every facet of the company, we are making progress to better deliver relatable content to our audiences.

The findings of the study, therefore, present immense opportunities for us to further explore storylines that add important layers of representation. Given the size of Nigeria’s economy and a population north of 200 million with more than 300 tribes and 500 languages, the diverse cultural well from which to draw the future possibilities for storytelling is exciting. We can dive deeper to explore the beauties and reaches of different people and cultures and create content pieces rich in cultural context.

Representation matters to viewers because it has an impact in the real world. For most people, a lack of representation doesn’t make them angry or make them passionate for change. Instead, the sad reality is that it simply leaves people feeling defeated and marginalised, with 48% of those who feel poorly represented saying it makes them feel unimportant, ignored, or disappointed, which impacts their overall self-esteem and sense of belonging.

Besides knowing someone, media representation and celebrity acceptance have the biggest influence in shaping positive views towards various groups and identities as well bringing burning social issues to the fore. But what happens when audiences don’t know someone? The people on-screen shape their views.

Representation in media is a vital component to truly connect with different audiences and communities, and we, at Paramount, are proactively transforming our whole creative ecosystem to better serve our audiences and achieve significant change now and in the future.

*Bada Akintunde-Johnson is Country Manager for Paramount Africa.

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