Reality television, routinely the butt of critics' abuse, has been unexpectedly praised by the chairman for the Commission of Racial Equality for doing more to help racial understanding than any other recent media phenomenon.
Trevor Phillips said shows such as Channel 4's Big Brother and BBC2's The Apprentice had introduced most Britons to people from ethnic minorities, whom they would not have met otherwise. At the commission's Race in the Media awards, Mr Phillips credited reality television programmes with challenging racial stereotypes.
Research by the CRE shows few people from the white majority in Britain know anyone from an ethnic minority group. Even in London, which has the highest proportion of ethnic minorities in the country, only one in five knows a non-white person well, and outside the capital the figures are even lower.
Mr Phillips said: "So-called reality TV, whatever you think of it, has given many British people a chance to encounter people from other ethnic groups in a way they would never do in their own everyday lives." He added that until recently, the media portrayed black and Asian people as one dimensional. "Most people's idea of what a black or Asian or Chinese or Gypsy person is really like is almost entirely based on what they read, hear and see in the media."
The Apprentice, in which contenders vied for a £100,000 work placement with the business tycoon Sir Alan Sugar, was singled out for commendation because the final four contestants came from immigrant backgrounds.
Mr Phillips paid tribute to the show's winner, Tim Campbell, who was at the ceremony. He said: "In spite of being a black man, who grew up with a single parent, you've turned up to work on time, and you haven't, as far as I'm aware, yet spent the whole of your first year's salary on blow."
He said the runner-up, Saira Khan, had challenged popular views of Asian women, asking: "Who could ever dare to ask British Asian women to be sweet, submissive and silent, after watching The Apprentice's Saira Khan in action?"
The CRE chief said this year's Big Brother contestants had also "confounded any possible stereotyping", with a line-up including a black, gay, Tory fox-hunter, Derek Laud, a bisexual Muslim, Kemal Shahin, and a "feminist Zimbabwean nurse", Makosi Musambasi. Peter Bazalgette, chief creative officer of Endemol, the company that launched Big Brother, said: "Big Brother is essentially a popularity contest. It was quite clear to me in the first series when Darren [a black man] got to the final three. Not only were younger people not influenced by race, they were effectively blind to it. It was the same when people voted Nadia, a transsexual, the winner last year. When we cast Big Brother we make sure that we have a reasonable spread geographically, in terms of age, gender, sexuality and ethnic background. Having said that, people don't go in the house because they are black or white, they go in because they are interesting."
Phil Edgar-Jones, creative director of Big Brother, said: "I completely agree with what Mr Phillips says. What is powerful about Big Brother is that it allows viewers over that period of time to see that people are good or bad depending on their merits, not their colour or ethnicity." Other reality television shows including Wife Swap, I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here, Pop Idol, Fame Academy and Strictly Dance Fever, were praised by Mr Phillips for being "minority role models for young people of all kinds".
The controller of BBC2, Roly Keating said: "One of the great things about The Apprentice is that it reflects the fact that business is essentially a meritocracy; the whole format allows diversity to come through effortlessly and confidently.
"It's interesting that this year on BBC2 we've also had the first black winner on Mastermind. There's a real sense that popular television is reflecting a changing society much more naturally than in the past."
Three who escaped the pigeonholes
SAIRA KHAN, THE APPRENTICE
Khan, 34, the loud-mouthed sales executive from Birmingham, has made various media appearances since reaching the final of The Apprentice, including a slot on Woman's Hour
AHMED AGHIL, BIG BROTHER
Aghil, who sought asylum in the UK after fleeing Somalia, was viewed with derision in the house and by sections of the media. But he is credited with helping to change perceptions
TIM CAMPBELL, THE APPRENTICE
Campbell, 27, entered The Apprentice as a London Underground manager, and by the end of the series secured himself a £100,000 job at Amstrad after being chosen by Sir Alan Sugar
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