CASE STUDY: 8 Take-aways from the WGAW 2015 TV Report on Writers of Diversity

Some thoughts on "The State of Diversity in Writing for Television"

Finally got a chance to read the WGAW 2015 TV Staffing Brief and the findings are somewhat depressing: "Not only were minorities still underrepresented by factors of nearly 3 to 1 among all staff writers and nearly 7 to 1 among executive producers during the 2013-14 season, but women television writers also continued to tread water, at best, relative to their male counterparts. That is, women were underrepresented by factors of nearly 2 to 1 among all staff writers and more than 3 to 1 among critical executive producer positions. Meanwhile, older writers who were represented on nearly every show staff during the 2013-14 season saw their fortunes 14 drop precipitously beyond age 50, when they were absent from nearly a third of all shows. Findings like these highlight a glaring disconnect between the increasing diversity of audiences and business-as-usual practices in the Hollywood industry." (p. 13-14)*

As writers, creators and producers, you are dealing daily with what seems like the Sisyphean task of becoming a success in your career. The honest truth is that if you are a white male under 40 you have a good chance of making it in television provided you have some talent, connections and persistence. However, as the Brief shows, it's not the same for women and minority writers. That fact alone won't stop the women and minority writers who do want to make it. So as I read the report, I wondered how do you make the proverbial lemonade with the lemons we currently have. Now in asking what can women and minority writers do in the face of these obstacles, I am not absolving the showrunners and executives who are the ultimate decisionmakers in finding and hiring writers. The leadership in broadcast and cable television have to open their worldview and make a concrete decision to diversify and find talent beyond what they normally hire. But in the meantime, women and minority writers have to figure out a way to succeed in the moment. And thats what my takeways are about. Despite the findings, I am still optimistic that change is happening, albeit slowly; one major reason for my optimism is that while diverse representation dropped slightly from a year ago, if you look at the trend from 2001 to 2013 you will note that it is a steady turtle crawl upwards. (p. 3) It's already happening, so now it's a matter of positioning.

Based on the Brief's findings, I gathered 8 take-aways for writers of diversity (women, minorities, LGBTQ and over-50) of advice and encouragement:

  1. Write drama spec-scripts. "The previous staffing brief revealed that minority writers were considerably more likely to staff television dramas than sitcoms 62.5 percent of minority staff writers versus 30.9 percent of these writers. Figure 4 shows that in terms of show length, little has changed since the 2011-12 season." (p. 4) It seems that there are 2 reasons for this: [1] the prevalence and popularity of multicultural dramas like Grey's Anatomy or Scandal and [2] the unfortunate fact that minority sitcom writers are "ghettoized" (especially, black writers) and relegated to sitcoms that don't necessarily gain a wide viewership outside of a racial demographic. Usually, these show fails. And when they do, the writers lose their jobs.
  2. Develop and produce game shows. Yes, game shows. "The writing staffs for other types of programming (e.g., late night, talk, game shows, etc.) were much less diverse for the 2013-14 season than those for sitcoms and dramas." (p. 6) It is barely a blip but think about how diverse reality shows, for better or worse, have become ever since diverse writers started getting into them. While late night is currently impenetrable and talk shows are still available, game shows are a ripe arena for diverse writers to pitch an idea to. 
  3. Write to the network executives and tell them what you like. "[R]esearch is beginning to confirm the common-sense notion that increasingly diverse audiences desire more diverse storytelling." (p. 1) Maybe the showrunners and executives still don't really believe or know this fact until they see yet more proof. Obviously, ratings are the biggest sign from the audience that tells them what we like. But another time-tested way audiences can let them know is by simply writing to them. If you find a show written or produced by a diverse writer/producer, that you enjoy; let them know. Send them a letter or a short email applauding them for finding the talent. Use social media too. A cynic might scoff at how little 1 fan's email can do to change minds but that is assuming only 1 fan will write. Let's not assume. Let's act en masse.
  4. We are competing with each other too. And that's not a bad thing. The findings show that racial mix is in flux and while black writer employment has declined over time, Asian and Latino writer employment edged up a bit. "When we consider individual racial/ethnic groups (see Table 1), we find that much of the gain in the minority share of television staff employment since the 2001-02 season can be attributed to increases in the Asian and Latino shares. That is, the Asian share increased by nearly 2 percentage points (from 1.1 percent in 2001-02 to 2.9 percent in 2013-14), while the Latino share increased about a percentage point over the same period (from 1.9 percent to 2.8 percent). By contrast, the black share of staff employment decreased by .7 percentage points over the period (from 6.1 percent during the 2001-02 season to 5.4 percent in 2013-14)." (p. 2-3)
  5. Quality matters. This is subjective but YOU are judged by what you write and while I understand that minority writers (like actors) are torn between taking a job that pays well but perpetuates a stereotype and not working at all, the choice to take that job can end up hurting later. Note how "the black-themed sitcoms of the kind that aired on the defunct UPN and WB networks in the early 2000s have all but disappeared. These sitcoms for years accounted for the majority of employed black staff writers. The removal of the shows from the air, combined with the “typecasting” of black writers, partially explains why the black share of minority staff writers has declined since 2001-02." (p. 6). The irony is that it is the showrunners and executives who choose to produce and air these types of shows that end up typecasting the writers they later refuse to hire for other fare.
  6. It's ok if it takes shame to force networks to take a closer look at the available talented women "These "five networks were notable in 2013-14 for having executive producer corps in which women accounted for particularly small shares: FOX (2.3 percent), NBC (2.7 percent), Comedy Central (8 percent), Nickelodeon (9.1 percent), and HBO (9.5 percent)." (p. 8) Alerted to this lack of female representation, these networks might choose to rethink who they will hire or promote next. If this kind of pressure, influences their decision, that's fine. While some might decry this as an affirmative action type of hire, made to give ANY woman a job that rightfully belongs to a white male; that would be a very obnoxious reaction. It is not about finding just ANY woman but giving an opportunity to talented women who QUALIFY. If the networks are forced into this out of a desire to correct the slight, it doesn't matter, provided they hire a qualified woman. And in the end, the end justifies the means of shame.
  7. If you are a women looking to write for television, your best bet is cable. Cable is good at hiring women for their staffs. "[W]ith the exception of the CW, where women claimed 44.3 percent of the staff positions during the season, women only approached proportionate representation among staff writers at cable networks: VHI (50 percent), MTV (50 percent), A & E (46.7 percent), BET (46.2 percent), ABC Family (45.1 percent), and WeTV (42.9 percent)." (p. 9) 
  8. Nonetheless, it is still worth submitting job applications, sending scripts and making pitches to broadcast TV networks and production companies because that's where the majority of the jobs are. "Though the minority shares of staff positions are generally lower on the broadcast networks than on minority-oriented cable networks the table reveals that broadcast networks generally employ the largest numbers of minority staff writers. Of course this is due to the fact that the major broadcast networks air more original programming (and thus have more staff writers associated with them) than the cable networks."(p. 10)
Let's be clear, it is up to the gatekeepers aka the networks to do their part and actively find and hire talented diverse writers, just as it is their decision on what to produce and air. The change is a mutual bargain between the showrunners and executives opening the doors to diverse writers and the diverse writers stepping in with their talent, dedication and vision.

And one last thing to the diverse writers out there: when YOU become that showrunner or executive, don't forget to seek out the others like you trying to make it like you did.

* the page numbers refer to the WGA 2015 TV Staffing Brief pdf


Popular posts from this blog

PRODUCTION TIPS: What is a Loan-Out Company? And Should I Form One?

PRODUCTION JOURNAL: How Tarantino Got Reservoir Dogs Funded and Why It's Worth Knowing People Who Know Celebrities

CASE STUDY: A Look at Some of TV's Most Successful PODs