The number of jobs for women, minority and older TV writers took a nose dive last year, according to a new study by the Writers Guild of America, West. “Women and minorities have actually lost ground as compared to their white male counterparts,” the study found, “both in terms of overall staff positions and in higher-level executive producer ranks.”
Minority writers saw a nearly 7% decline in employment last season, falling from 15.6% of the workforce in 2011-12 to 13.7% in 2013-14, while employment of female writers fell 5%, from 30.5% to 29%.
Among the major networks, CBS fared the worst in terms of its employment of minority staff writers. In its report card, the WGA found that minorities accounted for only 11.3% of the writers employed on CBS shows, compared with 16.1% at ABC, 14.2% at NBC and 13.9% at Fox.
Ironically, it’s the guild’s own members – the showrunners and executive producers – who do most of the hiring. But it’s the networks, studios and production companies who hire the showrunners, and the report found that minorities held only 5.5% of those jobs during the 2013-14 season, down from 7.8% two years earlier, an overall decline of nearly 30%.
This lack of diversity at the beginning of the hiring process almost assures a lack of diversity at the end of it, the report’s author told Deadline. “The funnel is pretty narrow at the beginning of the phase in terms of project pitching, so it’s pretty much guaranteed that it’s going to be even narrower at the end of the pipeline,” said Dr. Darnell Hunt, director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA. “The pitching process needs to be more diverse. The higher payoff is diversifying the process at the very early stages.”
Compared to their percentages in the general population, the report found that “minorities were underrepresented by a factor of nearly 7-to-1 among executive producers.” Women, meanwhile, accounted for only 15.1% of the executive producer positions last season, a decline from 18.6% during the previous season. “Of the 457 executive producer positions in 2013-14, women occupied 136,” the report found. “As women represent slightly more than half of the U.S. population, the group was underrepresented by a factor of more than 3-to-1 among the writers who ran television shows in 2013-14.”
“Blame is rightfully shared,” Hunt told Deadline, noting that showrunners, networks, studios, production companies and talent agencies that package the deals all need to do a better job of diversifying their writing staffs if audiences are going to continue to tune in to their shows. “Studies show that audiences do prefer more diverse programming,” he said. “I just don’t see how the industry is going to be viable if they don’t give increasingly diverse audiences what they want.”
But he said the chances of that happening on its own are not good. “The market by itself is not going to fix it; there are too many obstacles,” Hunt said. “It’s not going to correct itself. Something else is going to have to happen.”
Just what that might be, however, is anybody’s guess. Government interference is not a realistic or desirable option, and class-action lawsuits haven’t changed the diversity equation much either. In 2010, a massive class-action ageism suit against the networks and the talent agencies was settled for a record $70 million, but most TV writers older than 50 still find themselves largely unemployable.
“Although writers over 40 continued to claim a majority of all staff writer positions,” the report found, “data from the most recent TV season show that their employment prospects drop dramatically after age 50. Such stark statistics continue to illustrate that the entertainment industry remains a glaringly unlevel playing field.”
The report examined employment patterns of nearly 3,000 writers working on 292 TV shows that aired on 36 broadcast and cable networks during the 2013-14 season. Only 781 of those jobs were held by women. Last season’s drop in the percentage of women employed as TV writers “erases some of the slow but steady progress women writers have made in the sector since 2011, when their share of employment stood at only 26.8%,” the report concluded. “At slightly more than half of the U.S. population, women remain underrepresented among staff writers by nearly 2-to-1.”
Despite last season’s decline in the percentages of women and minority staff writers, the report found that the trend over the last two decades has been upward, but still not fast enough to match the nation’s changing demographics. “Over the years, the fortunes of diverse writers in the television sector have ebbed and flowed,” the study concluded. “While the general pattern consists of an upward trajectory in diverse sector employment, the rate of progress has failed to keep pace with the rapid diversification of the nation’s population. This is significant not only in terms of employment opportunity but also in terms of industry bottom-line considerations. Indeed, research is beginning to confirm the common-sense notion that increasingly diverse audiences desire more diverse storytelling. When diverse voices are marginalized or missing altogether in the writers room, it is less likely that the stories told will hit the mark.”