Nearly two-thirds of all scripted TV shows during the 2016-2017 season had no black writers, only 17% of the shows employed more than one black writer, and only 5% were led by black showrunners, according to a new report by UCLA sociology professor Darnell Hunt.
To address television’s systemic exclusion of black writers and showrunners, it calls on the industry to adopt a program similar to the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview minority candidates for head coach and other senior jobs. The DGA had previously tried to introduce Rooney Rule-like language in a recent contract to no avail; the idea also came up in the recent WGA elections.
Today’s report, commissioned by the Color of Change, which bills itself as the nation’s largest online racial justice organization, also found that diversity programs common at the major networks “are failing to meaningfully increase opportunity for black writers and other writers of color.”
According to the report, these diversity programs, in which networks subsidize a writer of color on each of their shows for a “diversity slot” hire, “may actually create a perverse disincentive to real inclusion of black writers and authentic portrayals of black people in writers’ rooms.”
Multiple writers interviewed in the report said that showrunners often cycle through writers of color for the year or two they get them “free of charge” through the network diversity programs, and then dispose of them after the subsidy ends and replace them with new “free” diversity hires. “This cycle gives a false appearance of inclusion, while actually limiting the ability of a critical mass of writers of color to build seniority over time and gain influence in the industry,” the report states.
The report concludes that the exclusion of black writers from television writers’ rooms has far reaching consequences. “Too often, the exclusion of black writers from writers’ rooms results in content that furthers stereotypical, inaccurate and harmful representations of black people. This dynamic is especially evident in the proliferation of harmful stereotypes about black people in procedural crime dramas.”
Out of nine procedural crime dramas analyzed, none had any black showrunners, and only one employed multiple black writers. One black writer, who worked on several crime shows for which she was the lone black writer, described how “we had a dynamic where the good guy is white and blue-eyed and all of the bad people were people of color.”
The study found that “the ultimate result of this exclusion is the widespread reliance on black stereotypes to drive black character portrayals, where black characters even exist at all – at best, ‘cardboard’ characters, at worst, unfair, inaccurate and dehumanizing portrayals.”
In its other recommendations, the report calls on the networks to “set public goals for inclusion in both hiring and cultivating talent, and in the content they produce – public goals with real, public budgets and shifts in practice attached to them, to which they can be held accountable by the public.
“Networks must pay attention to the dynamics within shows at their point of inception, where the patterns of inclusion are typically set quite firmly, and make key interventions at those points, rather than leaving issues of inclusion to be ‘definitely addressed down the road.’
“Networks must shoulder the responsibility for tracking progress – committing to transparency and committing to funding that will sustain regular, independent reports, assessment and evaluations such as this study. This especially applies to the new content plat forms emerging from Silicon Valley, which consistently prize their data as privileged information, though it has such great public impact, and though their metrics are often exposed as coding various troubling biases into their methodologies and results.
“Networks and showrunners must develop a more regular and credible process and set of protocols for engaging outside expert groups when sensitive issues are at play, especially when they remain below a basic threshold for inclusion in their writers’ rooms.”
The report also called on SAG-AFTRA, the WGA, the DGA, other industry unions to “continue to speak out and leverage their unique voice: from raising the profile of efforts to change the industry from within, to supporting advocates and lawmakers working on the outside to align state and local public policies with effective incentives toward creating system change, such as passing laws like New York’s Diversity Tax Incentive.”
“The outrageous level of exclusion in writers’ rooms has real-life consequences for black people, people of color and women” said Color of Change executive director Rashad Robinson. “While shows like Queen Sugar and Insecure boast diverse writers’ rooms and stand out as powerful examples of progress, the industry as a whole is failing. Hollywood executives make decisions every day about who gets hired. Their exclusion of black showrunners and writers results in content – viewed by millions of Americans, year after year – that advances harmful stereotypes about black people, and creates a more hostile world for black people in real life. Hollywood must do better.”
“Leaders in the entertainment industry today realize they are going to have to adapt to changing market conditions with respect to content” said Hunt, director of the UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies. “We know it’s profitable to create more diverse content, even though the conventional wisdom about what sells – and how marketable and profitable genuinely multi-racial content is – often trails quite far behind the data.”
The study examined 1,678 episodes first-run episodes from all 234 of the original, scripted comedy and drama series airing or streaming on 18 broadcast, cable, and digital platforms during the 2016-17 television season.
The report found that “AMC stands out as the worst” on overall inclusion by race and gender; that Amazon is not far behind, and that CBS and CW stand out as broadcast networks with a “Black Problem” in that they hire women and other people of color as writers, but not many black writers.
“Since its beginning, Hollywood has been a hotly contested space for influencing public perception and the cultural norms of our country,” Robinson wrote in the forward to the study. “From the military’s well-documented and long-running campaigns to foster pro-war storylines in film, to law enforcement’s cozy relationship with crime show production on television, to the rise of product placement, to politicians’ long-sought legitimacy among both Hollywood donors and the millions of media consumers they influence. We know that the great majority of television content, however, is not developed in this way. Rather, it is simply the result of who is in charge of decision-making, and what they bring to storytelling: at the network level, at the advertiser level, at the show level and at the episode level.”
“It is not surprising that,” he wrote, “save the several shows that stand out as powerful examples of progress (Insecure, Atlanta, etc.), the industry as a whole is part of the problems we see today when we look at race and gender dynamics in society. The public – consumers – should have a voice in determining the standards for what we see, and whether current results are good enough. They are not good enough.
“Hollywood content is full of contradictions. ABC, Fox and NBC are on the right track with respect to inclusion in many, but certainly not all respects. While ABC and Fox, in particular, have engineered major turnarounds in popularity and success and profit with the decision to support the creative voices of black creators, showrunners and writers, most others have dug in their heels, even in the face of those successes.
“CBS, once the champion of Norman Lear’s record-breaking lineup of successful shows, including All in the Family, The Jeffersons and Maude, as well as the home of shows like M*A*S*H, is now digging in its heels to defend writers’ rooms that systematically exclude non-white people, and target white audiences with regressive ‘white shows’ in which people of color do not exist in a meaningful way.
“AMC and Amazon, among the worst in terms of excluding black showrunners and writers, are troubling in that they are relatively new platforms for influencing the trends of original content on TV, and their trend is not good. Netflix is currently the largest producer of television content in terms of the sheer number of original scripted shows, and while some signs are encouraging, they have a long way to go.”
Robinson also took aim at NBC for helping to create Donald Trump’s television persona. “Even NBC, the same network that has made strides in creating an empathetic, multi- racial story world through This Is Us, also readily made Donald Trump a star through The Apprentice, thereby giving legitimacy to his anti-black ‘birther’ movement and anti- Mexican tirades, all the way through to having him host Saturday Night Live in the middle of his campaign.”
“Women, immigrants, queer and trans people, Native Americans, working people, people with disabilities and people of color – especially Black people – are caught in the cross- hairs of these contradictions,” he wrote. “It is time for those of us who are most impacted to have a voice in how Hollywood works. Given the detailed, first-of-its-kind findings in this report, which confirm what far too many have experienced and known for years, we must make a major shift.”