During TCA, Walt Disney Television hosted a session titled, “Inclusion Is Not A Spectator Sport”. Diversity and inclusion has been a conversation to be had on all fronts when it comes to authentic representation on film and TV. It’s a conversation that has always been on the mind of people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, the disabled community as well as other underrepresented voices. However, after the death of George Floyd, a pandemic that made Asians a target of violent attacks, and a Black Lives Matter movement that changed the face of the landscape of social justice, the conversation of inclusion has become more prominent and a glaring light is being shined on Hollywood to do the work instead of just virtue signal their efforts.
The session included Tim McNeal, VP, Creative Talent Development & Inclusion, WDT; DMA, Director, Creative Talent Development & Inclusion, WDT; Alexi Hawley, Executive Producer and writer, The Rookie; Brian Morewitz, SVP, Drama Development, ABC; Carol Turner, EVP, Production, ABC Signature; Jonathan Groff, Consulting Producer, black-ish; and David Renaud, Producer, The Good Doctor.
Before the floor was open to questions, McNeal talked about how and what decision-makers and gatekeepers are doing to create real impact, how they are using their position of power to bolster an increase in representation on TV and how to create a level playing field for everyone.
One thing that the virtual audience may have noticed that may have raised some eyebrows was that the majority of the panel included white men. Now, there have been many diversity panels in the past that were filled with white men and women with nary a person of color, or someone from the LGBTQ+ or disabled community. This is certainly something to question — and McNeal was aware of this.
“Let’s just state the obvious — you might have noticed the other panelists joining us today are white,” McNeal noted. “That’s not by accident.”
He continued, “Why did we choose them? Because these panelists represent the decision-makers, producers and executives the majority of whom are still white who have the ability and accountability to significantly change mindsets and practices. They can speak to the change that’s happening and progress that we’re making as well as the embracing of new ways of thinking about inclusion.” McNeal went on to say that he does not expect the work towards inclusion and equity to be done solely by people of color, women and those in the margins.
“Inclusion has always been an intention or a thought but trying and planning is not prioritizing,” said Turner. “We are producers and if we want to make something happen we can make anything happen…but we haven’t made this a priority.”
“Once we decided to make inclusion a priority, it was actually easy… it was really about expanding the pool we were hiring from,” she continued. “It was about meeting all the people that we didn’t know that had the experience and expertise that weren’t part of our circles. Once we opened our eyes, it’s been a much more achievable thing that before seemed so insurmountable.”
Morewitz chimed in and said that it was impossible for many of the white execs in the past year to not wake up to the idea that those who make TV and movies are part of the problem. “The kinds of stories we have told for decades have been mostly told through a white male lens,” he said. “I think we realized that different points of view and finding underrepresented voices is key to the change. It’s certainly a work in progress and we are not there yet, but we done a lot of great work this past year to affect some change.”
With the events of last year, primarily the death of George Floyd, McNeal said, “There has definitely been a shift in consciousness that has allowed us to start leaning in to having difficult conversations about the inequity that exists and continues to exist in the entertainment business. Because of those difficult conversations, we have been able to move forward.”
DMA points out that there is a sense that the push for inclusion in Hollywood and the response began after Floyd’s death but it has been happening for so long and there has had considerable impact. She reiterated what Turner said about prioritizing: “Once the decision was made and all of the resources were in place, that was when the everyday inclusion approach really was delivering at a level of new intensity at the company…it was as simple as refocusing and leveraging resources.”
“Talking about race is uncomfortable,” Morewitz stated. “It’s not something we talk about every day in the work environment. It’s gotten more comfortable the more we have done it. We talk about race every day in one way shape or form because we are on the frontlines in development and we are shaping the way these stories are told.”
Hawley referenced a scene on the current season of The Rookie between Nathan Fillion’s John Nolan and a lawyer played by Shawn Ashmore. John is brought in by the police and the two have a conversation about how his treatment as a straight, white man by authorities is different than people of color or of different economic circumstances, the people that Ashmore’s character usually represents.
“Those are scenes you don’t see on television,” said Hawley. “Unfortunately, they are conversations that don’t happen in the world. The majority of white people don’t sit around talking about systemic injustice or race because honestly, they don’t have to. I think that’s the crucial thing that seems to be different now… more and more white people are realizing that they have to have these discussions and that’s the way things are ultimately going to change.”
Later on the panel, Renaud spoke to a community that is often overlooked when it comes to inclusion: the disabled community. Renaud, who is paraplegic, said “I like to think of myself as a success story for the development team. I started off as a program writer and got put into a writers room with the help of Tim at a time when people weren’t thinking about disability as an underrepresented group. I got put in a room and I like to think I had the talent that I belonged in that room. I was allowed to go through the stages of development.”
He continued to say that he worked his way up to a producer who now has a pilot in development at ABC. “You have to allow people into the pipeline; you have to recognize that the different sounding voices and stories are good and helpful and is going to make your show better. You have to allow that person to go up the ranks and continue to climb the ladder and let them tell their story.”