Television shows like “Insecure” and “Atlanta” with several Black writers on staff are anomalies in an industry whose executives too often push those writers to the margins. A new report, released by Color of Change today (November 1), quantifies the dangerous impact of that practice.
“Race in the Writers’ Room: How Hollywood Whitewashes the Stories that Shape America” examines all 234 original scripted series airing on 18 basic cable, premium cable and streaming networks during the 2016-2017 television season. Report author and University of California, Los Angeles scholar Darnell Hunt uses writers’ room demographic information to conclude that most TV executives hire very few Black writers and showrunners.
“Race in the Writers’ Room” also combines Hunt’s findings with testimonies from Black creators. For instance, a woman who is the lone Black writer on multiple procedural crime dramas attests that her shows “had a dynamic where the good guy is White and blue-eyed, and all of the bad people were people of color.”
Here are five key takeaways from the report that illuminate the reality and consequence of this racist practice:
1) Fully 65.4 percent of all TV series writers’ rooms have no Black writers.
An additional 17.3 percent have only one Black writer. Black writers make up only 4.8 percent of all writers’ rooms, while White people constitute 86.3 percent of the whole.
2) Showrunners, the people most responsible for hiring writers, are 91 percent White.
About 69 percent of these showrunners’ programs feature no Black writers.
3) Writers’ rooms with one Black writer tokenize and diminish their contributions.
“They don’t notice us when they [promote writers to higher-level positions],” one Black writer explained. “And the people they keep bumping up are not us.” Another Black writer described career stalling this way: “By the end of the season they’re like, ‘Well you know, we’re not going to have you back next season because we think you just don’t understand the kind of stories we want to tell.’” Each Black writer who experienced this tokenization highlights this predicament: they cannot move up from lower-level positions because their showrunners don’t take their contributions seriously.
4) Networks diversity programs don’t ensure Black writers’ career prospects.
The report noted that every major network except for CBS has a diversity program that subsidizes the hiring of writers of color. But as one Black writer explained, that subsidy often allows showrunners to hire one person of color just to keep up appearances. The writer didn’t know he was hired through the diversity program until his showrunner told him he “was actually going to start costing the production money [now that he had been on staff for two seasons] and they needed to find another person of color who will be cheaper.”
5) Two thirds (66.6 percent) of writers’ rooms hired by Black showrunners feature five or more Black writers.
Writers on shows with Black showrunners testified that the demographics allow for frank conversations about race—including the airing of “dirty laundry”—that contribute to richer characters of color than White showrunners’ predominantly White staffers develop. “Most of us are Black,” one writer said of his work environment. “You have Black families that explain the range of life in those families. So we talk about that very frankly, and I think it’s reflected in our season.”
Read the full report at ColorOfChange.org.