The Writers Guild of America West 2013 TV Staffing Brief, the organization’s analysis of who was hired to write American television shows during the 2011-2012 season, is out, and as usual, the results for women and people of color are not encouraging. Of 1722 writers who wrote for 190 shows, 519 or 30.5 percent of them were women, and 269 of them were people of color. For women, those numbers are up 5 percent from the 1999-2000 television season—as the report put it, “At this rate of increase, it would be another 42 years before women —roughly half of the U.S. population – reach proportionate representation in television staff employment.” And for people of color, the rate of increase is more mixed: the percentage of Asian and Latino writers has risen 2.9 percent since 1999-2000, but the number of African-American television writers has grown much more slowly in the same time period, rising from 5.8 percent to 6.5 percent of overall writers. If the percentage of African-American writers is going to rise just .063 percent, it will take 87 years for black television writers to reach proportional representation in their industry relative to their current presence in the U.S. population.
Part of the reason these numbers are so frustrating to see again and again is that it only takes a few shows to make a difference. As the report points out, “until the recent rise of multicultural dramas like ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal,”—both shows created by Shonda Rhimes— “there had been no successful television dramas that featured a critical mass of minority leading roles or writers.” If all of the 55 shows that hired no writers of color in the 2011-2012 season hired just one person of color to write for them, the representation of writers of color in television would rise three percent. And the examples of a few networks show that it’s not impossible to find women and people of color to hire for all kinds of positions. 50 percent of MTV’s executive producers, 43.5 of the CW’s executive producers, and 38.5 percent of ABC Family’s executive producers are women. 13.3 percent of the executive producers on ABC are people of color, a number likely significantly driven, again, by Shonda Rhimes. 55 percent of BET’s writers are women, and 95 percent of them are people of color. Clearly, there are women and people of color available and eager to work in television, if only someone would think to ask.
Or, as Marlo Thomas put it when I asked her how she found female writers for That Girl, back at a time when television was even more male and white, “Well, you looked for them. You called agents and said ‘What comedy writers do you have that are women? We’re looking for women to write for That Girl’ We’d go to the writers’ agents. Someone would see a name on somebody else’s show and say this stuff’s really good. But when you put out a call like that to agents, agents can’t wait to get jobs for their writers.”
It’s an instruction that the 19 shows that hired no women writers in the 2011-2012 season, and the 55 shows that hired no writers of color during that same time period might take to heart. It’s worth noting that these shows’ lack of diversity doesn’t define all of them. Mike White, who wrote all of the episodes of the first season of Enlightened himself, turned in one of the most complex, sympathetic portrayals of a woman anywhere on television. And Breaking Bad, which employed no writers of color in the 2011-2012 season, produced one of the most nuanced roles for a man of color to appear on screen in the last decade. But just because white men can get it right about women and people of color doesn’t render women and people of color irrelevant—it just means that the standards for white men who are writing female characters or characters of color should be higher. The list of shows that didn’t hire women writers or writers of color in the 2011-2012 season should provide a pretty clear guide to which writers are rising above their own life experiences—and which ones are badly in need of new perspectives in their writers’ rooms:
Television Shows That Hired No Women Writers During The 2011-2012 Season
America’s Funniest Home Videos
Big Time Rush
Comedy Bang! Bang!
Dancing With The Stars
Enlightened (Creator Mike White wrote all the episodes)
Gurland On Gurland
Locke & Key