The Writers Guild of America, West issued a new report this week on diversity in TV writers’ rooms. The stats for women or for people of color are not good. Eleven percent of TV shows have no women writers on staff. Over one-third of TV shows have no minority writers on staff.
Television looks pretty inclusive today — it’s certainly miles ahead of the movies — but diversity off-screen is just as important as what’s visible on-screen. Behind the scenes, female writers’ share of TV staff jobs dropped from 30.5 percent last season to 29 percent in the most recent season. Things are even bleaker for minorities, who hold only 13.7 percent of TV staff writer jobs; in the 2011–12 season, they held 15.6 percent. Older writers — “older,” according to the WGAW, means “over 40,” which is a little harsh but, hey, it’s L.A. — “still face steeply declining employment prospects as they age.” Minority television writers have almost doubled their share of staff positions since 2000, which maybe says less about how stellar things are today and more about how abysmal they must have been 15 years ago. And the strides that have been made on that front, it seems, are due more to the influence of a handful of powerful individuals, not an industry-wide shift.
For context, this study looked at the 2,724 writers working on 292 television shows during the 2013–14 season. The stated goal of these reports is to act as “a diagnostic tool” so the WGAW can “increase the employment opportunities of all writers.” Acceptance is the first step in recovery, you know.
“Until the recent rise of multicultural dramas like ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, there had been few successful television dramas that featured a critical mass of minority leading roles or writers.” Basically: thank you, Shonda Rhimes. With the exception of Black-ish, “the black-themed sitcoms of the kind that aired on the defunct UPN and WB networks in the early 2000s have all but disappeared.” These sitcoms — like Moesha, The Bernie Mac Show, Everybody Hates Chris, The Hughleys, Girlfriends, Eve, and The Parkers — “accounted for majority of employed black staff writers.”
Dramas are bad, sitcoms are worse, and late night fares worst of all: women only account for 18 percent of the staff positions on these shows (which include talk shows and game shows), and minorities only hold 3.5 percent of staff positions. White men continue to hold the overwhelming majority of executive producer positions; women only hold 15.1 percent. Breaking it down by individual network, the worst offender is Fox, where women hold only 2.3 percent of executive producer positions. It’s not much better at NBC, though, where women hold 2.7 percent of those spots, or HBO, where women account for 9.5 percent. Minorities only make up a significant share of executive producer positions on three networks, and you can probably guess two of them: BET, El Rey, and FX. At NBC, a grand total of zero executive producer positions are held by minority writers.
So I take it back, it is pretty much all bad news. For everyone, that is, except the group Hollywood considers to be elderly: the over-40 share of staff employment increased to 57 percent, and writers over 40 “continue to dominate the high-status ranks of executive producers.” Good for you, grown-ups! You’ll need those jobs if you want to be able to afford your age bracket’s version of Tinder Plus.
The discussion around television, the shows that are new and exciting and excellent, has lately been inextricable from a conversation about representation. We celebrate the most visible landmarks of inclusion and progress, as well we should. At first glance, the past year appears to have been an outstanding one for diversity. Fresh off the Boat marks the first Asian-American family sitcom to air in over 20 years, is winning critical raves and decent ratings. Empire is a smash; Black-ish is well-reviewed, if losing viewers to the powerhouse that Empire turned out to be. Larry Wilmore is making strides at the helm of The Nightly Show. A trans-focused docu-series, My Transparent Life is headed to ABC Family, which is already home to The Fosters, centered on an interracial lesbian couple and their diverse children, and Switched At Birth, a thoughtful exploration of the nuances within the deaf and hard of hearing community.
The Golden Globes this year felt like a parade of progressive victories: trophies handed out to Gina Rodriguez, the Latina star of the telenovela-inspired delight Jane the Virgin, Jeffrey Tambor and the show on which he stars, Transparent, a huge victory for a show about the transgender experience. Maggie Gyllenhaal, accepting her award for The Honorable Woman, commended the “the wealth of roles for actual women in television and in film.”
It all seems great on the surface. But that’s just the part of progress we can actually see. Because we see actors, but we don’t see writers’ rooms, we can get an outsize sense of just how much progress the entertainment industry is really making. As the report concludes, “Much work remains to be done before diverse writers are adequately incorporated into the television industry, and we are losing ground in this effort as the nation races toward the not-too-distant day when it becomes majority minority.”
Diversifying writers’ rooms isn’t just about checking a bunch of boxes, the report notes. “When diverse voices are marginalized or missing altogether in the writer’s room, it is less likely that the stories told will hit the mark.” The more diverse writers’ rooms are, the more exciting, insightful and outstanding the shows they write can be.