As TV Seeks Diverse Writing Ranks, Rising Demand Meets Short Supply
Posted September 2, 2018 4:55 p.m. EDT
Dailyn Rodriguez, a veteran writer and producer, said she was not necessarily looking to work on a new show for the coming season. But she suddenly found herself in high demand, her agents constantly fielding calls about her availability.
She was what one Hollywood executive called a “unicorn” — not just a Latina, but one who had risen through the television ranks.
“They told me, ‘We’re scrambling, because there’s like five of you, and they’re all working,'” said Rodriguez, who turned down other offers to remain a producer of “Queen of the South.”
With dozens of shows now in production, television executives are hustling to diversify their writers’ rooms, the hidden nuclei of Hollywood where stories, dialogue and characters are born, and where the showrunners of tomorrow are created.
In more than three dozen interviews, writers, producers, and studio and network executives said heightened scrutiny in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite and other controversies has led to the concerted push, particularly for women of color in senior positions.
A deluge of shows in this age of peak TV, with Netflix, Amazon, HBO and other services greenlighting new offerings almost daily, has also stoked demand. Many of these new series have people of color and women as lead characters, in turn pushing minorities and women to the center of the writing staff, a major step forward for writers who say they have long felt like window dressing.
There is also a hunger to replicate the success of shows like “Empire,” “Jane the Virgin” and “Power”; to discover the next Lee Daniels, Ava DuVernay or Shonda Rhimes; or to cultivate critical darlings like Issa Rae and Donald Glover.
“Everyone is eager to find that person,” said Christy Haubegger, an agent at Creative Artists Agency who focuses on diversity. Haubegger has fielded so many requests for experienced writers of color that she recently created an online database, so networks and producers could look for themselves. “The demand has been that high,” she said. “I can’t service everybody in town.”
But a major reason these seasoned writers are suddenly batting away job offers is that relatively few are in the supply chain. It is a problem of Hollywood’s own making.
Plenty of minority and female writers are looking for jobs, but may be unknown to or overlooked by showrunners, unrepresented by agencies, or seen as lacking in experience. “The pool is wide but not deep” is a common refrain. Even those at the forefront of diversification efforts acknowledge that a shortage exists. Not enough minority women have been groomed for senior writing jobs, a function not only of the industry’s white male focus, but also of rarefied access, discrimination in promotions, and low entry-level pay. Whenever Jamila Hunter, head of comedy at ABC Entertainment, visits historically black colleges and talks about jobs in Hollywood, she finds herself outgunned by recruiters from Wall Street and Silicon Valley who lure graduates with tantalizing salaries. She can promise only years of dues-paying in expensive Los Angeles.
Even then, there is no guarantee, given the fierce competition. “It’s an industry of privileged apprenticeship,” Hunter said. “Economically, there is not a pipeline for them.”
— The Cascading Effect of Diversity
Hollywood’s writing staffs remain overwhelmingly dominated by white men. On more than 200 series in the 2016-17 season, just 13.7 percent of television writers were people of color, according to a report conducted by Darnell Hunt, the dean of social sciences at UCLA, for the advocacy group Color of Change. Among showrunners, the executives who have total creative and management control, and who often start out as writers, more than nine of 10 were white, and 80 percent were male.
“There’s no one who thinks, ‘I don’t want a woman to direct my show,’ or ‘I only want white men writing this,'” said Sarah Aubrey, an executive with TNT. “But when you’re in the trenches and it’s crunchtime, it is, ‘What is my go-to and shortlist of people I know and trust?’ You have to expand your circle.”
While staffing statistics are not yet available for this year, female and minority writers and showrunners said they were seeing more people who look like them running rooms.
The vast quantity of new programming has opened doors that did not exist a few years ago. Some of these shows have among the most diverse staffs in television, including “Dear White People,” “Seven Seconds,” “Pose” and “Master of None.”
Before writer and producer LaToya Morgan signed her second coveted overall deal with AMC — it gives the network ownership over everything she produces, and provides lucrative job security in return — she fielded multiple requests from potential employers. Morgan said she knew several other women of color in the same position. “There are a lot of cool and great opportunities that I don’t think were there before,” she said. This has a cascading effect. “When there are more women in charge, more women are hired, said Felicia D. Henderson, a longtime writer-producer whose credits include “The Punisher” and “Empire.” “When there are more black showrunners, there are more black writers on staff.”
Having female or minority writers can have an enormous effect on what goes onscreen. Stereotypes can be challenged and questions asked, such as: Why does the black doctor have to have a bullet wound linked to a gangster past, rather than be a middle-class nerd who has never been shot? Why are female characters described in terms of their looks?
And when there is more than one woman or minority writer in the room, several writers said, they are more likely to be heeded, and less likely to be called on as the voice of all women or people of color. Courtney Kemp, the showrunner of “Power,” calls the phenomenon “Blackipedia, or Blacktionary,” and said, “It’s exhausting.”
At the same time, some female and minority writers question whether they are being courted because of a genuine push for diversity, or simply because male showrunners want cover from criticism.
Kiersten Van Horne, a producer on “Berlin Station” and “Mistresses,” said she has been told in recent months, “They’re looking for an upper-level female” and “they’re looking for diverse candidates at X level.”
Sono Patel, who is of South Asian descent and worked as a producer and writer on “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” said she had been told on a few occasions that she lost out on jobs because the showrunner wanted a black writer. “We still look like checked boxes,” she said. Even as women and people of color struggle to get ahead, there are rumblings of a backlash from men in the industry. The concerns have intensified amid the storm of #MeToo allegations about sexism and sexual harassment, which led to the suspensions of prominent male showrunners like Andrew Kreisberg (“Supergirl” and “Arrow”) and Brad Kern (“Charmed” and “NCIS: New Orleans”).
Tracey Scott Wilson, who was a supervising producer on “The Americans,” mentors younger colleagues, and said she had met white male writers who believe they were passed over because a minority or woman got their slot, even though other white men ended up being hired. “That mythology is out there and it’s poisonous,” she said.
David Slack, a writer and executive producer whose credits include “Law & Order” and “Person of Interest,” said he knew several young male writers whose agents told them they lost out on jobs because of diversity pushes and #MeToo.
Slack said he had also heard grousing about Tanya Saracho staffing her Starz show “Vida” with all Hispanic writers, and about the predominantly female writing staff of the Netflix wrestling dramedy “Glow.”
“If guys are mad about this stuff, they’re mad about things being slightly less unfair in their favor,” Slack said.
— Getting In and Getting Ahead
The traditional path to a television writing job starts with serving as a writer’s assistant — tasks include taking notes and doing research — which can lead to work as a staff writer. There are generally seven levels above that, carrying greater seniority and higher salaries, and it usually takes up to a decade to make it to the top spots of co-executive producer, executive producer and showrunner.
Noelle Valdivia, a producer on the Amazon series “Goliath,” said she remembered being one of only one or two assistants of color when she started in the industry 12 years ago. People continue to hire alumni from their colleges or family friends, she said, and there still are not many writers’ assistants of color.
“Everyone wants to hire diverse writers,” she said. “But they didn’t create them.” Studios and networks have made efforts to bring along young minority writers and women. There are highly selective fellowships for up-and-comers, most of them writers of color. And, as an incentive for production companies to avoid homogeneous writing staffs, networks usually cover the salary of a so-called “diversity hire.”
But the programs can carry a stigma. Saracho, of “Vida,” said on the first day of her first television writing job in 2012, a colleague leaned over and said, “You know you’re the diversity hire, right?”
Paradoxically, some of these efforts also have the effect of miring young writers in low-level jobs, in what Rodriguez calls “the diversity ghetto.” After going through the Disney/ABC program, Marqui Jackson, a writer for “The Resident,” languished in the equivalent of a series of entry-level positions for years as fellow writers, mostly white and male, were promoted. “They only wanted to hire me when they could get me for free,” Jackson said.
One network that forged its own solution was FX, which in 2015 was called out for having the least diverse roster of directors. Since then, the number of FX series directed by white men has dropped from 88 percent to 51 percent.
“We wanted to accept the shame that had been heaped upon us, and prove it wasn’t a given,” said John Landgraf, FX’s chief executive.
FX had historically favored directors with extensive episodic television experience, which many women and people of color had not been given the opportunity to amass. To make the shift, the network looked to directors of short films, music videos, and independent films.
“It unlocked a huge amount of talent and potential that was simply being overlooked,” Landgraf said. He singled out Hiro Murai, who had never directed narrative television before the FX hit “Atlanta,” and has since earned an Emmy nomination.
Landgraf noted that the network still had work to do. Just a third of its senior writers and executive producers in the 2018 season were people of color or women.
This disparity and lag represent the paradox of the moment. The numbers may still be bad, said Haubegger, the agent, “but they’ve never been better.”
“The good news,” she said, “is we can’t fall off the floor.”
VOICES: INSIDE THE WRITERS’ ROOM
Cheo Hodari Coker, ‘Marvel’s Luke Cage’
Creator, executive producer, and showrunner of “Marvel’s Luke Cage” (Netflix); previously a writer-producer for “Ray Donovan,” among other series. He got his television start on “Southland” in 2009.
There was a show where one of the characters was overtly racist. In the writers’ room, they didn’t want to use the N-word, but they were trying to think of something else. And every single epithet you could imagine, it was just coming out, just pitching different words. And I felt myself getting angrier and angrier. I had to get up and walk out.
Workwise, it had to happen, from talking in character. It still did not mean it wasn’t hard. The thing about being black in a mostly white industry, particularly as a black male, is you can’t lose your temper in the same way. Essentially you are an angry black man losing his temper in a way that’s unprofessional, as opposed to an industry that has protected unprofessional white males in perpetua.
Things are changing, things are getting better. The one thing I specifically see happening now is there are more black showrunners of both genders than any other time in television.
Adele Lim, ‘Crazy Rich Asians’
A producer and screenwriter whose television credits include “Lethal Weapon” (Fox), “Reign” and “Private Practice”; she also co-wrote the film adaptation of “Crazy Rich Asians.”
Writers I love and respect will tell me, “Oh you’re a unicorn, you’re a higher-level female writer who’s also a minority, and you’re good.” If you don’t hit the mark and you happen to be a minority, your showrunner will assume it’s because you’re a minority that you’re not hitting the mark.
Tracey Scott Wilson, ‘The Americans’
A co-executive producer of the recently ended FX series “The Americans” and a television veteran of 12 years who is also a playwright.
All this talk of inclusion, inclusion, inclusion. It’s fine when it’s not B.S. But a lot of it means a producer took a previously white male lead and is now going to make it a black female lead. And they say we need someone as a black co-writer. I get calls like that all the time. I jokingly call it a ghetto pass. Some creators have no interest in making the characters specific and grounding them in their race and/or sex. And you know you’re there for the racial angle.
“The Americans” was a great experience. I felt heard, and I never felt like I couldn’t express myself.
Nadria Tucker, ‘Krypton’
A former journalist who joined the television industry in 2016. Her writing credits include “Krypton” (Syfy) and “Underground” (WGN America).
This past year, I had a producer tell me, with regard to a female executive he was complaining about, “Don’t send a girl in to do a man’s job.” He’s no longer a producer. And there was a showrunner who, when I was working with another woman sharing an office, would say, “Hey, the women of color lounge!” He’s no longer with the show. In a lot of cases the person doing the weird thing is the person in charge. There’s really nowhere you can go.
Sarah Treem, ‘The Affair’
Co-creator and showrunner of “The Affair” (Showtime) and a producer on “In Treatment” and “House of Cards”; also a playwright with 11 years of television experience.
I tipped the scale for the fourth season [of “The Affair"] to more women than men. And it worked so much better. My writers’ room was much more collaborative, better team players, all the stereotypes. The nature of the business is whose voice is the loudest, who can pitch the hardest, you succeed on other people’s failures.
But to have a room with a competitive spirit doesn’t work for a show like mine. Also we have a significant age range in our room, from writers in their mid 20s to 60-plus, which I think helps diversity. Just, in my experience, the more disparate people’s respective experiences, the more powerful the room.