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Report: Diversity Remains a Crippling Problem in TV Writers’ Rooms

Report: Diversity Remains a Crippling Problem in TV Writers' Rooms

Despite ostensible improvements in TV representation over the past few years, a new report released by the Writers Guild of America West (WGAW) rather firmly makes the case that things aren’t getting that much better.

READ MORE: Filmmaker Survey: Is Diversity Important? And What’s the Best Way to Achieve It?

As part of the WGAW 2015 TV Staffing Brief, “The State of Diversity in Writing for Television” shows proportional declines for both women and minorities employed as TV staff writers. Moreover, the data indicates that these numbers only get worse when moving beyond standard scripted programming. 

This television season has sent a loud and clear message to television executives: Diverse programming is both essential and profitable. From monster hits (“Empire”) to critical darlings (“Black-ish”), it seems that every success story to come out of a major network since last fall has been made possible due to the broadening of who’s getting represented on-screen. In “Fresh Off the Boat,” it’s an Asian-American family; in “How to Get Away with Murder,” an African American female law professor; and in “Empire,” a hip-hop dynasty. 

These shows aren’t just exploring the stories of women and people of color in greater numbers and with more complexity — we’re seeing new points-of-view from the inside out. For The New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum recently wrote that “Black-ish” presents its stories as “inside jokes in an outside voice.”

But, as the WGAW reminds, these new shows are only making a small dent in a distressingly-homogenous whole.
“Over the years, the fortunes of diverse writers in the television sector have ebbed and flowed. While the general pattern consists of an upward trajectory in diverse sector employment, the rate of progress has failed to keep pace with the rapid diversification of the nation’s population. This is significant not only in terms of employment opportunity but also in terms of industry bottom-line considerations,” noted the report’s author, Dr. Darnell M. Hunt, director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA and professor of sociology. “Indeed, research is beginning to confirm the common-sense notion that increasingly diverse audiences desire more diverse storytelling. When diverse voices are marginalized or missing altogether in the writers’ room, it is less likely that the stories told will hit the mark.”
Here are the major findings in the report:
Women writers accounted for 29 percent of TV staff employment during the 2012-13 season, down from 30.5 percent in 2011-12.
— Minorities accounted for 13.7 percent of TV staff employment during the 2013-14 season, down from 15.6 percent in 2011-12.
— During the 2013-2014 season, 61.2 percent of minority staff writers worked on 60-minute shows, while only 38.2 percent worked on 30-minute shows. Multiracial writers and Latino writers were among the most likely minority writers to staff 60-minute shows – 69.6 percent of the time (48 writers) and 65.3 percent of the time (49 writers), respectively.
— During the 2013-14 season, women occupied only 18 percent of other programming staff positions (compared to 29 percent overall) and minorities claimed only 3.5 percent of these positions (compared to 13.7 percent overall). 
— Women were underrepresented by a factor of nearly 3 to 1 in other programming staff positions and minorities by nearly 11 to 1.
— Minorities occupied only 5.5 percent of Executive Producer positions during the 2013-14 season, down from 7.8 percent in 2011-12. 
— During the 2013-2014 season, minorities were underrepresented by a factor of more than 2 to 1 among writers staffing shows at the major broadcast networks. 
— Minorities claimed 16.1 percent of the positions at ABC, 14.2 percent of the positions at NBC, 13.9 percent of the positions at Fox, and just 11.3 percent of the positions at CBS (where minorities were underrepresented by a factor of more than 3 to 1 among writers).
Despite “periodic advances and pockets of promise,” Hunt asserts the same-old, same-old: “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… Findings like these highlight a glaring disconnect between the increasing diversity of audiences and business-as-usual practices in the Hollywood industry. The fact is that writers’ rooms simply do not reflect the America of today or the America that is steadily emerging.”

READ MORE: Sorry, Ladies: Study on Women in Film and Television Confirms the Worst

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