Study: Less than 5 percent of television writers are black, 65 percent of writing rooms have zero black writers
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Study: Less than 5 percent of television writers are black, 65 percent of writing rooms have zero black writers

The Thanksgiving episode of ‘Master of None’ is considered a beacon of black storytelling. Waithe won an Emmy for Best Comedy Writing for the series, the first black woman to do so. 

A new report, commissioned by racial justice organization Color of Change, is pointing out the lack of black writers in U.S. television writing rooms, and how that correlates to how black people are portrayed on television.

Networks and streaming companies are systematically excluding black talent from the writers’ room, according to the research. The study examined all 234 of the original, scripted comedy and drama series airing or streaming on eighteen networks during the 2016-2017 television season. Strikingly, 65 percent of all writers’ rooms had zero black writers, and less than 5 percent of writers were black. These hiring decisions are made by showrunners, and the report finds that 91 percent of showrunners across all 18 networks were white and 80 percent were men. The report finds that in the 17 percent of cases where there is a single Black writer in a room, they are often excluded from influencing the creative process—especially when it comes to topics of race—and passed over for advancement. Out of nine procedural crime dramas analyzed, zero had black showrunners, and only one had multiple black writers Only 13.6 percent of shows led by white showrunners had two or more black writers in the writers’ room. By contrast, every writers’ room led by a black showrunner had multiple white writers.

“The outrageous level of exclusion in writers’ rooms has real-life consequences for black people, people of color and women. While shows like Queen Sugar and Insecure boast diverse writers’ rooms and stand out as powerful examples of progress, the industry as a whole is failing. Hollywood executives make decisions every day about who gets hired. Their exclusion of black showrunners and writers results in content—viewed by millions of Americans, year after year—that advances harmful stereotypes about black people, and creates a more hostile world for black people in real life. Hollywood must do better,” said Rashad Robinson, Executive Director of Color Of Change. 

Darrell Hunt, the UCLA professor commissioned by COC to do the study said, “Leaders in the entertainment industry today realize they are going to have to adapt to changing market conditions with respect to content. We know it’s profitable to create more diverse content, even though the conventional wisdom about what sells—and how marketable and profitable genuinely multi-racial content is—often trails quite far behind the data. The exclusion of black writers from television writers’ rooms has far-reaching consequences. Too often, the exclusion of black writers from writers’ rooms results in content that furthers stereotypical, inaccurate and harmful representations of black people. This dynamic is especially evident in the proliferation of harmful stereotypes about black people in procedural crime dramas. One black writer, who worked on several crime procedurals for which she was the lone black writer, described how “we had a dynamic where the good guy is white and blue-eyed and all of the bad people were people of color.”

The report also talks about the problems with “diversity programs” that are often utilized by these networks in order to get talent of color. It says that these programs, “may actually create a perverse disincentive to real inclusion of black writers and authentic portrayals of Black people in writers’ rooms. Multiple writers interviewed in the report say that showrunners often cycle through writers of color for the year or two they get them “free of charge” through the network diversity programs, and then dispose of them once they require a real budget to support (in favor of another, junior “free writer). This cycle gives a false appearance of inclusion, while actually limiting the ability of a critical mass of writers of color to build seniority over time and gain influence in the industry.”

You can view this full report at ColorofChange.

Shadow and Act is a website dedicated to cinema, television and web content of Africa and its global Diaspora. With daily news, interviews, in-depth investigations into the audiovisual industry, and more, Shadow and Act promotes content created by and about people of African descent throughout the world.

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