Hollywood prides itself on its progressive politics.
But the self-congratulatory liberal bastion has its own problems with diversity, particularly in regards to the showrunners — executive producers and head writers who make hiring decisions — and TV writers who shape story lines and characters, according to a report commissioned by the racial justice organization Color of Change.
And efforts over two decades to diversify the writers’ rooms at TV networks have largely failed, the report found.
Research has shown that television has a powerful influence in shaping views about African Americans.
“It’s important that Hollywood showrunners and writers recognize that many of the narratives they put out in the world and how they do business is not in the spirit of who they claim to be,” Hunt said.
The 83-page study examined 234 comedy and drama series across 18 broadcast, cable and digital platforms in the 2016–2017 season.
Here’s a snapshot of what they found:
- Fewer than 10 percent of the shows were led by minority showrunners
- 14 percent of writers across all shows were members of a minority group, even though minorities represent nearly 40 percent of the population
- Two-thirds of the shows had no black writers
- Black writers overall accounted for less than 5 percent of the 3,817 writers across the shows, even though black people make up 13 percent of the population
- More than 90 percent of the shows on CBS — which aired 25 scripted shows last season, second only to Netflix, and is the most-watched network — had either just one black writer or none at all
The lack of diversity extended across all platforms, including digital spaces such as Hulu. The report also singled out AMC and Amazon for failing to include black showrunners and writers. (Jeffrey P. Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, owns The Washington Post). The report said the lack of diversity at AMC and Amazon was especially troubling given their relatively new status as influencers of TV content.
“We need to change that because television is not just entertainment,” Hunt said. “Media images do matter, particularly for people who don’t have a lot of face-to-face encounters with people who are not like them. A lot of what they learn about people is what they see in these images.”
Representatives of the networks either declined to speak on the record or did not respond to requests for comment.
Hunt said some shows that may employ black writers fell outside of the time period of the databases consulted by the study, which he acknowledged captured only a “snapshot” of Hollywood. He examined everything categorized as “currently” streaming, airing or in production as of December 2016.
An executive for a streaming network said platforms such as Amazon, Hulu and Netflix try to foster diverse voices by paying for the exclusive rights to run shows created by other networks. In doing so, streaming platforms create an economic incentive for traditional network studios to continue producing diverse content such as ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” a sitcom about a Chinese American family based on chef Eddie Huang’s memoir.
Netflix, ABC, Comedy Central and HBO were the only platforms that had more than one show headed by a minority showrunner, the study found. Those platforms, plus FX and Fox, were also the only ones that had shows with five or more black writers. (A typical writers’ room includes between nine and 12 writers.)
The study considered 1,678 episodes to see how the racial makeup of the writers’ rooms impacted storylines, focusing on depictions of black family and culture and the criminal justice system, and how they acknowledged and dealt with racial inequality.
Hunt found that shows lead by black showrunners, such as FX’s “Atlanta,” a show created by Donald Glover about three black millennials, or by white showrunners who hired diverse writers were more likely to acknowledge the existence of racial inequality and to attribute it to structural racism.
White-dominated writers’ rooms are more likely to produce shows with stereotypical story lines and one-dimensional black “sidekicks” to white central characters.
The networks have tried to add more minorities to writers’ rooms through various diversity initiatives in recent decades. But the “diversity slot” program, which pays for one minority writer out of the network’s budget — and not the show’s — creates its own set of problems, the report says.
The minority writers are often seen as “tokens,” and are rarely rehired when the season is over because the executive producers know the network will send the show another minority writer for “free.”
“The result is these black writers are not taken seriously in the writers’ rooms,” Robinson said. “Part of any job, to be able to have influence, is to have seniority — to move up and have more credits in your name, to eventually be a showrunner where you can have the ability to hire other writers.”
Too many industries, from Silicon Valley to Hollywood, try to solve their diversity problems without truly examining structural barriers that exclude, rather than advance, minority talent, Robinson said.
The report recommended networks encourage inclusive hiring by funding “diversity slots” on shows that already have a track record in diverse hiring and story telling.
The industry should also implement a rule similar to one in the NFL that would mandate minorities be considered throughout the hiring process. And networks should track their progress and make their goals public so they can be held accountable.