The explosion of streaming platforms and the never-ending glut of new TV shows have created the perception — at least in theory — that there are more ways than ever for TV writers from historically underrepresented groups to develop their own work and find outlets for more diverse and inclusive storytelling, thus improving representation on-screen.
In practice, however, it’s far more complicated.
Industry leaders and gatekeepers still seem to be putting forth only a modicum of effort toward inclusion and equity. In addition, the relentless pace and frequency of producing new shows has kept many TV writers stuck at low- and mid-level jobs and jumping from show to show, leaving them fewer opportunities to gain management skills to advance to leadership roles. These are some of the key themes from the latest annual survey of 876 working TV writers in Hollywood, released Tuesday by the Think Tank for Inclusion and Equity, which works to promote more inclusion and equity in TV writing.
For the past four years, the group, in partnership with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, has conducted the survey and focus groups in order to identify career advancement barriers for TV writers from historically excluded communities (defined as women; Black, Indigenous and other people of color; LGBTQ people; and disabled people). They’ve especially worked to pinpoint the structural issues keeping historically excluded TV writers from ascending to leadership positions like showrunners and creators. It’s there that TV writers have the power to effect substantial change, such as shaping what stories get told on-screen, how they get told, and the workplace culture.
“There is a desire to provide inclusive content, but there are still many obstacles throughout the pipeline to achieving it,” TTIE wrote in its report. “It is crucial that historically excluded writers continue to work their way up the ranks, develop and helm their own projects, and have their voices valued.”
One positive outcome from this year’s survey is a marked decline in the number of historically excluded writers continuing to hold the title of staff writer for multiple years instead of getting promoted, a trend identified in previous surveys.
But many long-standing obstacles and disparities remain, especially for TV writers trying to gain the skills and experience to lead writers rooms and develop their own shows. For instance, TV writers with ideas for their own shows are often expected to develop those ideas while being unpaid. Writers from historically excluded backgrounds were more likely to do unpaid development work (70%), compared to 53% of nonmarginalized writers, according to the survey.
In addition, there’s a racial disparity in who gets to be in charge of their own shows. The survey found that white writers with no prior management experience were more likely to be chosen to serve as showrunner on their project than BIPOC writers who already had prior management experience.
The findings illustrate that “historically excluded writers aren’t empowered to tell their own stories or run their own shows,” resulting in diversity without inclusion. In its report, TTIE wrote that some TV writers in the focus groups “went as far as to suggest that inclusion in development may be little more than performative — that buyers develop their projects with no intent to produce them.”
As one Latina writer, who was hired on a show by a white creator, said in a focus group: “That’s their version of diversity. It’s just white people telling those stories. Throw the ‘salsa’ in at the last minute, but that’s just for optics and the optics are complete bullshit. The ‘salsa’ never makes it in because you’re not the creator.”
Another focus group participant, who is disabled, described being an unpaid consultant for a show. “This industry tells our stories all the time … but they don’t want to actually work with Disabled people or let Disabled people take the reins and tell their own stories. And so we are constantly being asked to come in and even for free,” the TV writer said, according to TTIE’s report. “I go into a meeting. I’m excited about it. I think I’m meeting with these producers … [but] they’re bringing me in to sort of pick my brain. And I realized, ‘Oh my God, I’m not in an interview. I am being used.’”
Other survey respondents described similar experiences of tokenization:
- “I spent months being treated as a consultant rather than as a writer. I could answer questions about Natives, but pitches were generally unwelcome and input on non-Native storylines was generally ignored.”
- “[An executive producer] on a project felt that the show had ‘too many Asian characters’ and would bristle when any new Asian characters were pitched. This EP never raised concerns over the higher number of white characters.”
The survey also documented that TV writers routinely experience harassment, discrimination, bullying and microaggressions, with 60% of respondents saying they’ve had these experiences. In addition, 52% of writers said they had experienced colleagues “rejecting their ideas but accepting them when someone else pitches the same idea later,” 34% said they felt tokenized at work, and 24% said they’ve experienced someone else taking credit for their ideas. TV writers from underrepresented communities are often faced with the burden of calling out offensive storylines. In the survey, 31% of respondents said they had a negative experience when having to do so.
Creating an inclusive and equitable workplace culture comes from the top, which is why one of TTIE’s key recommendations is better and more accessible training programs for showrunners (who are still overwhelmingly white and male). Of the survey respondents who said they are showrunners, 76% “said they received no management training prior to or during their time running a show,” and 48% “said they could use help learning about best practices related to EDI (equity/diversity/inclusion).”
Another barrier to career advancement for TV writers has emerged from the reduced dominance of network TV and the profusion of premium cable and streaming shows. These shows tend to have fewer episodes, a smaller staff of writers, and more time in between writing and shooting the show. As a result, TV writers on these shows are less likely to get to be on set and take part in the production process, which would give them exposure and experience to ascend to upper-level roles. Writers often have to jump from show to show more frequently, rather than getting to move up the ranks on a single show. That affects the pipeline of writers becoming showrunners and creators — as one focus group participant, a Black woman in an upper-level role, explained.
“I think it’s setting up a pipeline for those maybe more experienced … EP-level [cisgender, heterosexual] white guys to say, ‘Well, they need us, because we have all the production experience,’” she said.
Finally, TTIE’s report also explores the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on TV writers. It recommends that TV writers rooms continue to meet over Zoom or in hybrid formats, a practice which has improved access and equity.
As one focus group participant described, being on Zoom has meant experiencing fewer microaggressions at work. “I am bad at fixing my face. This is something I’ve learned because of Zoom and, as a Black woman, there are often times that I am interpreted as having an attitude or being super sensitive,” the TV writer said. “And so turning my camera off has helped me keep my job at times, whereas I know my face is going to betray me.”
For those at increased risk for COVID-19, being able to work remotely “can be the difference between life and death,” the report said. As one focus group participant who is “severely immunocompromised” said: “I cannot go back to [an in-person] room because if I catch COVID, I’ll die. … [The Zoom room] is working pretty good for me, but it’s like everybody else’s conversation is ‘I’d be more comfortable in a live room for social comfort.’ I’m like, ‘I’ll die, or I won’t be able to work.’”
Read TTIE’s full findings and recommendations here.