RACE IN THE WRITERS' ROOM
How Hollywood Whitewashes the Stories that Shape America
A research study by Darnell Hunt, Dean of Social Sciences at UCLA
Foreword by Mara Brock Akil, Creator/Showrunner, Girlfriends, The Game, Being Mary Jane
ABOUT THIS REPORT
This study considered 1,678 first-run episodes from all 234 of the original, scripted comedy and drama series airing or streaming on 18 broadcast, cable, and digital platforms during the 2016-17 television season.
The report demonstrates that the executives running television platforms today—both traditional networks and emerging streaming sites—are not hiring Black showrunners, which results in excluding or isolating Black writers in writers' rooms and in the creative process.
Over 90% of showrunners are white, two-thirds of shows had no Black writers at all, and another 17% of shows had just one Black writer. The ultimate result of this exclusion is the widespread reliance on Black stereotypes to drive Black character portrayals, where Black characters even exist at all—at best, “cardboard” characters, at worst, unfair, inaccurate and dehumanizing portrayals.
Many other studies have shown how dangerous inaccurate portrayals can be—resulting in warped perceptions about Black people and Black communities that perversely inform the decisions of doctors, teachers, voters, police, judges and more.
The report also highlights a pattern of excluding women and people of color in hiring showrunners and writers, and clearly suggests that current industry “diversity” programs are not working to either create success tracks for talented people of color in the industry, or create the range of authentic representations and stories on television that we need to sustain a healthy society.
Color Of Change is the nation’s largest online racial justice organization. As a national force driven by over one million members, Color Of Change moves decision makers throughout the private and public sectors to implement changes in policy and practice that will ultimately create a more human and less hostile world for Black people in America. Color Of Change works across the domains of criminal justice, the economy and work, politics, the environment, media and technology.
The Color Of Change Hollywood project works in partnership with supporters, allies and fair-minded people throughout the entertainment industry to end the practices that lead to the systemic, inaccurate and dehumanizing portrayals of Black people and all marginalized groups in popular media. Those portrayals are the result of both the written rules of policy and the unwritten rules of industry convention and culture, and building on years of success, Color Of Change leads a growing set of initiatives and campaigns that are powerful enough to change them. Research has consistently shown the widespread, real-life harm of consistently inaccurate media representations of Black people, with respect to consequences for Black people in everyday life—unfair and unjust treatment by employers, judges, teachers, doctors, lawmakers, voters and police. Creating a more inclusive industry and changing these practices is a critical organizational mandate. Color Of Change welcomes all those who share its goals.
Parallel to the Hollywood project, Color Of Change maintains a similar effort in partnership with news directors and journalists across the country, aimed at ending the systemic, inaccurate and dehumanizing portrayals of Black people (and issues that affect Black people) in both national and local news and opinion media.
Darnell Hunt is Dean of the Division of Social Sciences and Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Dr. Hunt has written extensively on race and media, including four books and numerous scholarly journal articles and popular magazine articles. Prior to his positions at UCLA, he chaired the Department of Sociology at the University of Southern California (USC).
Over the past two decades, Dr. Hunt has worked on numerous projects exploring the issues of access and diversity in the Hollywood industry. He was lead author of UCLA’s 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 Hollywood Diversity Reports, which provide comprehensive analyses of the employment of women and minorities in front of and behind the camera in film and television. He authored the last six installments of the Hollywood Writers Report, released by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) in 2005, 2007, 2009, 2012, 2014 and 2016. He was principal investigator of The African American Television Report, released by the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) in June of 2000. He has also worked in the media and as a media researcher for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ 1993 hearings on diversity in Hollywood. Recently, he has worked as a consultant on film and television projects focusing on sensitive portrayals of race, ethnicity and other social issues.
Dr. Hunt has also been a frequent public commentator on questions of media and race. He has been interviewed for dozens of television and radio programs on the topic, and the findings of his research studies have been reported in thousands of print, radio, broadcast, and on-line media outlets throughout the United States and abroad. He has also participated in and moderated several panel discussions about media diversity sponsored by entities such as the Federal Communications Commission, the United Nations, the Congressional Black Caucus, and numerous colleges and universities. He was listed among Ebony magazine’s “Power 150 Academia” for 2009-2010.
Rashad Robinson, Executive Director, Color Of Change
Since its beginning, Hollywood has been a hotly contested space for influencing public perception and the cultural norms of our country.
From the military’s well-documented and long-running campaigns to foster pro-war storylines in film, to law enforcement’s cozy relationship with crime show production on television, to the rise of product placement, to politicians’ long-sought legitimacy among both Hollywood donors and the millions of media consumers they influence.
We know that the great majority of television content, however, is not developed in this way. Rather, it is simply the result of who is in charge of decision-making, and what they bring to storytelling: at the network level, at the advertiser level, at the show level and at the episode level.
This report provides fresh insight for understanding that process of decision-making, which begins with understanding who is (and isn’t) making decisions, and how decisions about hiring in the industry a ect decisions about the content it airs.
Decision makers at each level bring assumptions about what is happening or not happen- ing in the world, what audiences will or won’t respond to, who has the talent to make their shows succeed and who doesn’t, and what is an acceptable or unacceptable story. That’s natural. But what is intolerable is not having any checks in place when their assumptions are wrong. What is skewed about the Hollywood system is the degree to which those decision makers can exclude information they don’t want to hear, and people they don’t want to listen to, and avoid consequences for how their decisions a ect people.
The “market” will not solve this problem anymore than it does when we pretend that oil companies can regulate their own impact on the environment, or that technology compa- nies can regulate their own impact on our privacy and security. We need to change the incentives and introduce greater accountability.
Many previous efforts, mild at best, were nonetheless doomed to fail in changing incen- tives. According to this report, the “diversity slot” hire program itself appears to have created a perverse disincentive to true inclusion, whereby showrunners give the appear- ance of inclusion by cycling through people of color writers for the year or two they get them “free of charge,” and then disposing of them once they require a real budget to sup- port (in favor of another, junior “free” writer). And that limits the ability of any critical mass of writers of color to build seniority over time, which is so important for building influence in writers’ rooms.
We know, just to cite one example, that crime procedurals greatly mis-educate the public about both Black people and Black family and community life and also—from their por- trayals of crime science to policing to the courts—how our criminal justice system actual- ly works. They greatly influence the public “truth” about crime, the o icial public story and our common reference points. We know this shapes both what people think about Black people in real life and the public policies and political rhetoric they do or do not support. Presently, however, there are no incentives within the industry—and not nearly enough leverage outside of it—to change the storytelling practices that lead to so much harm. It all comes down to changing the conditions that presently sustain those practices, i.e., the balance of power in writers’ rooms. To do that, we need to get organized.
That is just one example of where Hollywood distorts reality for the worse. Is it surprising, when we see that less than 10% of shows across 18 networks are led by showrunners of color? That AMC, TBS and TNT had both no women showrunners and no people of color showrunners, and CBS, FOX, Hulu and Showtime had no people of color showrunners? That 100% of shows on AMC, Hulu, Showtime and TBS had only one Black writer or none at all, with Hulu having no Black writers at all? That 92% of shows on CBS, which aired 25 original scripted shows last year (second only to Netflix), had either just one Black writer or none at all, the majority with none at all? Or that while CW has become stronger on diversity with respect to race and gender overall, they consistently exclude Black people from that progress, such that 14 of 15 CW shows had only one Black writer or none at all, 11 with none?
When those of us in world of advocacy talk about systemic racism, this is what we are talking about.
It is not surprising that, save the several shows that stand out as powerful examples of progress (Insecure, Atlanta, etc.), the industry as a whole is part of the problems we see today when we look at race and gender dynamics in society. The public—consum- ers—should have a voice in determining the standards for what we see, and whether cur- rent results are good enough. They are not good enough.
Hollywood content is full of contradictions. ABC, FOX and NBC are on the right track with respect to inclusion in many (but certainly not all respects). While ABC and FOX, in partic- ular, have engineered major turnarounds in popularity and success (and profit) with the decision to support the creative voices of Black creators, showrunners and writers, most others have dug in their heels, even in the face of those successes.
CBS, once the champion of Norman Lear’s record-breaking lineup of successful shows, including All in the Family, The Je ersons and Maude, as well as the home of shows like M*A*S*H, is now digging in its heels to defend writers’ rooms that systematically exclude non-white people, and target white audiences with regressive “white shows” in which people of color do not exist in a meaningful way. AMC and Amazon, among the worst in terms of excluding Black showrunners and writers, are troubling in that they are relatively new platforms for influencing the trends of original content on TV, and their trend is not good. Netflix is currently the largest producer of television content in terms of the sheer number of original scripted shows, and while some signs are encouraging, they have a long way to go.
Even NBC, the same network that has made strides in creating an empathetic, multi- racial story world through This Is Us, also readily made Donald Trump a star through The Apprentice, thereby giving legitimacy to his anti-Black “birther” movement and anti- Mexican tirades, all the way through to having him host Saturday Night Live in the middle of his campaign.
Women, immigrants, queer and trans people, Native Americans, working people, people with disabilities and people of color—especially Black people—are caught in the cross- hairs of these contradictions. It is time for those of us who are most impacted to have a voice in how Hollywood works. Given the detailed, first-of-its-kind findings in this report, which confirm what far too many have experienced and known for years, we must make a major shift.
While the report presents many striking findings, a few stand out, providing an overall picture of the problem of Hollywood executives excluding people of color and women. For additional findings (e.g., the severe lack of Black writers on crime procedural shows), read the full report.
While two-thirds of all shows across 18 networks did not have any Black writers, and another 17% had just one Black writer, not all networks are the same with respect to exclusion.
AMC stands out as having the worst inclusion problem overall: both women and people of color, both showrunners and writers. Eight networks excluded Black showrunners and writers the most, while CW and CBS were notable for generally including women and people of color, while excluding Black talent specifically.
On the whole, the industry does not include people of color—91% of showrunners are white, and 86% of writers are white. 80% of showrunners are men.
Showrunner exclusion is particularly troubling because it leads to writer exclusion—while all Black showrunners include white writers in their rooms, white showrunners tend to exclude Black writers, with 69% of white showrunner shows having no Black writers at all.
As part of this first-of-its-kind study, we have created a definitive chart that breaks down inclusion and exclusion practices across 18 individual networks that have tremendous influence over the television landscape and the thoughts, feelings and perceptions of millions of viewers.
Industry executives, network by network and with the support of influential industry bodies outside those networks, must implement an equivalent of the Rooney Rule in the NFL and the Mansfield Rule among law firms: changing hiring practices by mandating genuine inclusion in the application, interview and assessment process.
Rather than just talking a big game or holding up Emmy wins that, in truth, provide a misleading impression of their commitments, networks must set public goals for inclusion in both hiring and cultivating talent, and in the content they produce—public goals with real, public budgets and shifts in practice attached to them, to which they can be held accountable by the public.
Networks must pay attention to the dynamics within shows at their point of inception, where the patterns of inclusion are typically set quite firmly, and make key interventions at those points, rather than leaving issues of inclusion to be “definitely addressed down the road.”
Networks must shoulder the responsibility for tracking progress, committing to transparency and committing to funding that will sustain regular, independent reports, assessment and evaluations such as this study. This especially applies to the new content platforms emerging from Silicon Valley, which consistently prize their data as privileged information, though it has such great public impact, and though their metrics are often exposed as coding various troubling biases into their methodologies and results.
Networks and showrunners must develop a more regular and credible process and set of protocols for engaging outside expert groups when sensitive issues are at play, especially when they remain below a basic threshold for inclusion in their writers’ rooms.
Broader industry actors and social justice advocates must begin a process of evaluating the impact of crime television, in particular, and create the leverage necessary to change practices—an effort Color Of Change is already initiating.
With respect to content, advocates and industry influencers must also rally and work together to—once and for all—rid the most egregiously inaccurate and harmful stereo- typing practices and conventions (and the most inaccurate “conventional wisdom” about race and gender).
Industry organizations like SAG, WGA, DGA, crew guilds and others must continue to speak out and leverage their unique voice: from raising the profile of efforts to change the industry from within, to supporting advocates and lawmakers working on the outside to align state and local public policies with e ective incentives toward creating system change, e.g., passing laws like New York’s Diversity Tax Incentive.
Journalists must start examining and exposing how those with influence in society at large skew content: police departments influencing production companies’ inaccurate representations of policing, health corporation advertisers influencing storylines about health and safety (as just one example of corporate influence), law enforcement and military law enforcement influencing the portrayals of unfairly targeted groups, from Black mothers to Brown immigrants and Muslims.