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% of all writers’ rooms had zero Black writers, and less than 5% of writers were Black. These hiring decisions are made by showrunners, and the report finds that 91% of showrunners across all 18 networks were white and 80% were men.
“The outrageous level of exclusion in writers’ rooms has real-life consequences for Black people, people of color and women” said Rashad Robinson, Executive Director of Color Of Change. “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.”
While executives and showrunners mostly exclude Black talent completely, the report finds that in the 17% 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.
Color Of Change commissioned Darnell Hunt, Dean of Social Sciences and Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at UCLA to produce Race In The Writer’s Room: How Hollywood Whitewashes The Stories That Shape America. Mara Brock Ali, the creator of Girlfriends and Being Mary Jane, also authored a foreword, sharing her experiences as a Black woman showrunner in Hollywood.
“Leaders in the entertainment industry today realize they are going to have to adapt to changing market conditions with respect to content” said Hunt. “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 finds that diversity programs common at the major networks are failing to meaningfully increase opportunity for Black writers and other writers of color. According to the report, these programs—in which networks subsidize a writer of color on each of their current shows for a “diversity slot” hire—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.
Selected findings from the report include:
- 65% of shows had zero Black writers, and only 17% had two or more Black writers
- 91% of shows were led by white showrunners (80% by men), only 5% were led by Black showrunners
- AMC stands out as the worst on overall inclusion (race and gender), while CBS and CW stand out as broadcast networks with a “Black Problem,” hiring women and other people of color writers but not Black writers
- Out of nine procedural crime dramas analyzed, zero had Black showrunners, and only one had multiple Black writers
- Only 13.6% 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.
In the report, Color Of Change also lays out concrete recommendations for television networks and streaming companies to address this problem:
- Network executives must change hiring practices by mandating genuine inclusion in the outreach, application, interview and assessment process (like the NFL’s Rooney Rule and law firms’ Mansfield Rule)
- Networks must set public goals for inclusion in hiring and cultivating talent—and the content they produce—supported by real budgets, concrete shifts in practices and transparency
- Advocates and industry influencers must also rally and work together to—once and for all—rid the most egregiously inaccurate and harmful stereotyping with respect to race and gender
- Networks and showrunners must develop a more regular, credible process and set of protocols for engaging outside expert groups when sensitive issues of race are at play in storytelling, especially for rooms that remain below a basic threshold for inclusion
This report was commissioned by Color Of Change’s Hollywood project, an initiative that works across the entertainment industry to ensure that narratives and portrayals of Black people are authentic and multidimensional, and that workplace practices are fair to Black talent and all people of color talent.
Color Of Change is the nation’s largest online racial justice organization. We help people respond effectively to injustice in the world around us. As a national online force driven by over one million members, we move decision-makers in corporations and government to create a more human and less hostile world for Black people in America. Visit www.colorofchange.org.