Report: Diversity lacking in writers’ rooms

Few series have minorities writing, running the show

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Hollywood prides itself on its progressive politics. Celebrities sported blue ribbons on the red carpet at the Emmy Awards to signal their resistance to President Donald Trump. Winners mocked him onstage. They’ve routinely lambasted a White House that they view as hostile to immigrants, women and minorities.

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 storylines 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.

Hollywood essentially “whitewashes” the narratives that influence the country, with shows that ignore or gloss over racial injustice, said Darnell Hunt, a sociologist and dean of social sciences at UCLA, who wrote the report and also co-authors the annual Hollywood Diversity Report pegged to the Oscars.

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. “White men dominate the major positions, and people of color and women have a long way to go to attain any type of equity.”

The 83-page study examined 234 comedy and drama series across 18 broadcast, cable and digital platforms in the 2016-2017 season. Fewer than 10 percent of the shows were led by minority showrunners, and only 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.

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. (Jeff 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.

And 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.

“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.”

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 rather than to shortcomings of black culture. White-dominated writers’ rooms are more likely to produce shows with stereotypical storylines and one-dimensional black “sidekicks” to white central characters.

Of the nine crime procedural dramas examined by the study, only one — Fox’s “Rosewood,” starring Morris Chestnut and Jaina Lee Ortiz — had more than one black writer. (The show was canceled in May after two seasons.)

Nearly all of the crime-drama episodes examined routinely took for granted the legitimacy of the criminal justice system, the study said. None of the episodes acknowledged the systemic racial profiling of black Americans, that black people are more likely to be pressured into plea bargaining for crimes they did not commit, or that they routinely face harsher penalties than whites for committing the same crimes, it found.