A recent report examines the relationship between Black people represented on the television screen and those working in the writers room. Its findings? Only 4.8 percent of 3,817 staffed writers from the 2016-17 TV season were Black.
For Race in the Writers’ Room: How Hollywood Whitewashes the Stories That Shape America, Color of Change tapped Darnell Hunt, UCLA’s dean of social sciences and professor of sociology and African American studies. The result was the examination of 234 scripted broadcast, cable, and streaming series that aired in the 2016-2017 television season. Fully two-thirds of those shows had zero Black writers on staff. Shows that did staff Black writers were unsurprisingly led by Black showrunners. But as The Hollywood Reporter notes, they only represented 5.1 percent of the pot, and 69.1 percent of shows led by White showrunners had absolutely no Black writers at all.
Over at Hulu, for example, none of the series reportedly employed Black writers. And while shows on other networks such as AMC and Showtime may have hired one Black writer, those staffers told Hunt they felt like outcasts at work.
“Hollywood executives make decisions every day about who gets hired,” Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color Of Change, said in a statement shared by Variety. “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.”
Representation is crucial. Of course, there are “diversity” writing programs that “subsidize staff positions for underrepresented writers” to incentivize showrunners “to diversify their rooms,” as THR explains, but as Hunt points out, it’s essentially done in vain.
“Anecdotal evidence suggests that the lower-level writers of color who fulfill this function are rarely integrated into the creative process in any meaningful way,” Hunt writes. “It appears as if some showrunners exploit the free position as little more than temporary ‘window dressing’ to mask what would otherwise be racially homogenous rooms.”
But as the report finds in rooms that are “included” vs. “isolated”—i.e. that include at least three writers of color like Insecure and Atlanta—diverse writing teams yield Black stories with depth and nuance.
“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,” Robinson says in the report. “It all comes down to changing the conditions that presently sustain those practices, i.e., the balance of power in writers’ rooms.”
Check out the full report here.