WGA diversity report has 'familiar ring to it'

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With the exception of female TV writers, women and minority scribes have made little progress of late in attaining fair employment and earnings in Hollywood, according to a report commissioned by the WGA West.

"This year's report has a familiar ring to it," WGA president Patric Verrone said. "While there have been some advances made by women and minorities in some sectors, white male writers continue to be a disproportionately dominant portion of the writing work force."

The "2007 Hollywood Writers Report -- Whose Stories Are We Telling?" was written by Darnell Hunt, director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies and professor of sociology at UCLA. Hunt was the author involved in a similar WGAW-commissioned report published in 2005, and he participated in a study of TV employment released by SAG in 2000.

Based on analysis of minority- and gender-based data, the latest WGA report encompasses employment and earning trends through '05. The report was based primarily on WGA data, supplemented with additional sourcing for a section on TV pilot practices.

The guild detailed the findings during a news conference at WGAW headquarters in Los Angeles that featured a panel of showrunners and officials from local advocacy groups. Underscoring the sensitive nature of the topic, the discussion prompted repeated barbs from panelists and activists in the audience.

Neal Baer, showrunner on NBC's "Law & Order: SVU," discussed his show's diversity practices in casting and writing, implemented with network assistance. But Guy Aoki, panelist and president of Media Action Network for Asian Americans, slammed the show for an episode he said displayed negative stereotypes about Chinese characters.

Mark Reed, national rep for the American Indians in Film & TV, said he was "offended" about not being invited to be on the panel. Another audience member said that disabled writers weren't represented in the WGAW's report or panel.

"The stories we tell are only as diverse as the writers who tell them," Kimberly Myers, WGAW diversity director, said before the panel discussion. "Do those stories perpetuate stereotypes, or do they offer insight?"

Panelist and NAACP Hollywood exec director Vicangelo Bulluck lamented a "structural racism (in) Hollywood, where deals are being made behind closed doors."

In the latest WGAW report, minority writers made scant progress in any sector in the study period.

"More than 30% of the American population is nonwhite, yet writers of color continue to account for less than 10% of employed television writers," Hunt noted in an executive summary of the report. "These numbers will likely get worse before they get better because of the recent merger of UPN and the WB into the new CW network, which resulted in the cancellation of several minority-themed situation comedies that employed a disproportionate share of minority television writers.

"The situation is grimmer in film," he added, "where the minority share of employment has been stuck at 6% for years."

The report also documented an earnings disparity for minority TV writers that widened by more than $6,000 between 2004 and '05. The overall median earnings for minority TV writers in '05 was $78,107, compared with $97,956 for white writers.

The earnings gap increased by almost $2,000 for minority film writers during the same period, with '05 median earnings of $66,666 for minority writers and $77,537 for white writers.

Among women writers, overall employment and TV employment remained unchanged in '05 at 25% and 27%, respectively. In a rare bright spot from the report, women writers "virtually eliminated the television median earnings gap, earning just about $300 less than their male counterparts in 2005."

But between '04-'05, the gender gap in median film earnings doubled to $40,000. Women writers earned a median $50,000 and males $90,000 in '05.

The report also showed employment share among different age groups from '01-'05.

TV writers ages 40 to 50 accounted for a flat 35% of all TV writers in each of three select years: '01, '03 and '05. TV writers ages 31 to 40 enjoyed an increase in employment share during the same period, from 35% to 37%, while writers younger than 31 declined from 9% to 7%.

Film writers 40 and younger represented a majority in 2004 for the first time, and by '05 accounted for 55% of all film writers, according to the report.

Verrone said the report's findings should be taken as "a call to action for all decisionmakers" in Hollywood.

"Releasing this report during the TV hiring season provides a timely reminder to those decisionmakers to actively seek out and read the work of writers who are women and people of color," the WGA president said. "As part of a unified guild, we must all be allowed to compete for opportunities so that all our stories may have an equal chance to be heard."

Alex Nogales, panelist and CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, asked the WGA to make diversity progress a stated goal in upcoming negotiations with studios and networks. The guild is set to begin talks July 16 for a new film and TV contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers.
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