Disney TV Turns to Leadership, Not Talent, for Inclusion Efforts

ABC's 2021 Winter TCA Inclusion Panel
Courtesy of ABC

The company's inclusion panel at the Winter TCAs put the onus on white leadership to take responsibility for implementing lasting institutional change.

All-white diversity panels have become somewhat of a meme that mocks cluelessness across multiple industries, but for Disney Television Studios, the selection of panelists for its Winter TCA panel on inclusion was deliberate.

"You might notice the other panelists joining us today are white," said Walt Disney Television head of Creative Talent Development & Inclusion Tim McNeal at the outset of the Thursday session, in which he and CTDI director DMA were the only Black participants. "We want to move the conversation from what talent is consistently asked, to what our leaders must do differently to create real impact."

DMA put it even more bluntly. "Your Black colleagues are tired," she said. "People of color and women have been assigned to be the flagbearers of this conversation, and we deeply believe that is not the responsibility of the marginalized in this community. We put this panel together to say that these are the folks with the agency, opportunity and accountability, and to make sure they are instrumental to the conversation."

This framing was made clear with the title of the panel, "Inclusion is Not a Spectator Sport." "It costs us nothing to push," said The Rookie's Alexi Hawley of himself and fellow white male showrunners. "I've heard stories of writers of color who have tried to push on parity, and they get pushback. I don't. If I don't do the work, that's on me."

"It doesn't cost you anything to engage, or not to engage," DMA agreed. "What we're learning into is shining a light on the people who've been allowed to watch it all happen. Could [Disney TV's efforts] be a model for other people who've been able to watch their Black, brown, female, LGBTQIA colleagues do all this work while they go about their day?"

The producers and execs on the panel acknowledged that taking responsibility puts a lot of traditional gatekeepers on unfamiliar terrain.

"The majority of white people don't sit around talking about systemic injustice or race, because they don't have to," Hawley said, while ABC senior vp of drama development Brian Morewitz conceded that inexperience talking about these issues was initially uncomfortable. "But without that discomfort, we wouldn't be where we are today," he continued, adding that younger employees have been less hesitant about opening conversations. "Now, we talk about race every day in development, because we're the front line of what and how stories are told."

ABC Signature executive vp of production Carol Turner said that improving inclusion has been simply a matter of intention. "We are producers, and when we want something to happen, we can make it happen," she said. "We hadn't made this a priority, and once we did, it was actually easy. Certainly we had robust support from the CTDI team, but it was about expanding a pool we were hiring from. It's been a much more achievable thing that seemed insurmountable, and prioritizing it has made it much more successful."

As an example, Black-ish executive producer Jonathan Groff pointed to Insecure executive producer Amy Aniobi's efforts organizing mixers to introduce writers of color to producers and showrunners during the Writers Guild's protracted standoff with the talent agencies, as well as Black-ish editor Jamie Nelsen taking the initiative to find Black editors for the show. "It's about pounding the pavement to find people yourself," he said, noting that one takeaway from the WGA-agency conflict was weaning showrunners off of their reliance on agents to locate talent. "It could be constantly doing panels, going to the CTDI, but you have to do the work."

The Good Doctor producer David Renaud, who uses a wheelchair, said that he himself is a beneficiary of improved access to the pipeline. "I'm a paraplegic, and I'd like to think of myself as a success story for CTDI," he said. "I started as a program writer at a time when people weren't thinking of disability as an underrepresented group. I'd like to think I had the talent to get in the room and work my way up, but you have to allow people into the pipeline and allow that person to go up the ranks and tell their stories."

Elsewhere, the panel discussed how having a deep bench of diverse talent both in front of and behind the camera created opportunities to tell more nuanced as well as wide-ranging stories about race beyond plotlines about bias, injustice and oppression. Hawley noted that having both a young Black officer (played by Jackson West) and a veteran police sergeant (Richard T. Jones) in The Rookie's ensemble allowed for multiple perspectives on policing issues, while DMA noted, "Stories about race and gender don't equal stories about racism and sexism. They aren't only told about suffering. Our stories are massive, and the bigger the pool of content, the deeper and richer the stories will be so that they're not reacting to just one touchpoint about underrepresented groups."