First-Time TV Director Diversity Significantly Improves, Study Finds

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"We're seeing signs of meaningful improvement," said DGA union president Thomas Schlamme.

The Directors Guild of America's television diversity efforts appear to be bearing fruit, with the percentage of ethnic minority first-time TV helmers more than doubling from 2009-10 to 2016-17 and the percentage of women nearly tripling, according to a report released Wednesday by the guild. Still, the most recent cohort is still about three-quarters (72 percent) Caucasian and two-thirds (68 percent) male.

The DGA also criticized the practice of allowing series stars, writers, producers and crew to direct episodes, since most of them do not go on to helm on other series, according to the study.

"Finally, after years of our efforts to educate the industry, hold employers accountable through our contracts and push them to do better, we're seeing signs of meaningful improvement," said DGA president Thomas Schlamme.

The emphasis on first-time directors reflects a DGA desire to make progress that persists into the future.

"It all starts with the pipeline," said Schlamme. "The hiring decisions employers make today can have enormous impact on the composition of the pool in two years', five years', 10 years' time. Our research shows that when employers actually do the work of being inclusive, they find talented directors who overwhelmingly succeed in establishing longer-term careers."

The guild has been reporting on diversity in hiring for more than two decades as part of an ongoing campaign to encourage inclusion, and also began issuing a separate annual survey examining trends in first-time hires since 2009.

The eight-year study of first-time hires precedes the DGA's upcoming annual diversity report on all episodic TV director hiring. The data excludes pilots. Highlights include:

* 56 (or 25 percent of all) first-time hires in the 2016-17 season were ethnic minorities, up from 24 (15 percent) in the 2015-16 season;

* 73 (32 percent) were women — up from 38 (24 percent) the prior season, and 18 (8 percent) were female minorities, up from 6 (3.8 percent);

* With respect to males and Caucasians, the percentages were down year-over-year, but the absolute numbers still grew to new highs.

In the 2016-17 season, an all-time high of 225 directors who had never before helmed episodic television under a DGA contract were hired by studios, networks and executive producers — representing a steep 42 percent increase in "freshman" TV directors over the previous season. This increase significantly outpaced the growth in the total volume of TV episodes and represented a 127 percent jump since the 2009-10 season.

"The rapid growth in the proportion of episodes given to first-time TV directors is the result of some factors that are very positive, and others that require further monitoring," said Schlamme. "On the one hand, we're delighted to see the jump in first breaks for talented women and minority directors who are building long-term careers. This validates what we've advocated for years and demonstrates what's possible when employers adopt more inclusive hiring practices."

But he added that the practice of allowing series stars, writers and others to direct episodes was counter-productive to diversity efforts.

"On the other hand, too many of those valued first-time jobs are still being reserved for individuals who work on a series in some other capacity — and as our statistics show, are much less likely to continue a career in directing," said Schlamme. "If the goal is to feed the pipeline with the directors of the future, it's important that employers provide the first-time opportunities to those most likely to go on and become career directors."

That comment flows from the research findings. Of the overall group of 618 first-timers tracked over the report's eight-year time period, 66 percent (or 407) were "series-affiliated" hires, meaning they were already affiliated with the series for which they were hired, while 28 percent (171) were "career-track directors," meaning they were unaffiliated with the series but had previously helmed in other categories (e.g., feature films, commercials, other TV categories).

Over the years, just 40 percent of series-affiliated directors went on to work as helmers on other series, while nearly three-quarters of career-track directors (71 percent) did go on to helm episodes on other series.

Interestingly, the most successful career-track directors were women and minorities, with 97 percent of the first-time women directors (28 out of 29) and 85 percent of the minorities (28 out of 33) going on to helm on other series.

The DGA's diversity efforts over the past 30 years include: collective bargaining gains requiring television studios to operate TV director diversity programs and all first-time TV directors to attend a DGA orientation; ongoing meetings with studios, networks and individual series regarding their hiring records; research reports; and DGA-operated TV director mentorship and educational programs.