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In recent years, seemingly countless studies have been conducted on the state of inclusion in the entertainment industry, but a new report comes directly from those actively working on the front lines.
Behind the Scenes: The State of Inclusion and Equity in TV Writers Rooms is the first official project from the Think Tank for Inclusion & Equity, a diverse assembly of working TV writers who quietly began meeting about two and a half years ago to share experiences and develop strategies to improve conditions in their own industry.
Inspired by a 2017 Color of Change study about the racial makeup of writers rooms, the TTIE members decided to survey as many of their colleagues as possible for a quantitative and qualitative look at the biggest barriers to progress. “There are shared experiences across all diverse writers,” says Y. Shireen Razack, a supervising producer on NBC’s New Amsterdam and one of TTIE’s founders. “We wanted to get everybody’s stories to see what the common threads are.”
One major commonality among the 282 survey respondents — approximately 10 percent of all staffed writers in television, and about a quarter of staffed women and half of staffed writers of color — was that most of them had to repeat a staffing level at least once. This was true for 73 percent of writers who were women, non-binary, people of color, LGBTQ+ or people with disabilities. And for writers of color, a whopping 82 percent of them had worked multiple seasons at the same staff level. Razack herself repeated the entry-level staff writer position five times, while fellow TTIE steering committee member Angela Harvey, now a co-executive producer on an upcoming Marvel series, did it thrice on a show early in her career. Harvey says she was pitted against a fellow female writer for a title bump, but a white male writer who came in later jumped three levels after one season.
These and other findings in the study reveal that although various network and studio diversity programs have done their part in placing underrepresented writers on the first step, systemic barriers remain that prevent them from being promoted up the ladder and also affect working conditions inside the writers rooms. To address these issues, the TTIE study has proposed a set of practical solutions, starting with calling on all stakeholders — networks, studios, agencies, the Writers Guild, etc. — to combine resources and develop a standardized measure for tracking inclusion data.
With the proliferation of diversity initiatives at nearly every relevant company and organization, standardization across the television landscape emerges as a key throughline in TTIE’s recommendations, from mandatory implicit bias and general management training, to a formalized code of conduct, to exit interviews for every writer, regardless of the reason for his or her departure.
TTIE also is calling on showrunners with interest or experience in curating diverse and harmonious writers rooms to form a think tank of their own that can identify and share best practices throughout the industry, such as via the extant WGA Showrunners Training Program. “A lot of showrunners are doing it right, but [the problems] are systemic,” says writer Tawal Panyacosit Jr., a key TTIE organizer. “That’s why our recommendations are manifold. We need interventions at multiple junctures in order to move the needle.”
To that end, massive buy-in is needed, so TTIE used word of mouth to circulate an open letter endorsing its report. To date, 250 writers and advocates have signed on, including Alex Kurtzman, Jill Soloway, Lena Waithe and Marti Noxon. “As members of the television writing/producing community, we recognize diverse writers’ contributions are valuable not only when a show’s content calls for a specific POV, but across the board,” the letter reads. “A variety of perspectives generates more authentic stories and, often, higher profits.”
TTIE is a joint project between Women in Film and the Pop Culture Collaborative, whose grant made the Behind the Scenes report possible.
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