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TV Diversity Programs: Launching Pad or Scarlet Letter?

Broadcast networks, eager to integrate their shows' staff, run programs where they'll pay for a season's work for a scribe of color. The result? Sometimes a career. Other times? Resentment, exploitation and a possible backfire if money dries up: "If you're diverse, you're only good if you're free."

A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

In their ideal form, the mentorship and training programs that the Big Four television networks use to identify and develop new writing talent also serve to jump-start the careers of diverse writers. Such was the case for Rashad Raisani, who got into NBCUniversal’s Writers on the Verge program in 2007. Erika Kennair, who ran the program then and now is vp comedy development at ABC, pitched him for USA’s Burn Notice and worked out an unusual three-year deal in which NBCU would pay Raisani’s staff-writer (or entry-level) salary, even though the drama was being produced by Fox Television Studios. If the show decided to bring him back with the customary annual promotion the following year, Fox only would have to cover the pay difference until the NBCU contract expired. By the time Burn Notice ended in 2013, Raisani was a co-executive producer, paid no differently than the rest of the room. After helping develop NBC’s short-lived Allegiance as executive producer, he signed an overall deal with Universal TV in February and now is focusing full-time on development. “There’s no way I’d be here if it were not for Writers on the Verge because it made the decision for [showrunner] Matt Nix to hire me really easy since I was free,” says Raisani. “I also benefited from the fact that there was a diversity hire before me named Ben Watkins [now creator of Amazon’s Hand of God], and he was the star of the staff. He showed that ‘diversity’ doesn’t mean ‘second class.’ ”

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Despite major strides in diversifying television with Empire, Fresh Off the Boat and Black-ish, the stats on writers in Hollywood still are sobering: Minorities make up 13.7 percent of writers rooms while comprising 37.9 percent of the population nationwide, with only 10 individuals of color (out of 73) on THR‘s 2015 Power Showrunners list. There are no stats available on how many minority writers made it in TV without going through a program, though one Latino alum jokes: “John Ridley had to win an Oscar to get a television show.” Which is why new-talent development and “inclusion” programs, such as the ones every single broadcast network supports — no doubt part good business, part public relations, part social conscience — are a key part of writers room staffing. Like college scholarships for minorities, these programs are all about removing as many barriers to entry as possible, including financial ones. But with every good intention can come inadvertent side effects, from writers of color who are perceived as less qualified to the subsidization of first-season salaries that can lead to a “freebie” mentality among showrunners toward those scribes.

It all starts with the departments at each network that run the writing programs as well as recommend diversity hires for its roster of shows. Every year, up to a dozen writers are admitted per program. The Disney-ABC Writing Program, launched in 1990 as a new-talent search in conjunction with the Writers Guild West, lasts a full year and is considered full-time employment for its writers, who receive a $50,000 annualized salary and benefits. The rest — CBS’ Writers Mentoring Program, the Fox Writers Intensive and NBC’s aforementioned WOTV — run three to six months and do not pay their writers for their participation but instead function as highly selective, tuition-free intensive courses in the art and business of television writing, with weekly evening seminars and exclusive opportunities to interact with reps as well as executives and senior-level writers at the network. None of the programs guarantees a job afterward, but they work closely with graduates to provide them priority consideration for staffing, often as a diversity hire. (Diversity is nowadays defined broadly by the programs to include unique voices and experiences, but it usually refers to underrepresented demographics — chiefly minorities, women and LGBT individuals.) A diversity hire is a minority scribe who occupies a staff-writer position that is fully network-subsidized. Showrunners are thus incentivized to take on an unfamiliar face since his or her salary isn’t coming out of the show’s budget. There’s no limit to the number of times a writer can be the diversity hire, provided he or she is fine with staying at entry-level pay.

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Depending on whom you ask, getting into one of these programs — which involves submitting extensive writing samples and being selected by a network committee — can represent a launching pad for a career or a scarlet letter A for “affirmative action.” The latter is a perception that some diversity hires feel they must overcome. “It’s like meeting someone off Tinder versus organically at an event or through friends,” says Ben Cory Jones, who was staffed on ABC Family’s Chasing Life in 2013 from the Disney-ABC program, whose alumni include Once Upon a Time co-executive producer Jane Espenson, Mad Men executive producer Maria Jacquemetton and Breaking Bad co-executive producer George Mastras. “There’s a lot of upfront judgment, and you have to work harder to prove you’re a normal person.”

The stigma is such that when Warner Bros. sought to make its longtime Writers’ Workshop diversity-specific in 2007, its new director, Christopher Mack, asked them not to. “A lot of the writers coming out of the diversity programs were being labeled,” he says. The Warners program offers similar opportunities as the rest — including program subsidies for entry-level positions — but is explicitly open to all applicants.

The pressure to prove one’s merit can be heightened for some diverse writers. “When you come from a program, the perception is, ‘Yes, but can they write?’ ” says a participant of the Fox program (which was relaunched in 2011 to accept only mid-career writers nominated by partner organizations like the National Association of Latino Independent Producers). “I heard a showrunner say that in response to finding out that a black writer had gotten staffed on a successful network show from a writing program.” Adds a Latino writer who did Writers on the Verge (which just marked its 10th year as NBC’s talent development and diversity program) and CBS’ Writers Mentoring Program (created as part of the CBS Diversity Institute that Leslie Moonves launched in 2003): “There’s a difference between how I’m treated in week one as opposed to week three or four. It’s not that people say anything negative or nasty, but it has more to do with whether I’m listened to or interrupted and shut down. People have to see you do your job, and you have to exceed expectations.”

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Says Keto Shimizu, who was staffed on NBC’s The Cape after completing Writers on the Verge in 2009: “Any baby writer — but especially a ‘diversity hire’ — needs to find a way to make herself indispensable. I wrote on the boards”— i.e., kept track of changing story beats — “after a co-EP suggested that as a concrete way to prove my usefulness.” The Cape was canceled before Shimizu could return, but she landed on another NBCU show, Syfy’s Being Human, again as the diversity hire. During her first season there, the show couldn’t afford her beyond her 20 free weeks, but the following year Syfy and Canadian studio Muse scraped together the money to keep her in the room beyond the subsidized period.

Shimizu considers herself one of the fortunate ones (she now is a producer on The CW’s Arrow) but says many of her friends haven’t fared as well, as the network-funded diversity initiatives that help writers rooms avoid homogeneity also have created a system that can condition showrunners to regard diverse writers as unpaid labor. “After they are no longer free, the vast majority of diversity writers are released from their shows,” says a Latina writer who wasn’t hired on her network program (she later was independently staffed on a cable series). Jones agrees: “Programs should stop pitching diverse writers as ‘free’ because it creates an affirmative action mentality.”

Ten of ‘Empire’s’ 14 writers are black, including four program alumni.

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Fox Audience Strategy executive vp Nicole Bernard fields lots of requests from the network’s showrunners to subsidize writers of color from outside the Fox Writers Intensive program, a practice she discourages in order to not set a damaging precedent: “If I change our policy, I am subscribing to the industry perception that if you are diverse, you’re only good if you’re free.”

On rare occasions when strained showrunners can’t cover the cost of a diversity hire beyond the program, Disney-ABC vp creative talent development and inclusion Tim McNeal will subsidize half the salary from a safety-net reserve called the breakage fund. “It’s important that shows don’t look at this as a free pass to get an extra body, so I ask them to match dollar for dollar so they have skin in the game,” he says. “This is a onetime payment.”

But even this extension leaves some diverse scribes stalled on the first rung, whereas a full year of experience typically would get a staff writer promoted to story editor. The perception of tokenism creates the impression of interchangeability, which led to one show abruptly releasing its two diverse staff writers with the explanation that it “wanted fresh diversity.” Another factor is the trend of increasingly top-heavy writers rooms as a knee-jerk defense against cancellation, which leaves little room in the budget for newer writers. “Showrunners are hiring only upper-level writers on staff and taking the new crop of ‘free’ diversity writers where applicable,” says Michael Perri, who was staffed on NBC’s State of Affairs last year from Writers on the Verge. “I have heard time and time again by showrunners, ‘I’d love to have a larger staff with writers at all levels, but I need to hire seasoned producers who can hit the ground running.’ It’s a vicious circle because these showrunners hire their friends, and then the show lacks a well-rounded staff with diverse perspectives.”

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Adds a diversity hire who has completed three network programs and is on her third show as a staff writer: “I find myself a little bit in this cycle, but what outweighs the concerns about being the diversity writer is the opportunity that you might get staffed.”

Meredith Averill, NBC program alum and creator of The CW’s Star-Crossed, offers a showrunner’s perspective: “If you are in a situation where the studio is paying for the first year and then the show is expected to after that, it may mean they would have to lose another writer or that the show wouldn’t be able to afford to bring on any new writers. As a showrunner, I had to make the same calculations. Ultimately, this can put a writer at a slight disadvantage because the show is taking on a financial burden it did not have to take on in season one.”

Several programs have made progress in addressing this problem. If an NBC show promotes a diverse staff writer to story editor in the second year, the network will subsidize half the new salary. And if a Fox show wants to bring back a program participant at a higher level, Bernard’s breakage fee will cover up to the staff-writer rate.

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To some observers, the opportunity to nab a diversity staff-writer gig can seem an unfair advantage. “People have said to my face, ‘It’ easier because you’re black,’ ” says one female writer, “which is utterly dismissive of all the hard work I’ve put in.” When people imply to Raisani that his program gave him a leg up, he doesn’t deny it but notes: “Writers on the Verge gets 2,000 scripts a year, and they have eight slots. It’s more competitive than any staff job. You’ve already gone through the gantlet.” Adds Marcos Luevanos, an alum of two programs and now an executive story editor on NBC’s upcoming Eva Longoria vehicle Hot & Bothered, “It’s easier to get into Harvard than the NBC program.”

Thomas Wong, a graduate of the ABC and Fox programs and a story editor on Fox’s Minority Report, says studios and networks can only do so much to entice showrunners to diversify their rooms: “Funding is key, but it’s the perception that needs to change. Hiring diverse writers shouldn’t be seen as a burden or an obligation. We bring value. We have a different perspective. Over time, as diverse writers rise through the ranks to become decision makers, it will be a nonissue.”

Until then, most participants are grateful for the programs, for, as the Latina writer puts it: “I’d hate to see what our statistics would be like without these diversity initiatives.”