Los Angeles-based writer Kirk Moore got his break into television in 2014 through NBC’s Writers on the Verge talent program.
That led to a string of high-profile writing gigs. He spent the next six years as a professional TV writer, working on such shows as Netflix’s teen drama “13 Reasons Why” and ABC’s “American Crime” before reaching the upper echelons as a supervising producer on Amazon’s “Jack Ryan” series.
But the 40-year-old writer considers himself fortunate compared with many of his peers.
“People in my position are either not selling shows or not moving up in the room,” Moore said. “If we are gonna talk about Black Lives Matter … then you actually have to let people of color run the room.”
Moore’s concerns were echoed in the latest inclusion report from the Writers Guild of America, West. In a survey of 2,717 jobs in television networks and streaming platforms for the 2019-2020 TV season, the guild found that most senior decision makers on TV shows last year — the showrunners and executive producers — were overwhelmingly white men. Just 18% were people of color, compared with a U.S. population of 40%. Although writers of color account for 46% of supervisor producers, their share among co-executive producers or executive producers falls to 33% and 19%, respectively.
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, Hollywood studios have attempted to show solidarity but are under increased scrutiny to diversify executive suites and writers rooms. The protests have drawn attention to the impact TV shows have on the portrayal of Black people, leading networks to pull several cop shows that skewed the public perception of police work.
Fueled by criticism online such as the #OscarsSoWhite movement in recent years, studios have sought to increase diversity in creator ranks and in programming. The recent union report showed some signs of progress. It found that women and people of color held 5% more jobs in the 2019-2020 TV season than the previous year. And screenwriters of color gained 2% more film jobs in 2019 versus the previous year.
But Black writers say the numbers mask a more intractable problem: the lack of opportunities for advancement in Hollywood.
The union’s Committee of Black Writers recently called for a revamp in hiring and for the film and TV industry to show accountability for the lack of progress among creators of color. While there is some improvement, as white writers and writers of color reach almost parity on the first rung of the TV industry, too many writers of color were being passed over for opportunities, the committee noted.
Staying on the lower rungs has significant financial consequences: Staff writers do not get paid lucrative script fees — as much as $40,000 per script — that more senior writers fetch in addition to the weekly minimum of $3,905 on most network shows.
Many Black writers say they find it difficult to advance beyond the level of staff writer.
“I was caught up in that hurdle to advance,” said Studio City-based Angela Harvey, who has been working as a TV writer since 2012. “I repeated staff writer four times.” Even when she worked for a supportive showrunner who wanted to help her catch up, she said the network “didn’t want to set a precedent” by letting her skip levels.
“It is rampant and repeated that it is people of color who don’t get to be the exception to the rule,” said Harvey, whose writing credits include MTV’s fantasy series “Teen Wolf” and firehouse drama “Station 19,” ABC’s spinoff from “Grey’s Anatomy.”
A survey conducted from October to December 2019 among 333 writers from underrepresented groups in Hollywood found that 55% of writers of color repeated as staff writer at least once, compared with 35% of white male writers, according to a study by the Think Tank for Inclusion and Equity, a consortium of active Hollywood writers.
The decision on who gets to run the TV writers rooms has an important effect on who gets hired and what jobs are allocated within them, and on so-called script credits.
White men were the only writers whose percentage of episodic script credits exceeded the percentage of TV jobs they held. They accounted for 38% of writers, but got 43% of TV script credits in the 2019-2020 TV season, according to the WGA study. The divergence was “particularly pronounced” for Black writers, who held 15.9% of TV jobs during the period but received just 12.8% of TV script credits.
Sony Pictures Television ranked lowest among the studios with just 29% of its writers hired in the period being people of color.
A Sony spokesperson declined to comment on the figures but highlighted efforts to build a pipeline of emerging talent. Warner Television had the highest percentage, with 42% writers of color hired in the last TV season.
NBC said this month that it will work to increase the overall percentage of diverse talent in this year’s writers rooms by funding an additional writer for every scripted show in the 2020-2021 season.
Similar disparities exist in film, where Black screenwriters were just 7% of the more than 2,000 working in 2019, even as Black Americans account for 13.4% of the U.S. population, the guild found.
In the face of criticism, studios in the past two decades have launched talent programs to groom writers so they can get hired on shows. Studios even pay for shows to hire staff writers of color in a so-called “diversity slot.” But only about half of those writers go on to be rehired or have long-term positions, despite having competed in prestigious network programs.
“Some have described these programs as little more than a revolving door of one-year stints in the writers’ room for diverse talent, where one ‘free’ writer simply replaces another,” wrote Darnell Hunt, dean of UCLA’s division of social sciences, in a university-led 2019 study. “It appears as if this type of program is abused by a sizable share of showrunners who view it primarily as a source of free, expendable labor. Showrunners who have a pattern of failing to do so should be held accountable.”
In recent weeks, Hunt said he has had a rush of producers asking for his input on their depictions of policing in their shows. Crime procedurals have historically excluded Black writers from the writers room, Hunt found. Out of nine procedurals he studied in 2017, none had a Black showrunner.
“This moment as I see it creates another opportunity for these Hollywood entities to stand on the right side of history,” Hunt said.
The WGA held talks last fall with the heads of diversity at the studios to make some recommendations in the wake of Hunt’s study. “The diversity slot issue while it may have opened some really important doors … it is setting up a bit of a vicious cycle rather than virtuous cycle,” said writer and producer David Slack, a WGA board member.
Another problem: When it comes to the upper echelons of the writers rooms, studios and networks tend to pick writers they already know and that statistically puts Black writers at a disadvantage, said Leigh Dana Jackson. He got his break on the ABC show “No Ordinary Family,” and has worked consistently for the past 10 years.
“There are already fewer Black writers at that level to begin with and when they want somebody who they feel comfortable with at that level, that’s not going to generally be one of us because there’s so few of us,” said Jackson, who is a co-executive producer on “Raising Dion” for Netflix and “Foundation” for Apple TV+.
One route beyond promotion is to be heavily involved in the creation of a show, creating a side door for less-experienced writers to get to senior levels. The problem, Jackson said, is more often white writers will get hired on their potential, while Black writers are rarely judged beyond their experience.
Improving diversity is part of the WGA’s current negotiations with studios. The current contract expires June 30.
The union, which has 808 Black writers among its 10,000 members, is asking for reports on studio deals so they can spot pay inequities, as well as information on terminations to see who is progressing, and pay rates for new writers.
L.A- based Michelle Amor, co-chair of the union’s Committee of Black Writers, said the committee was moved by the Black Lives Matter movement to write its open letter calling for changes.
“I wouldn’t have done this if I thought that there was nothing different; I think things do feel different,” Amor said. “I am an optimist. We’re determined to see these changes come about.”