The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How white TV writers decide the stories Hollywood tells America

Donald Glover as Earn Marks and Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred Miles in the FX dramedy "Atlanta." (Guy D'Alema/FX). This was one of the few shows headed by a black showrunner.

Hollywood prides itself on its progressive politics. Celebrities sported blue ribbons on the red carpet at the Emmy Awards to signal their resistance to President Trump. Winners mocked him onstage. They’ve routinely lambasted a White House that they view as hostile to immigrants, women and minorities.

But the self-congratulatory liberal bastion has its own problems with diversity, particularly in regards to the showrunners — executive producers and head writers who make hiring decisions — and TV writers who shape story lines and characters, according to a report commissioned by the racial justice organization Color of Change.

And efforts over two decades to diversify the writers’ rooms at TV networks have largely failed, the report found.

Hollywood essentially “whitewashes” the narratives that influence the country, with shows that ignore or gloss over racial injustice, said Darnell Hunt, a sociologist and dean of social sciences at UCLA, who wrote the report and also co-authors the annual Hollywood Diversity Report pegged to the Oscars. 

Research has shown that television has a powerful influence in shaping views about African Americans.

The staggering numbers that prove Hollywood has a serious race problem

“It’s important that Hollywood showrunners and writers recognize that many of the narratives they put out in the world and how they do business is not in the spirit of who they claim to be,” Hunt said. “White men dominate the major positions, and people of color and women have a long way to go to attain any type of equity.”

The 83-page study examined 234 comedy and drama series across 18 broadcast, cable and digital platforms in the 2016-2017 season. Fewer than 10 percent of the shows were led by minority showrunners, and only 14 percent of writers across all shows were members of a minority group, even though minorities represent nearly 40 percent of the population.

Two-thirds of the shows had no black writers. Black writers overall accounted for less than 5 percent of the 3,817 writers across the shows, even though black people make up 13 percent of the population.

And more than 90 percent of the shows on CBS — which aired 25 scripted shows last season, second only to Netflix, and is the most-watched network — had either just one black writer or none at all.

Hollywood’s race problem: An insular industry struggles to change

“We need to change that because television is not just entertainment,” Hunt said. “Media images do matter, particularly for people who don’t have a lot of face-to-face encounters with people who are not like them. A lot of what they learn about people is what they see in these images.”

Representatives of the networks either declined to speak on the record or did not respond to requests for comment.

Hunt said some shows that may employ black writers fell outside of the time period of the databases consulted by the study, which he acknowledged captured only a “snapshot” of Hollywood. He examined everything categorized as “currently” streaming, airing or in production as of December 2016.

Netflix, ABC, Comedy Central and HBO were the only platforms that had more than one show headed by a minority showrunner, the study found. Those platforms, plus FX and Fox, were also the only ones that had shows with five or more black writers. (A typical writers' room includes between nine and 12 writers.)

The study considered 1,678 episodes to see how the racial makeup of the writers’ rooms impacted storylines, focusing on depictions of black family and culture and the criminal justice system, and how they acknowledged and dealt with racial inequality.

Hunt found that shows lead by black showrunners, such as FX's “Atlanta,” a show created by Donald Glover about three black millennials, or by white showrunners who hired diverse writers were more likely to acknowledge the existence of racial inequality and to attribute it to structural racism rather than to shortcomings of black culture. White-dominated writers’ rooms are more likely to produce shows with stereotypical story lines and one-dimensional black “sidekicks” to white central characters.

Nearly all of the crime-drama episodes examined routinely took for granted the legitimacy of the criminal justice system, the study said. None of the episodes acknowledged the systemic racial profiling of black Americans, that black people are more likely to be pressured into plea bargaining for crimes they did not commit, or that they routinely face harsher penalties than whites for committing the same crimes, it found.

“Shows like 'Blue Bloods' rely on stereotypes that are pretty much public relations arms for law enforcement,” said Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change. “In this era of paying so much attention to policing and mass incarceration, we have these shows depicting the criminal justice system coming from Hollywood with writers’ rooms that look like [a Republican National Committee] meeting.”

The report argues that Hollywood depictions of policing and the court and prison systems, combined with viewers’ existing biases, undermine public support for policies that could help advance racial equity in American society.

The networks have tried to add more minorities to writers’ rooms through various diversity initiatives in recent decades. But the “diversity slot” program, which pays for one minority writer out of the network’s budget — and not the show's — creates its own set of problems, the report says.

The minority writers are often seen as “tokens,” and are rarely rehired when the season is over because the executive producers know the network will send the show another minority writer for “free.”

“The result is these black writers are not taken seriously in the writers’ rooms,” Robinson said. “Part of any job, to be able to have influence, is to have seniority — to move up and have more credits in your name, to eventually be a showrunner where you can have the ability to hire other writers.”

Too many industries, from Silicon Valley to Hollywood, try to solve their diversity problems without truly examining structural barriers that exclude, rather than advance, minority talent, Robinson said.

The report recommended networks encourage inclusive hiring by funding “diversity slots” on shows that already have a track record in diverse hiring and story telling.

The industry should also implement a rule similar to one in the NFL that would mandate minorities be considered throughout the hiring process. And networks should track their progress and make their goals public so they can be held accountable.

“Hollywood has an opportunity to take a deep look at the practices that have excluded black people and people of color and women,” Robinson said, “and that impact, not just on people’s careers, but on the content that has gone out into the world and the ways in which that’s informed our country.”