It may seem like Hollywood is slowly becoming more diverse, but representation behind the scenes is still pretty abysmal.
A new study published by Color of Change, titled “Race in the Writers Room: How Hollywood Whitewashes the Stories that Shape America,” found that less than 5 percent of television writers are black. The purpose of the study was to examine the relationship between the presence of black voices in the writers’ room, and the types of characters they develop and stories their shows tell.
The study looked at 1,678 episodes from 234 original, scripted comedy and drama series across 18 broadcast, cable and digital platforms during the 2016-17 season.
Of those few black writers, the majority work on shows led by black showrunners, who only make up 5.1 percent of the group. All of the shows led by black showrunners have multiple white writers on their staffs.
On the contrary, 69.1 percent of shows led by white showrunners included no black writers at all. Furthermore, two-thirds of all shows across 18 different networks had no black writers and 17 percent of shows had only one black writer.
According to the study, AMC appears to have the worst inclusion problem with women and people of color, showrunners and writers. AMC, along with TBS and TNT, had no diverse showrunners or women showrunners on their shows.
Netflix was among the networks with the highest percentage of showrunners of color (17 percent, six shows), though the streaming service also had the highest number of shows (26) with no black writers.
ABC, Comedy Central, FX, HBO, FOX and Netflix were the only platforms out of the 18 examined that had shows with five or more black writers.
The study also includes insight from 15 black writers about their experiences working in various writing rooms: “isolated,” rooms led by white showrunners with only one black writer; “included,” rooms led by white showrunners with three to six writers of color; “liberated,” rooms led by a black showrunner with multiple black writers.
One black writer, speaking about the experience of working in an “isolated” writing room said that when you’re the “only person of color in the room, it adds a whole other level of complication to pitching stories or trying to say what you think.” Another black writer said, “You’re basically fighting every day to a certain extent to prove your worth and not piss anyone off.”
In these “isolated” writing rooms, some writers described uneasy discussions of race. One black writer explained that, in rooms with a majority of white writers, there’s a tendency to create flat or “cardboard” black characters, based on demeaning stereotypes.
Those who worked in writers’ rooms with multiple people of color and white showrunners (“included”) felt more positive about the writing team’s ability to be respectful of story and character development. One black writer described a sense of togetherness in these rooms.
“Liberated” writers’ rooms were the most inclusive, the study suggests. In these rooms, writers said that they felt their voices and stories were valued.
“There was a lot of diversity along different lines, and so people really brought different viewpoints to the table, which I think helps make the show great,” one writer said.
As one might expect, writers’ rooms with multiple black writers and other people of color were able to create more complex and realistic characters, as opposed to writing rooms with zero or one black writer. As the study points out, most writers’ rooms lacked diversity, making them ill-equipped to thoughtfully and sensitively engage with the topic of race in America.
Lack of diversity isn’t just a problem in the writers’ room. Last year, a study by USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that, overall, the inclusion of people of color, women and members of the LGBTQ community in both film and television was alarmingly low.
Another study, published this year by USC, found that representation in Hollywood is just as bad now as it was a decade ago.
Meanwhile, a report by Creative Artists Agency (CAA), published this past summer, found that movies with a diverse cast performed extremely well at the box office.
Hollywood, take note already.