Hollywood Has Opened Some Doors For Underrepresented TV Writers, But What Comes Next?

For more than a decade, Claudia Forestieri was a reporter and producer for Telemundo, telling stories about Latinx communities around the country, from the Bay Area, to Chicago, to Miami, to Los Angeles, where she now lives. The work was important and meaningful to her. But she began to wonder how she could become a different kind of storyteller: telling more complete stories over a longer timescale.

“With news, you usually only get the tragic end, or the beginning, or the middle. You don’t even know because you’re just having one piece of the story,” she said. “At first, I was a general assignment reporter, and then I started doing more special projects, like more in-depth series and special reports. And those were wonderful, but it still wasn’t as satisfying as, like, seeing a well-told, well-written film or a series.”

A huge fan of TV, she started to consider becoming a TV writer. She thought about her favorite shows and the ways pop culture can resonate with viewers on a personal, visceral level and provide comfort in hard times. And just like her work in journalism tried to make sure Latinx communities were more represented on the news, she wanted to make sure they were also more represented in TV and film.

While still working at Telemundo, she started to take TV writing classes on the side and work on sample scripts. In 2013, she applied and was accepted to NBC’s Writers on the Verge, one of many diversity programs that help aspiring TV writers from underrepresented groups launch their careers in the industry. 

In TV writing, these programs, which are facilitated by major TV networks and studios, generally involve a series of workshops and seminars over a few months or a year. They aim to prepare writers to apply for the position of staff writer on a show, the entry-level position for most TV writers. For instance, writers learn how to work in a writers room: the group of writers who brainstorm story and script ideas, before the showrunner assigns them scripts for individual episodes. The programs also teach writers how to pitch ideas and start to make connections in the industry, like meeting producers, executives and agents.

It took Forestieri nine years from when she first began to pivot her career from journalism to TV writing — and two more network diversity writing programs, one at HBO and one at ABC — to land her first job as a staff writer on Freeform’s “Good Trouble” in 2018, through the ABC program. She’s now a writer on Netflix’s “Selena The Series,” and is developing her own show, “The Gordita Chronicles,” at HBO Max.

“It’s so hard to get that first staffing job. It’s incredibly hard, and so many things have to align. You could meet someone today, a showrunner, and they could love you and love your writing. But it’s not until seven years from now, where they have a show where your experience fits, and they have a position that’s open that’s at your level,” Forestieri said. “By the time I got into the ABC/Disney program in 2018, I had been taking so many writing classes. I’d been to so many, like, Writers Guild seminars. I already knew what the deal was. I already knew, like, OK, that first job, yes, it’s really, really hard to get. But I had been told that the second job is even harder to get.”

For years, a lot of the focus around inclusion and equity in Hollywood has been on hiring underrepresented talent and diversifying the ranks, especially in the nearly six years since activist April Reign’s Oscars So White hashtag catalyzed a louder public outcry for more equitable representation in front of and behind the camera. One way some underrepresented creators have broken into the industry is through these highly competitive diversity programs and fellowships. Most of the major TV networks in Hollywood, such as ABC, CBS, Fox, HBO and NBC, have had versions of these programs for years, most commonly for writing and directing. 

In interviews for this story, nearly every writer talked about the hustle and persistence required to make it in Hollywood: the need to always be networking and always be planning your next move. The writers who have completed these programs often credit them with providing the tools to break into and navigate the highly insular industry and landing their first job. 

Many of them said the programs have had long-lasting benefits beyond their first jobs, helping them to become successful TV writers. But they also believe that the programs could do more to prepare underrepresented writers for challenges they might face in advancing their careers. And several writers said they felt the industry is over-reliant on these diversity programs, and not enough change has happened outside of them. 

Climbing The Ladder

The numbers are rising: the percentage of TV writers who are women and/or people of color has increased steadily over the last decade, according to a 2020 report by the Writers Guild of America (WGA). In the 2009-10 TV season, just 28% of TV writers were women and 17% were people of color. By the 2019-20 TV season, 44% were women and 35% were people of color. (Disclosure: The HuffPost union is represented by the WGA East. The reports cited in this article, however, pertain to the TV writing industry and not to news media generally or HuffPost in particular.)

But those gains are happening largely at the bottom of the ladder. The people at the top are still predominantly white men: in the 2019-20 season, 70% of TV showrunners were men and 82% of TV showrunners were white.

In order to build a truly inclusive Hollywood and ensure on-screen stories are representative, writers need more opportunities to move up and reach positions of power, where they can shape what stories get told and how they are told. In an industry where the climb is already so steep, creating those opportunities requires far more change at all levels of the industry, which won’t happen through just a handful of diversity programs and initiatives.

Many alums of the programs said their most enduring benefit is helping participants build their professional networks, the key to ascending the ladder. 

Niceole Levy, an alum of both CBS’s Writers Mentoring Program and NBC’s Writers on the Verge, said that being in the programs gave her an initial foundation to hit the ground running and a preexisting network of people to turn to when she needed help.

“When I got my first job, and stuff would come up, and I was a little like, ‘Oh, what do I do in this situation?’ I would literally just be emailing people I had met who had already done the program and gone on to start their careers,” she said. “I would just be like, ‘What is this thing?’ And they’d be like, ‘It’s this. Calm down, it’s fine.’”

During the CBS program, which she completed from 2010 to 2011, Levy met the person who became her manager. After completing the NBC program the following year, she applied for what became her first job, writing for the NBC show “Ironside.” 

“The only person I had to meet was my showrunner because everybody else involved at NBC knew me already because I had met them while I was in the program,” she said.

Now a supervising producer on the CBS show “S.W.A.T.,” Levy said that even now, more than 10 years into her career, the programs “have never stopped being a support system.” 

Because many of the programs have been around for years, alums have built their own communities as they ascend the ladder. They share advice, recommend each other for jobs and, as they reach more senior level positions, hire newer program alums. The network executives who administer the programs also help support alums, such as advocating for them, connecting them to showrunners and other leaders at the network and suggesting them when there are job openings.

But hiring alone doesn’t change the structure and doesn’t create opportunities on a wide scale. Many underrepresented writers are hoping the conversation moves beyond how to bring people into the industry, and more on whether industry leaders are taking concrete steps to ensure more underrepresented creators reach positions of power. 

Founded in 2018, the Think Tank for Inclusion and Equity (TTIE) is a coalition of TV writers from underrepresented groups (female or non-binary writers, writers of color, LGBTQ writers and disabled writers) working to change the industry from within, including by trying to address the lack of underrepresented writers at the highest levels and identifying why not enough of them have been rising to positions of power.

“When you look at these diversity programs that started 20-some-odd years ago, and you know it takes six or eight years to climb the ladder to showrunner, where’d all those writers go?” said Angela Harvey, one of TTIE’s co-founders. “What happened? Where did everybody go?”

For the past two years, TTIE has conducted a wide-ranging survey of TV writers, identifying trends and putting numbers behind common and persistent hurdles disproportionately faced by underrepresented writers, which often result in them becoming stuck in early or mid-career roles. 

TV writing is tightknit and hierarchical: After the entry-level role of staff writer, writers typically advance into roles with an increasing amount of responsibility and authority: story editor, executive story editor, co-producer, producer, supervising producer, and finally, executive producer and showrunner, the two highest rungs on the ladder.

Representation at the top of the ladder is crucial because the people in these roles are the most influential. They lead the writers room, allocate the show’s budget and set the show’s creative vision.

“Those are the people who really have the agency and power to make creative decisions and impact story,” said Tawal Panyacosit Jr., another TTIE co-founder. “Often, that’s where, you know, when people talk about wanting to have diverse voices in the room, it’s only at that level that you’re actually heard.”

The Importance Of Data

One basic first step is data and transparency. Y. Shireen Razack, another TTIE co-founder, said TTIE started its survey to show how the problems underrepresented writers face were systemic.

“In talking with a lot of other underrepresented writer friends, we had a lot of the same stories working on various shows, and we started sharing stories and also sharing the pushback that we were getting, which is: ‘Oh, that just happened to you. Oh, that’s an anomaly,’” she said. “But we were hearing it so often that we realized that we needed to get data.”

TTIE’s surveys, as well as reports and studies from the WGA — which has published annual reports about the demographics of its members and studied the barriers to career advancement for underrepresented writers — have repeatedly found that underrepresented writers have faced a disproportionate amount of barriers in climbing the ladder and eventually becoming an executive producer or a showrunner and/or getting to develop their own show. Among some of the most pervasive problems: disproportionately repeating the staff writer position for multiple years or on multiple shows, battling the stigma of being “a diversity hire,” and experiencing discrimination or harassment. 

Nearly half of underrepresented writers said they had to repeat the staff writer position at least once, compared to only 34.6% of writers from overrepresented groups, according to TTIE’s most recent survey in the fall of 2019, which included more than 300 underrepresented writers as well as a smaller reference group of writers from overrepresented groups. The survey also showed a lack of diverse representation at the top of the ladder: 18.8% of respondents said there were zero underrepresented writers in upper-level roles on their most recent shows, and 45.2% of respondents said there was only one. 

More than 10% of respondents said they had been fired for “pushing back on stereotypical characters/storylines.”

For writers who have tried to start their own shows, 33.9% of underrepresented writers said they were “asked to change a character’s identity to increase the odds of selling a project,” and just 32.9% of underrepresented writers said they were “assured creative leadership and showrunner status on their own shows in development.”

Nearly 69% of underrepresented writers in the survey said they have experienced discrimination during their TV careers. TTIE’s report on the survey’s findings points out that, of the underrepresented writers who said they didn’t experience some kind of marginalization, tokenization or discrimination in their writers room, “many noted that they believe the reason driving this is that their showrunner is also a member of one or more underrepresented groups.”

Similarly, underrepresented writers in the WGA’s study were more likely to report feeling “very included” in their writers room if their showrunner was a woman and/or a person of color: 56.4%, compared to 46.3% for underrepresented writers whose showrunner was a white man.

The key to wide-scale change, then, is a greater number of underrepresented writers getting to become showrunners.

“That is the struggle, right? We need to get more of us at that upper level, not only so we can be running our own shows, but so that we can then foster more people through the system,” Levy said. “That’s a big requirement of really having true systemic change.”

Forestieri said that if she becomes a showrunner, “I’ll be able to pay it forward and hire a program writer because I know how much work it takes.”

What The Programs Could Do Better

Some of the writers said the diversity programs themselves could better prepare people from underrepresented groups for long-term success, such as in navigating the dynamics and hierarchies of TV writers’ rooms. 

“The amount of times that I thought to myself, like, ‘Oh, I can’t be the angry Black woman in this room — like, I have to calm down because I don’t want to come across that way,’” Levy said. “I find that to be something that needs to be talked about really honestly. I try to be really frank about that stuff when I’m mentoring because it’s just hard, and it’s uncomfortable. I’ve been pretty fortunate [that] only on one show have I been the only person of color. So I haven’t had that weight of, like, I have to speak for every person of color, for the most part. And by the time I was in that situation, I was an upper-level writer, so I had more power.”

Razack began her TV writing career in the CBS program in 2007. She went on to be a writer on shows including NBC’s “Trauma,” “Undercovers,” co-created by J.J. Abrams, TNT’s “Rizzoli & Isles” and Freeform’s “Shadowhunters,” and is now a co-executive producer on NBC’s “New Amsterdam.”

“Some of the things that they don’t prepare you for are the things that are actually causing the attrition,” Razack said of the programs. “You’re going to have to deal with microaggressions and actual aggressions on a daily basis. How do you navigate that? How do you navigate pitching against a story that fundamentally pisses you off, or fundamentally insults you, or is insulting somebody else in the room who also doesn’t have the power to speak up?”

These are obstacles that even the most inclusive and supportive white male showrunners may not realize, as Levy pointed out. 

“As people of color and certainly as women of color, so much of our upbringing is about not making waves, not drawing attention to ourselves, and to get along to get along,” Levy said. “Even people who are trying to do the work don’t necessarily understand that that is the world that we’re all coming from.” 

Looking back at her first job, she now realizes how crucial it was that her boss “said to me: ‘You’re here because I picked you, so I want to hear what you have to say.’” 

“It’s so empowering to someone to be told that your voice matters, and I think not enough showrunners realize that their staff writers of color or their female staff writers probably need to hear that they want to hear their opinion,” Levy said. “And I do think it’s really sort of jumped out at me, the past couple of years. It’s a thing that a white male staff writer is just not gonna think twice about.”

Now, when newer writers reach out to her for advice, she always makes sure to emphasize that she’s here for them if they have questions or are experiencing any self-doubts. Levy recalled that while working on one of her first shows, she had questions but wasn’t sure how to ask, not wanting to stand out in the writers room. She reached out to one of her mentors, a Black female showrunner, who helped boost her confidence, assuring her that other writers probably had the same questions.

“Just hearing that took the pressure off, right? And then I was able to go in and sort of find my footing, and I left that show with amazing relationships with my executive producers — and, in fact, with another job because our showrunner, George Nolfi, asked me to write a movie,” she said. “None of that would have happened if I had let myself sink in that lack of confidence, and having someone I could ask to reassure me was hugely important.”

Industry-Wide Problems

Many of the underrepresented writers said there are problems that are either unique to mid-career jobs or the result of systemic inequities, so they require larger interventions.

“The goal is structural change. The goal is access. The goal is equality of opportunity,” said Maha Chehlaoui, TTIE’s program director and a theater producer and consultant. “The goal is having people in the room who understand what authenticity is. That was not the goal of these programs. The goal of these programs was to open a door, and doors have been opened. Now, what’s the 2.0, right?”

Several writers said one fundamental problem is that there simply aren’t enough jobs at the mid-level — which usually starts at the executive story editor level — because of shrinking budgets, so there are fewer opportunities for writers to move up the ladder. Taking on upper-level roles requires gaining experience in production and making decisions beyond the writing of a show. This experience can be difficult to attain for any writer, regardless of their background or identity. 

The explosion of the “peak TV” age has also contributed to writers getting stuck or reaching a ceiling. For instance, Levy explained that shows on the broadcast networks tend to have a tight production schedule to fit the traditional fall-to-spring TV calendar. Therefore, a lot of the elements of the show’s production process will be happening simultaneously: writers might be writing an episode, while another is being shot, and another is being edited. This way, writers are more likely to have opportunities to be on set and potentially be involved in production. But on premium cable and streaming shows, there can often be a longer time gap between when the writers are working on the episodes and when the episodes are shot. 

“That’s definitely just an industry-wide problem — like, we have to figure out a way to solve that problem for all the writers,” she said. “But everything that affects all writers affects us more.” 

Even more fundamentally, there has to be pay equity, which starts with correcting pay inequities at the bottom, according to Liz Alper. Alper, a TV writer, co-founded #PayUpHollywood, which has been advocating for better wages and working conditions for assistants and support staff, a common entry-level position in Hollywood that is systematically underpaid. 

In the fall of 2019, #PayUpHollywood conducted a survey of more than 1,500 assistants in various parts of the industry. Nearly 80% of the respondents were white, indicating that when assistants are promoted to a staff-level job, “you don’t have a lot of assistants of color to pull from,” Alper said. 

Alper, who has been a writer on shows like NBC’s “Chicago Fire,” CBS’s “Hawaii Five-O” and ABC’s “The Rookie,” got her start on Fox’s “House” as a writers’ assistant in 2011. Regardless of how people get their foot in the door, she said, “if you’re not paying people a living wage so that anyone can come in and be able to sustain themselves on the salary that they make, then we’re not going to be a diverse industry.” 

Most of the diversity programs are unpaid and held in the evenings, meaning that writers have to be working another job or have some other means of income, while pursuing TV writing on the side. The Disney/ABC program is the only one where participants are considered full-time employees and get a salary and benefits. And it’s common for writers to do these programs at multiple networks and studios over multiple years before they land their first staff writer job. 

Inclusion Beyond The Entry Level

The WGA has also tried to address the problems of career advancement for underrepresented writers, said Tery Lopez, the WGA’s director of inclusion and equity. The key, she said, is thinking about these problems at all levels of the industry and from different angles. 

In 2009, the WGA established the TV Writer Access Program, specifically aimed at mid-level writers from underrepresented groups, whose careers may have reached a dead end after being “the diversity hire” or repeating the staff writer position. If selected, the writers participate in seminars, such as learning how to better talk about themselves, which can help them get on more people’s radars. Other seminars include hearing from agents and showrunners to learn about what they look for in writers.

“One thing we found out through the program is that writers know how to pitch their scripts, their stories, inside and out,” Lopez said. “But when it comes to pitching themselves, it’s really hard for them to really find those qualities or recognize the qualities that are going to make them stand out.”

There is also a showrunner training program each year. While it’s not specifically aimed at candidates from underrepresented groups, Lopez said that in its newest class of aspiring showrunners, who will begin the program this month, women outnumber men two to one, and more than half of the class consists of writers of color.

The WGA has also used its annual reports and surveys of its members to make recommendations to agencies and to network and studio executives, Lopez said.

Some of those executives said they have also been thinking more specifically about how to help writers move up the ladder.

Karen Horne, senior vice president of enterprise inclusion at WarnerMedia (the parent company of HBO and Warner Bros.), said she has also been frustrated with seeing underrepresented writers face a disproportionate amount of hurdles to career advancement. An industry veteran who previously oversaw NBCUniversal’s diversity and inclusion programs, including NBC’s Writers on the Verge, Horne said “half the battle” is making people in power, like showrunners, aware that their underrepresented writers have experienced these problems, such as repeating the staff writer position multiple times or battling the stigma of being a “diversity hire” — which she hopes is changing.

“It’s easier to get into Princeton, Harvard and Yale than it is to get into these industry writing programs,” Horne said. “The caliber of the writers who come out of these programs can’t be denied. They are oftentimes, and I would say probably all the time, as good, if not better than any other staff writer.”

Horne said she is also thinking about more specific ways to help writers beyond the entry level, such as connecting showrunners to mid-career writers whose careers have stalled and may have fallen off people’s radars.

“When you look at the industry, it’s really not just about who you know, but more importantly, it’s about who knows you,” she said. “We’re trying to make sure that our creative team knows that talent that’s out there.”

Some networks and studios have begun to set benchmarks. For example, CBS has committed to dedicating a minimum of 25% of its development budget to fund projects from creators who are Black, Indigenous and people of color, beginning with the upcoming 2021-22 TV season. In addition, writers rooms on CBS shows must include at least 40% BIPOC representation and must rise to at least 50% by the 2022-23 season.

Jeanne Mau, CBS’s senior vice president for global inclusion, sees these new commitments as working in tandem with the early-career programs because “improving representation can happen on both ends,” she said.

In terms of specific steps at the mid- and upper levels, Mau said that the goal of the programs is “to lay the proper pipework at the very front to make sure that they can have long, sustaining success in the industry.” Ultimately, she said, it’s on the writers to continue building and cultivating the relationships and professional networks that they began during the program.

“We are training writers to be showrunners, and, in all honesty, if we didn’t teach them the proper skills in that one year that they participated regardless of how young they are as emerging writers in television, we haven’t done our job,” she said. “At every part of your career, if you’re driving the relationship with myself and with the network and the people who advocated on your behalf, there should be no reason why you don’t have access to the system, bottom line.”

‘You’re Not Introducing Change On A Wide Scale’

Nearly every underrepresented writer and director talked about the steps they’ve taken themselves to pay it forward, like forming support and advisory groups, mentoring those coming up the ranks and helping one another feel less alone.

But it’s not on them to do it themselves. Without ample paths to positions of power, they can’t create the kind of change that will shift an entire industry — and in turn, make the path easier for others.

“Part of it is, you have people who are not inherently racist, but who just work in a business that looks like them. So when they get a list of writers to approve, it’s not always their first thought to say, ‘Wait a second, is there only one writer of color in this room? Like, maybe we should talk about that,’” Levy said. “Diversifying writers rooms is great, but we need to diversify the jobs on top of us, the executive ranks and the producer ranks, because it will help. It will help make this an easier conversation to have — and maybe we’ll have to have the conversation less because it’ll just be filled with people who think about that from day one.” 

No single program or initiative is going to change that. Several writers said they felt the industry has put all of its eggs in the basket of diversity programs, and nowhere near enough effort into correcting deeper inequities. 

“All of the writing programs have evolved over the past few years to be that thing that people can point to and say, ‘We’re working on that problem. We’re addressing it,’” Razack said.

Similarly, Alper said the diversity programs are like “a workaround” in the absence of more systemic changes.

“You’re not introducing change on a wide scale,” Alper said. “If we have three more diversity programs, and that’s what we’re relying on for diversity for writers, writers will remain overwhelmingly white.”

Like so many aspects of our current societal reckoning, these problems are deeply rooted and require big cultural shifts, from changing existing hierarchies to dismantling the myth that everyone has an equal shot at success, Chehlaoui said.

“One of the things that I started hearing over and over again as I talked to a lot of people was this repeated mythology that if you work hard enough in Hollywood, you’ll make it to the top, the cream will always rise,” she said. “You know what? Cream is white!”




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