"Men At Work is hiring, and they need a diversity staff writer."
This was a line my agent said to me by way of greeting, earlier this summer. Not a staff writer. A diverse staff writer. My skin color, not my ability to convince Breckin Meyer and the nice people over at TBS that I can pound out 32 pages of jokes, would have been the key factor in getting me that coveted first staff writing job.
There's this thing in Hollywood, a "diversity staff writer." Most every writing room has one—an entry level, non-white staff writer, explicitly hired due to their race. (If you're really lucky, being gay or a woman might just suffice, in lieu of not being white.) The diverse staff writing position, colloquially referred to as a "diversity hire," isn't just a vague, subtle effort to break up the litany of white, male faces that make up a majority of the working writers in television. In corporate America, minorities often have to deal with vicious whispers amongst white co-workers about how they got where they are as a token hire—"They had to hire a black guy." Perversely, Hollywood's genuine attempt to remedy the overwhelming whiteness of the industry has instead led to a place where networks pat themselves on the back for hiring a token writer by institutionalizing those sotto voce complaints. We are called, on paper and to our faces, diversity hires.
Though the requirements vary from program to program, the basic principle is the same: We, the network, are going to make you, the executive producer, hire one lower-level staff writer who is diverse. To get you to comply, we'll provide the salary for said writer. Fair solution, right? In the Hollywood economy, all aspects of the cost of producing a television show—from writer and actor salaries to the actual shooting and editing of each episode—are paid for by the studio behind the show, not the network. While the network is actively involved creatively, its financial responsibility comes from licensing the show from the studio and distributing it. It will then tack on some extra cash earmarked solely for a diversity hire, so that the studio budget can instead go towards everything that's "integral" for the show to function. (This always includes a robust craft services budget—it's mandated by the Writer's Guild of America that the writers' room alone have catered lunch and snacks on hand every day.) Showrunners don't have to worry about wasting their studio budget on a token hire that may not be so great in the room, a young colored writer gets a shot at the dream, networks proudly get to proclaim their commitment to diversity, everyone wins! Except that it's not great. At all.
It's a specific position earmarked solely for an entry-level diverse writer, with funds allocated specifically for said hire by the network—funds that do not come out of the show's own budget. Diversity staff writing programs currently exist at almost every major broadcast network, and at some cable networks.
To understand why these diversity programs exist, it's crucial to understand that complaints about the domination of white males in the television business aren't just some generalized rant from minorities. Out of CBS' six new shows this season (The Millers, Mom, The Crazy Ones, We Are Men, Hostages and Intelligence), each one was created by a white male. Fox's new shows? Another six for six in terms of white male creators. ABC's seven new shows were all led by white male writers, though two comedies—Super Fun Night and Trophy Wife—boast female creators. NBC, with the most new programming this season, comes in with 12 new shows, all created by white males. Which means that now, even in 2013, not a single new show was created by a diverse writer. Sure, Shonda Rhimes has broken ground with Scandal, but a quick look around the television landscape shows that in the decade since Rhimes created her first ABC hit, Grey's Anatomy, her success still hasn't done much to change the status quo. And if diversity isn't a priority for network executives in how they develop their programming, it should come as no surprise that a similar lack of diversity has trickled down through writers' rooms, rendering them almost as colorless as their creators.
The differences in the programs show just how half-hearted some of these attempts at diversity are. A few networks have established highly selective, intense workshops for diverse writers, and only staff their diversity positions with graduates of that process. Others only establish a budget for a diverse hire, but anyone diverse, regardless of whether that network has a diversity workshop, can be considered for a writing job come staffing season. At Fox, a writer can qualify for the diversity staff writer stipend for multiple seasons, not just their first season, which on the surface seems to ensure job security. But salary minimums are mandated by the Writer's Guild of America, and are tiered based on level, with staff writer being the lowest. Which means that Fox can guarantee a person of color a job to return to in future seasons, but also cleverly hold a person down at the level of diverse staff writer, even though they may be far too qualified to remain there. If a showrunner wants to promote a writer out of the diversity hire slot, that writer's salary will be now be coming out of the show's budget, rather than a separate network stipend, and pulling funds away from other aspects of production. CBS doesn't have a diversity staff writer budget at all, though they do have a robust young writer's initiative, which is colorblind.
(NBC is one of the few networks to get the diversity program right: a writer only qualifies as a diversity staff writer if they are of color and have worked on less than 22 episodes of television, the amount of a full season. After that, they have to be hired as a staff writer or higher, but out of the show's own budget, rather than the network's stipend—which gives a writer a foot in the door, but forces them to quickly earn future positions based on merit alone.)
The definition of diversity also varies from program to program: while some networks mandate non-white lineage as a qualification, others take a broader view. Warner Brothers Studios, which doesn't have a sister network and solely licenses out their content, is the only studio to provide a diversity stipend separate from its show budgets—but it will accept minor health defects as a metric of diversity, in addition to race. (Interestingly, because of their studio-funded stipend, networks that license a show from WB will not allocate their own diversity staff writer stipend on that show, instead allowing the WB to foot that bill as well, rather than using money they already had earmarked to hire a second diverse writer.) Since the Writer's Guild doesn't mandate diversity hiring practices across the board for broadcast and cable networks, each channel gets to set their own standards for what looks best on the glossy pamphlets passed out at shareholders' meetings—with very little oversight on how diversity is actually affecting change in the writers' room.
TBS' Men At Work did end up filling that diversity spot, not with one diverse writer, but two—both young Indian males with excellent writing resumes; resumes that should have earned them the job in spite of their brown skin, not as a lucky afterthought.
"Diversity writers are, like, always the worst writers in the room."
When that statement came out of the mouth of someone I had just met, it took all my effort not to lunge at her across the tiny dinner table that separated us. Instead, I pointed at myself and said "Um, thanks." She quickly apologized, but defended her statement, citing the lack of diversity talent on a sophomoric NBC comedy (constantly on the brink of cancellation) that a close friend of hers wrote for. As she explained it, there was a known stigma in the TV writing world that diversity hires are never quite as good, so much as they are just there.
She's not wrong—about the stigma, that is. While there are great diversity writers who have moved up through the television writing ranks based solely on brilliant writing skills (notable examples include Mindy Kaling, as well as The Millers' Danielle Sanchez-Witzel and Parks and Recreation's Alan Yang), I'd be lying if I said I haven't heard complaints—often from TV writers I know—about how inexperienced, how not creative, and how unfunny the diversity staff writer in the room was. The implication is always the same: the "diversity staff writer" is not one of us.
In the hierarchy of the writers' room, all staff writers nominally occupy the same spot—the lowest one on the writing totem pole. But in practice, the diversity hires are traditionally seen as slightly lower than plain old staff writers. The showrunner had to really want the staff writer there to be willing to part with $70,000 that could be spent on production or a different writer, whereas the diversity staff writer was a free gift from the network.
Singling out diverse writers by name as a show's "DSW" shows just how pejorative titles in this industry can be. Women who chose to go into production, over the typically male-dominated agency business, are often condescendingly referred to as "D-girls," for "development girl." Despite the abundance of successful male producers, I've never once heard a man who chose not to be the next Ari Emanuel referred to as a D-guy. By segregating a writer based on how they earned their seat at the table, the stigma reinforces the position that a diverse hire isn't worth the show's actual budget. As one showrunner on an ABC comedy told me, "Even if the DSW sucks, who cares? How much damage can the lowest person in my room really do?"
"Do you want to be writing partners? This white male writer not in a partnership thing isn't working out."
File that under "Things I Did Not Immediately Find Offensive Even Though I Should Have." An acquaintance said that to me at a party once and I was actually charmed: though he hadn't been on a TV show in a year, he previously wrote for an animated sitcom on Comedy Central that I was obsessed with, and his first script had made waves a few years ago when it sold to FOX and was turned into a pilot. It wasn't until later, when the friend who introduced us took me aside, that I realized how blind I was. "Listen, you're both good writers, but he needs you more than you need him. He's never read you before—he just wants an easier shot of getting staffed, because you're diverse."
Think of it as the commodification of diversity: Writers and networks game the system to cop an advantage. Many shows will find the slightest reason to qualify someone as diverse, just to meet the network's standards, rather than really committing to expanding the horizons of their room. Fox's Seth Macfarlane-produced Dads, which came under fire this year for its overtlyunfunny racist jokes, also suffered from diversity woes in its writers' room. I've been told by multiple agents, whose job is to staff writers on shows, that creators Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild were so committed to keeping the room as small as possible, that they didn't even want to take on Fox's diversity hire. When pressed by Fox, they fought back by pointing out that of the white male writing team they hired at the staff writer level, one of the men was part Mexican, and therefore, also diverse. No changes were made to the predominantly white male staff after that, despite the fact that cantankerous fathers seem to exist in all cultures. (Update: Sulkin has given me the following comment: "Dads staffed very late in the season and the quality of network suggested writers, diverse or not, was very low. That's why we ended up staffing mostly with people we'd worked with before. We'd be happy to hire diversity writers. It's all about the quality of the submissions.")
My most recent experience with commodification came this June, as I interviewed for a job on the writing staff of CBS' We Are Men. After great meetings with both the studio and the show creator, one of my agents let me know the reason the show's producers over at the Tanennbaum Company thought I had a great shot at getting the job. "You're Indian, so you can write for Kal [Penn], and you're a girl, so you can write for Tony Shalhoub's daughter, too!" While it is true, I am Indian and indeed a female, a quick read of any script I'd written up to that point didn't speak exclusively to either of those characteristics. The network ended up not hiring anyone for that position when the room first began, choosing instead to spend their money on upper level writers—also mostly all white male—and the show was cancelled after just two episodes.
It's not that the 30-something white male with the heart murmur in the Warner Brother's program this year—yes, really—isn't diverse by way of health, it's that the collective experiences that he brings to the table ideally need to be greater than the sum of his semi-functioning parts.
"You know, you're just like that girl from The Office. You could be the next Mindy Kaling!"
I have no specific story of how this was said to me, because I've heard it from so many people now, I've lost count. I don't share that story to brag (believe me, when a guy drunkenly tells you that he only made out with you because he loves The Mindy Project, the comparison quickly loses its allure), but because that's how people see me when I tell them I'm a comedy writer: Indian, female, comedy writer. Forget the fact that I just said "comedy writer" in reply to the "So, what do you do?" question; in the wake of Kaling's success, the modifier has been thrown on for me regardless. Kaling has a great quote about this—one that I often overuse when expressing my frustration with being stuffed in a racial box. "I never want to be called the funniest Indian female comedian that exists. I feel like I can go head-to-head with the best white, male comedy writers that are out there. Why would I want to self-categorize myself into a smaller group than I'm able to compete in?"
So why is the lack of diversity such a prevalent problem in writers rooms? It isn't systemic racism, subtly ingrained in all development executives and showrunners. In Hollywood, the old saw goes, success is very much predicated on who you know. While hard work and talent are needed to take you far, getting your foot in the door is much easier when you know people who have walked through it previously. Jewish summer camps are often joked about in this industry as the best film school a Hollywood hopeful can attend, but is that joke really that far from the truth?
To look at it from another perspective, it's worth noting that a barrier to entry isn't entirely what's keeping writers' rooms so homogenous, it's also who chooses to try to enter. It can just as easily be said that while Jewish communities tend to be more accepting of writing as a viable profession, Asian communities, particularly the parents of first-generation Asian Americans, generally prefer their children to go into more tangible careers with stability: medicine, law, engineering, finance. As one of the Men At Work diversity writers told me, despite selling his first feature script while in graduate school, working for Tina Fey on 30 Rock, and now staffing on a successful show in its second season, his parents are still upset that he quit his joint M.D./PhD program at Columbia. In a business with so many thousands of aspiring writers, for a showrunner, its often easier to give a chance to someone you know through your network of friends than it is to read through the 47 submissions your covering agent at CAA sent over.
Ironically, the diversity departments at the major broadcast networks and their studio counterparts tend to be segregated from the development and current programming departments—the ones that create and maintain shows and hire writers. Accordingly, the young writers in these networks' diversity programs often remain unexposed to the executives who have a final say in hiring until the program draws to a close, usually around the time staffing is about to begin. Given that staffing is the busiest time of year for a television executive, and agents have been pitching them writers of all caliber throughout the year, the new graduates are often not known by the executives who could give them their first job, thus exiling nonwhite writers further from the industry they're trying to break into.
I don't think that diversity programs are inherently evil—far from it, actually. In theory, they open doors for people who are currently far underrepresented at the table. But just as it often makes non-diverse writers uncomfortable that a job is being given to someone essentially based on skin color, it makes me just as uncomfortable to receive a job based on mine.
Before I had a clear understanding of how each network's diversity initiatives functioned, I was always firmly on board with the diversity hiring process. Having worked at NBC Universal, a network that only allows the diversity stipend to cover a writer who has worked on less than one season of television, it seemed like trading on my genetic makeup was a one-time deal to earn my place at the table. As I told my parents, who were never comfortable with the idea of their daughter getting a job based on race, "I don't care about how I earned my first job, I care about my second job, my third job, and the rest of my career." I was confident in my skills as a young writer, but I was far more confident in the fact that I also had the right connections to help me secure that first job. Viewed through that lens, the diversity position seemed like a great stepping stone towards a long and prosperous career.
What I didn't realize until I'd gone through an entire year of trying to lock down a writing job was the fact that ever so subtly, I was also starting to think of myself as only a diversity writer. I've lost count of the number of times I've called my agents to tell them that I heard there's a diversity position open on a show. They of course put me up for non-diversity positions just as frequently as they do regular jobs, but there's an unspoken understanding: It's a lot easier to get a job as an Indian female than it is to compete against a larger pool of white males who dominate the industry. No matter how much bravado I have about my own personal ability to get ahead via a mix of talent and connections, I assume that I'm not good enough to earn a job outright—that the only way I can convince someone to hire me for my first television staff writing job would be if the $80,000 some odd dollars didn't have to come out of their pocket.
Hollywood needs to do better. Diversity hires aren't fixing the larger lack of diversity in writing rooms. No matter how much Hollywood tries to stick their head into the sand, the problem keeps coming up. Critics blasted Saturday Night Live this fall for the lack of diversity in its cast, as did the show's own Jay Pharoah. Time recently wrote about how some network shows are trying to break the "one black friend" pattern, while criticizing networks for their general lack of onscreen diversity. But if the people in power, the development executives, the showrunners, the network heads who greenlight shows, aren't making fixing the status quo a priority, can things really change?
[Art by Sam Woolley]