Writers Strike Opened New Doors for Diversity
When it comes to diversity in television, the good thing about the Writers Guild strike was that everybody talked about the money, and nobody talked about diversity.
Why is that good? Let me repeat—everybody talked about money. If diversity doesn’t mean everybody, then it doesn’t really mean anything.
After several months of walking picket lines together, writers of color say uniting over the issue of money is just what the fight to break barriers in Hollywood needs.
Prior to the end of the strike, Peter Murrieta, executive producer of the Disney Channel’s “Wizards of Waverly Place,” noted, “We’re united in how painful it is for all of us. I’m a pretty cynical guy, but … I feel less and less that it’s a question of who’s Latino, African American or Asian. We’re all together in this. There are opportunities to forge relationships with people every day on the picket line. Meaningful relationships, not just conversations having to do with networking.”
Murrieta became a contract captain during pre-strike negotiations, volunteering to strategize on the best places and times to picket. While there was opportunity to meet new folks on the line, many people already knew each other. Murrieta’s strike team, for example, was comprised of writers from “Wizards of Waverly Place” and a few TV writers not on the show.
The work stoppage clearly hurt many in the local economy. As far as diversity hiring goes, one unfortunate fallout was the effect on 14 Disney-ABC Writing Fellows (a diverse group of 10 TV and four feature fellows), who were forced to decide whether to cross the picket line in order to get paid or accept suspension of their fellowship until the strike’s end.
The Disney-ABC program, which is run in partnership with the WGA, is the only paid TV and feature writing fellowship in town. It offers fellows $50,000 for the year, plus writing instruction and mentoring relationships with TV executives.
All 14 fellows chose not to cross the picket line, and since the fellowship program runs from February to February, their future is even more unclear.
“Most of those people are not WGA members,” says Murrieta, a former Disney writing fellow himself. “We can’t compensate them, but we’ve put together a program where showrunners are volunteering to put on workshops to continue their instruction.”
Showrunners of color say because of the strike, there is a new avenue for discussion about opportunities for women and minority writers that didn’t exist before.
“All the showrunners formed an unofficial group called United Showrunners to show our solidarity for the strike,” says Mara Brock Akil, executive producer of The CW sitcoms “Girlfriends” and “The Game.” “People have gotten to know each other now, and since the majority of showrunners do the hiring, I’d like to broach the issue of diversity with my peers.”
Akil admits that any feel-good camaraderie among showrunners is bound to be short-lived once shows begin production again. As writers get back to work, she says, the tendency for most will be to focus on their own shows, and their own financial interest.
“Diversity, as a business model, has been proven the best thing to do,” Akil says, citing the success of shows with multicultural casts such as “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Heroes” and “Lost.” “We don’t need the studios or networks telling us to have at least one minority or one woman in the writers room. Within the guild family, we should be able to solve the problem.”
Should be able, however, is not the same as will be done. Showrunners like Murrieta and Akil know how hard it was for them to break into the business, and while each is committed to diversity in television, each can only account for one piece of a much greater whole.
Why is it so easy for writers to come together over a dispute about money, and so hard for them to unite over the issue of diversity? In every relationship—whether it’s business, family or romance—we seek the same things: acceptance, friendship and some quality of love that validates who we are and what we’re doing in the world.
Maybe some of the relationships formed on the picket line will turn into personal cross-cultural friendships. But the road to equality in the writers room is a much longer journey than the path to the next contract negotiation.
It is a journey shared by everyone who works in the television industry, at all levels, both in front of and behind the cameras. Doing something to move the needle and raise the bar for equality—at least every other step of the way—is the challenge ahead.
Success lies within all of us, and in every moment we choose to claim it, or we fight the experience. Now that the writers strike is over, the community that formed over the value of money will have an opportunity to claim success and push forward on new fronts. How great it would be if diversity was one of them.