Opening Up the Writers Room

Oct 18, 2004  •  Post A Comment

If you ask a network executive about the issue of diversity, you’re sure to hear the phrases “good for business” and “right thing to do.” After years of debate and threats of boycotts from groups like the Multiethnic Media Coalition, an umbrella group made up of Asian American, Latino, African American and Native American advocacy organizations, the Big 4 networks now have ongoing programs to turn platitudes into action.

To get a better sense of what ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox are doing to broaden the pool of employees, TelevisionWeek focused on an area where the four major networks are working to increase opportunities for people of color-the television writers’ room.

“If you don’t have a writer, you don’t have a show,” said Alex Nogales, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, one of the groups that make up the Multiethnic Media Coalition. “Programs mean absolutely zero unless they become feeder programs in the writing pool.”

By all accounts, getting into the business of writing for television is an almost impossible task, even with a leg up such as a family connection or a college buddy-turned-showrunner on your side. The skill set isn’t easy to master, either, since the nuances of spec script writing and knowing how to interview with executives and producers are difficult to navigate without guidance.

In a business where relationships and personalities play as much of a role in getting hired as sheer talent, executives who run Fox’s 3-year-old writers program start by talking to the producers who hire writers.

Mitsy Wilson, senior VP, diversity development, Fox Entertainment Group, said her network creates an atmosphere where a discussion on diversity can begin. The next step is engaging agents and managers to make sure they are sending writers of racially diverse backgrounds to Fox.

To get beyond the usual agency-approved candidates, Mr. Taylor oversees the network’s Writers Initiative, a program open to anyone but which, according to its Web site, encourages “African American, Latino, Asian and Native American writers” to apply. The goal is to find people with spec scripts that are ready to be read by executive producers. Selected writers then have to get themselves to Los Angeles, where Fox pays them as they go through a six-week screenwriting course taught by the Santa Monica-based training program Writers Boot Camp.

From there Ms. Wilson and Ron Taylor, Fox’s VP of diversity development, try to match their writers with the appropriate Fox network showrunners based on their understanding of both sides’ personalities, writing styles and needs. Fox covers the cost of the episodic fee of their Initiative writers for one year, provided they get staffed at the base staff writer level.

Ms. Wilson said that in 2003 about 500 writers applied for the Initiative, which ultimately selected 15, two of whom dropped out because they got writing jobs-one on the Fox show “Luis,” the other on NBC’s “The Tracy Morgan Show.” Of the remaining 13, five got jobs as staff writers, while two were placed as writers’ assistants.

At CBS, which concluded the first year of its writers mentoring program in June, there is a focus on building relationships between writers and network executives.

“We recognize there is a pool of talented writers,” said Josie Thomas, senior VP of diversity at CBS. “Much of what’s missing is access-access to decision-makers, senior-level talent at the network and in the show ranks.”

To help rectify that, CBS pairs each program participant with a network executive and a senior writer. The participants meet with their executive once a week and meet with their showrunner once or twice a month. In addition, they attend Wednesday night meetings with other participants, where they have discussions with agents and producers.

For the 2003-04 program CBS received 300 applications, which are read blind, regardless of race, background age or sex. “We accept applications from everybody,” Ms. Thomas said. “Obviously, we are looking for a diversity of voices, but everybody is eligible to apply.”

Other Talents Required

Unlike other network programs, CBS requires all applicants to submit a spec script plus an original piece of material.

“We are not just looking for staff writers,” said Carol Kirshner, who runs CBS’s mentoring program. “We are looking for people who have the talent and the chops to be showrunners.”

Of the 300 applicants, seven (all minorities) were accepted into the program, which started in January and ran about six months. One applicant got a position on CBS’s “Cold Case,” while three others were staffed on Fox shows: “Family Guy,” “Jonny Zero” and “Arrested Development.” Two landed writers’ assistant positions on CBS’s “Judging Amy” and “Listen Up.”

The fact that three writers ended up on a competing network’s shows doesn’t concern Ms. Thomas because the network’s long-term strategy is to increase diversity across the entire business. “Our real approach is industry impact,” she said. “If Fox hires one of our writers, we’re thrilled. And we’re thrilled if [Fox initiative writers] are hired at CBS.”

CBS does not give showrunners any financial incentives for hiring program writers, a strategy Ms. Thomas supports.

“It’s not financial,” she said. “What we are trying to have happen is for these writers to be included as part of the writing budget, not just viewed as `the diversity writer.”‘

Cherry Chevapravatdumrong (who writes under the last name Cheva) got a staff job at Fox’s “Family Guy.” Thanks to her CBS mentor Greg Garcia and her work as an assistant on the ABC sitcom “Hope & Faith,” she had friends in common with “Family Guy’s” Chris Sheridan, who hired her. Because Ms. Cheva, who is Asian American, is working on a Fox show, the network is picking up her costs as part of its program.

She said she “pretty much liked everything” about the CBS program, including the notes she got from her mentors on the “Will & Grace” spec she wrote during its duration.

“They were the ones that shot down my completely lame story ideas in the beginning and helped me through the process,” she said.

Still, Ms. Cheva said she wonders if there will be work for her after this job ends. “I’m concerned just the way anybody would be concerned-not from a minority point of view, but from a baby writer point of view,” she said. “Will I get another job?”

Of the four networks, ABC has been the longest at trying to find new writers; its fellowship program is 15 years old.

Run in partnership with the Writers Guild of America, ABC’s program gets thousands of applicants each year for the seven or eight TV writer slots available. Part of the attraction is that because of a waiver from the WGA, ABC pays each of its fellows $50,000 for the year they are in the program, which includes three or four days a week of seminars, discussions and screenings, often with A-list writers and directors. The program also sends fellows to Robert McKee’s weekend story seminar.

“There is no [other] program that pays you $50,000 to sit with a Steven Bochco,” said Carmen Smith, VP, talent development, ABC Entertainment Television Group.

ABC requires its fellows to work on spec scripts while attending everything from show run-throughs to meetings with Disney Imagineers. “They go through marketing. They go through sales. They get it from the production perspective,” she said. “When they leave here they are fully equipped.”

The $50,000 stipend initially covers the fellows’ first calendar year in the program, but ABC has a breakage program, which provides funds beyond the initial stipend, that can cover a fellow’s fees for another 14 weeks.

Like CBS and Fox, ABC’s program is open to everyone. Of the seven fellows from this year’s program, six are currently staffed on ABC shows. One of the fellows from last year was Tamiko Brooks, an African American who is now a staff writer on “8 Simple Rules.”

Ms. Brooks said she didn’t feel like she was walking into the room with a target on her back as “the diversity hire.” “Honestly, everyone was very good to me,” she said. But Ms. Brooks had to learn, like al
l new TV writers, that working in a room is a unique experience.

“What the program prepared me for was pitching ideas and taking notes from executives,” she said. “As far as the writers room goes, nothing can prepare you for that.”

If ABC’s program is the most expansive network in terms of training and networking, NBC’s approach to increasing diversity on its scripted shows is the most spare. Many writers who are in the program don’t even know they are participating.

Ted Frank, executive VP, current programs, said NBC’s program is about 4 years old and focuses solely on minorities. There is no application process, no mentorship component and no event to bring all the writers together.

Instead of allowing anyone with a script to apply for the program, NBC works directly with talent agencies to find minority writers who are ready to be staffed without the need for extra guidance. In theory, an aspiring writer might get a look from NBC, but ultimately he or she would have to be introduced through representation.

Mr. Frank said NBC’s approach puts more of an onus on the agencies to find and groom ready-for-prime-time minority writing talent.

“One of the things we have seen as a consequence of our program is that agencies have been more aggressive about finding writers they could sign that they could submit to the program,” he said.

Writers can stay in NBC’s program for up to three years, with the network covering the participant at the salary of staff writer. If the writer gets promoted to the position of story editor or executive story editor, NBC pays the base staff writer salary and makes the show pay any difference.

Mr. Frank said agents submitted around 200 writing hopefuls last year for the program. There are now 15 or 16 writers currently staffed on NBC shows who have their fees covered by the network. Five writers are currently in their second or third year on the program.

Angela Nissel, a writer on the comedy “Scrubs,” had no idea NBC had a program until her boss, Bill Lawrence, mentioned it at the end of her first season on the show.

“I called [my agent] at the end of the season and said, `Am I in the program?’ and he said `Yeah.’ At first I was like, `Ouch.’ It kind of hurt, but it was cool because [the program] let me stay, and I’m the only black writer on the show.”

Ms. Nissel said she sees the danger of a more open program, where the “program person” is easily identifiable and could suffer from fellow writers assuming he or she is not up to par. But she said making assumptions about hiring based on race should be no different than hiring based on nepotism.

“There’s a certain stigma if you came through a program, but not if you get hired because you play golf with the guy who happens to get a show on the air,” she said.

“Looking at it from Bill’s point of view,” she said, referring to showrunner Mr. Lawrence, “he wanted to create a show with diverse characters, but he didn’t know any black writers. That’s not his fault. NBC created a way to find some, and he used it.”