By Sylvia Franklin
There’s a lot of buzz about diversity, one of the political hot potatoes at the moment. It makes people uncomfortable, angry even. When you put that spotlight on the landscape of prime-time scripted television, the topic is even more incendiary. And I’m not referencing famous actors, athletes or Oprah Winfrey. I’m talking about writers and producers-those folks who bring you must-see TV.
Take Virgil Williams, for instance.
Virgil Williams is a writer/producer on NBC’s venerable hit “ER.” He’s also African American. “I’ve never worked with another African American male writer,” he says. “I’ve never worked with a Latino or Asian male writer, for that matter. I’ve always been the literal minority on a writing staff.”
A writing staff on a prime-time scripted drama typically consists of six to 12 people. And 70 percent of those people are white and male.
Williams goes on to say the lack of balance is frustrating, especially since he feels it’s his responsibility to be that nudge, that tap on the shoulder, reminding people that there are other perspectives and experiences out there.
“Some VIPs get tired of hearing it, but if I don’t say anything-someone who’s on the front lines-who or what’s going to be that thing that incites change?” he says.
Williams has been in the game for a number of years, four as a working writer. He’s one of the lucky ones. And he knows it.
“When I go to work at the studio, I see security guards, mail carriers, people in the commissary and messengers, all African American,” Williams says. “Admittedly, I’ll see the occasional person of color on our crew, be it a grip or the boom guy. And it’s frustrating, ’cause all I can think of is exposure. Don’t black and brown young people in high school/college know that writing (or sound mixing, being best boy, whatever) for TV is a viable option as a career?”
Back in 1999, the NAACP decided to launch an in-depth study to see who was writing scripted prime-time TV. Why? During the 1999-2000 TV season, there wasn’t one African American who had a lead role in a prime-time television show. Writers write the characters, so who’s doing the writing, right?
Out of 839 working writers, 55 were African American, 11 were Latino, three were Asian and none were American Indians. Heart attack over yet? That was then.
Today, or rather in the 2005-06 season, there were 1,847 TV writing jobs. Of that number, only 206 were held by minorities. And 72 of them were African American writers for dramas. And if I do my own count, of that 72, maybe 20 were African American males.
I say “maybe” because I’m trying to be generous as well as count (on both hands, thank you) who I know. I got these stats from the Writers Guild of America, of which I’m a member.
Williams is “shockingly unshocked” by the dismal tally. What’s wrong with this picture? And more importantly, can this endangered “protected class” be saved?
To further exacerbate tensions and misunderstandings, Williams admits he has colleagues, white colleagues, who’ve been told by their agents that procuring low-level writing positions is next to impossible because all those spots are given to minorities. Diversity candidates.
“It’s a lie,” Williams states with no small amount of incredulity. “Where are these minority writers? Where is this wave of people? I don’t see them, never worked with them. I’m one of two mid-level writers I know who just happen to be African American and male. Two. Where are the agents who can explain that?”
Williams has worked long and hard honing his craft, living his life so he can be that much more informed as a writer. His goal is to create and run his own show or shows by the time he hits 40. Five years from now. And if he doesn’t make that deadline, he’s content to let the chips fall where they may, 40 or no 40. “Job security’s a state of mind,” he says.
His frustration is understandable. I’m living la vida loca myself. There are writing programs in place by ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, Warner Bros. and Nickelodeon-some diversity, some not. They’re small steps forward, though. Being saddled with the unenviable task of opening minds and closed doors to what some consider outsiders is no easy task.
And yet these programs must remain. They must expand. Until we can stop questioning why, instead of why not, the need is there for emerging, mid-level and senior writers of color to help us shape our stories and our appointment TV. The changing American demographic demands it. And we, all writers, must follow.
Sylvia Franklin is a television writer living in Los Angeles. She is co-chair of the WGA’s Committee of Black Writers and president of the Organization of Black Screenwriters. Ms. Franklin currently holds a nonwriting position on Fox’s “Prison Break.”