Do TV writing diversity programs help…or are they just a new way to stitch on ye olde scarlet letter?
by Rebecca Sun
In their ideal form, the mentorship and training programs that the Big Four television networks use to identify and develop new writing talent also serve to jump-start the careers of diverse writers. Such was the case for Rashad Raisani, who got into NBCUniversal’s Writers on the Verge program in 2007. Erika Kennair, who ran the program then and now is vp comedy development at ABC, pitched him for USA’s Burn Notice and worked out an unusual three-year deal in which NBCU would pay Raisani’s staff-writer (or entry-level) salary, even though the drama was being produced by Fox Television Studios. If the show decided to bring him back with the customary annual promotion the following year, Fox only would have to cover the pay difference until the NBCU contract expired. By the time Burn Notice ended in 2013, Raisani was a co-executive producer, paid no differently than the rest of the room. After helping develop NBC’s short-lived Allegiance as executive producer, he signed an overall deal with Universal TV in February and now is focusing full-time on development. “There’s no way I’d be here if it were not for Writers on the Verge because it made the decision for [showrunner] Matt Nix to hire me really easy since I was free,” says Raisani. “I also benefited from the fact that there was a diversity hire before me named Ben Watkins[now creator of Amazon’s Hand of God], and he was the star of the staff. He showed that ‘diversity’ doesn’t mean ‘second class.’ ”
Despite major strides in diversifying television with Empire, Fresh Off the Boat andBlack-ish, the stats on writers in Hollywood still are sobering: Minorities make up 13.7 percent of writers rooms while comprising 37.9 percent of the population nationwide, with only 10 individuals of color (out of 73) on THR‘s 2015 Power Showrunners list. There are no stats available on how many minority writers made it in TV without going through a program, though one Latino alum jokes: “John Ridley had to win an Oscar to get a television show.” Which is why new-talent development and “inclusion” programs, such as the ones every single broadcast network supports — no doubt part good business, part public relations, part social conscience — are a key part of writers room staffing. Like college scholarships for minorities, these programs are all about removing as many barriers to entry as possible, including financial ones. But with every good intention can come inadvertent side effects, from writers of color who are perceived as less qualified to the subsidization of first-season salaries that can lead to a “freebie” mentality among showrunners toward those scribes.