TV Writing & Social Responsibility – Can They Ever Live Together? Part 2

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Inclusive Writing
by Diana Black

Inclusive television is not a new concept with television programs over the years attempting to address the ‘inclusive’ issue through ensemble casting; as mentioned in ‘Part One’ of this article. So how successful and how serious has that effort been? Greg Braxton of the Los Angeles Times (2007), maintains that to a large extent the big networks have done poorly when it comes to ensuring television programming is inclusive beyond that of tokenism.

The question for us as writers seems to be, can artistic expression happily flourish and coexist with commercial viability beyond the ‘honeymoon period of the successful pilot?’

A review of the casting for long running sitcoms such as Friends (David Krane and Marta Kauffman, 1994 – 2004) and more recently Lost (Jeffry Lieber, J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof, 2004 – 10) seems to have addressed gender balance, but have they substantially addressed ethnicity? Both television series seem to have been tokenistic in that regard with the overwhelming majority of cast members ‘white’, ostensibly middle-class.

One genre in particular has separated itself from the pack, Science Fiction. Perhaps it is a genre that naturally lends itself to the IDIC Principle. The Star Trek franchise (Gene Rodenberry), Stargate (Roland Emmerich, 1994), Stargate SG-1 (Brad Wright and Jonathan Glassner, 1997), and more recently, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Jos Whedon, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, 2013 –).

However, does the ethnicity of the cast, even in these programs accurately reflect American society? Many say “No”. What about the most prevalent of the television genres, which according to IMDB, is the hybridization of drama with crime, mystery and thriller? Sitcoms currently seem to streaking ahead, especially ABC’s current line-up – Black-ish (Kenya Barris and Larry Wilmore, 2014), Cristela (Cristela Alonzo, 2014) and Fresh Off the Boat (Nahnatchka Khan, 2015).

Does ‘inclusive television’ extend to those with a disability and/or those with diverse values regarding politics, religion or sexual preference? Subscription television seems to be doing marginally better in niche markets with recent programs such as Looking (Michael Lannan, 2014).

Adding to the headache for the studio execs, who are grimly determined garner a greater market share, there’s an increasing range of viewing platforms, which by all accounts, is closely associated with the age of the viewing demographic. Star Trek and Stargate SG-1 have managed to captivate their devotees with books, video games, memorabilia and comic books etc. When we write that Bible and go in to pitch, will we be at least considering this?

Let’s assume as a given, that we have a great story to begin with. If we then receive a directive to ‘be inclusive’ on the rewrite, will we perceive this as making the story stronger or simply to make it more palatable for a larger viewing audience a.k.a. ‘being politically correct’?

If we embraced the concept of inclusivity from the ‘get-go’, will this make our pitch more successful than the next guy who didn’t? Do we congratulate ourselves on our keen sense of social responsibility or were we simply being savvy, factoring in commercial viability in order to hedge our bet? If ‘white’, male, middle-class, youngish (or older writers who’ve been around the block) still predominate the writing industry,how ‘inclusive’ might they be in their approach?

If those bankrolling the show are also coming from the same ‘white’, male, middle class demographic, how insistent will they be that their television show is ‘inclusive’? The cynical among us might say the suits will only care to the extent that such a move delivers them a greater market share. According to Esther Breger, the networks have been hammered for years for not being more socio-culturally inclusive and it is only recently that they are lifting their game with programs such as Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat. One can’t help wonder if this newfound love of multiculturalism stems from rampant commercialism or an enlightened sense of social responsibility.

Is there a political aspect to ownership of television networks? Yup! How is this likely to impinge on us writers who work as ‘writer-for-hire’? What about cross-media ownership and/or overseas ownership? Is there in the U.S. content legislation and if so what form does it take? Does the neo-liberalist notion of letting the market decide hold true or does big business re product sales and commercials continue to hold greater sway? Are there ‘codes of practice’ that we must consider and abide by? How often have we heard, “professional writing is a business”.

Going back to who this is all for anyway – the viewer, if their specific socio-cultural demographic is not represented in the story narrative, how emotionally invested might that viewer be (or not)? What if the portrayal is negative or inaccurate; neither is likely to endear the viewer to the program, or even worse, the network. For us creating the television narrative, do we make a distinction between first, second and/or third generation Americans?

One would hope that children born and bred in America, regardless of their cultural background, would consider themselves ‘Americans’. Accordingly will they have the same viewing preferences as that of their parent’s and grandparent’s?

But surely, there’s a down side to affirmative action – we in the writer’s room may get so caught up on being politically correct, even if we intended to be the first place and for all the right reasons, that what compelled us to write about a specific story or character to begin with somehow ‘gets lost’. I have heard it said anecdotally by an Asian actor/friend/colleague – all he wanted was to be cast because of his acting ability not his ethnicity and I guess the same goes for the story – if it calls for a specific character profile, then it does, simple as that.

But if we wish to keep everybody happy then we had better write in such a manner that we cannot be accused of obvious tokenism; even when it happens to be the lead or major supporting character role, otherwise it may do more harm than good. The market demographic in terms of cultural hegemony is touted to be changing, which may mean that those on both sides of the bargaining table – the writer and the ‘suit(s)’ will need to consider the matter of inclusive writing much more seriously and in an intelligent way.