In an interview with TVLine discussing Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, one of the lead actors, John Clarence Stewart, said this about the creative process behind their upcoming racism-based storyline: “So we have a white woman moving through all of these moments, and there are these Black and brown bodies that she’s in contact with and has relationships with and has had relationships with throughout the history of the show, and each of these Black and brown bodies is confronting her about allyship and the blindspot she has… I’m grateful to Mandy [Moore, producer, and choreographer] and Austin [Winsberg, show creator] for that, because there was the emphasis on there being all Black artists, musically, and there’s this specific tone and feel and access point that Black artists bring to the story.”
This seems like something that should not be such a big deal for a television show to do, and yet it is a rare thing for a network television show to portray and have behind the scenes. So many shows on network television boast about having a diverse writer’s room and how that allows them to tell diverse stories when in reality they do not have that behind the scenes, and even if they do, those voices are not really heard in the creation process. It is wrong for shows to portray stories and people of color while creating environments that limit their advancement opportunities and mute their voices.
One way this tends to happen is by networks offering shows “writing fellows,” or BIPOC writers who the network directly pays instead of it coming out of the show’s budget for hiring writers. That practice is how Donald Glover was hired on 30 Rock, with Tina Fey even saying that it was because the funding from NBC for this “made him free.” The fellowships tend to go to white-lead shows as a means of bringing a little bit of diversity to a writer’s room without the show having to “compromise” their budget, and this practice has created a problem for BIPOC writers to gain any upward mobility within the industry.
Since these writers are hired due to a network incentive for their prospective shows, these individuals tend to lose their jobs once the money dries up because the show has to then hire the individual using their own budget and most decide it is not worth it. “A lot of shows, after the money runs out, or after the diversity writer is ready to matriculate to executive story editor, they won’t pay for them. That’s where the system is broken,” writer Monica Macer said to the Washington Post. “We’re in a situation where it behooves Hollywood and the studios to say they want to do this, right? But when does that dry up? It’s all cyclical.”
For some, even if they do get hired afterward, they tend to get stuck in lower staff writer positions because they were considered a “fellow” for the majority of their tenure despite having done higher work than that, an experience a writer for Private Practice shared with The Washington Post. Many people go into a process like this thinking it will give them the opportunity to grow their career, but instead, they get stalled because of their race.
Another problem happens when BIPOC are in a writer’s room, but their influence on stories is limited because of their race. Melody Cooper, a writer for the CW show Two Line Horror Stories, said “Very often, black writers are tasked with writing the black character and the black storyline and having input on whether or not there’s racism in the story, as if that’s the only role we could possibly play in the room. We’re not often asked to write about characters who happen to be another race or a story that doesn’t have to do with a black character.”
There is a difference between having true diversity in a room and having token minorities in a room and those ideas are ones that Hollywood tends to get mixed up. Having diversity in a room means that there are people from many different walks of life, including race, religion, and gender, chosen because they are qualified and the best people to create the story at hand. “Token minorities” more than likely are qualified, but are not given the chance to show their skills because the people in charge just see them as fulfilling a diversity quota; they do not actually want their input but have them for show and to help a network’s BIPOC numbers.
A big story surrounding this broke over the summer when five writers left the CBS show All Rise, a show about a Black female judge. Part of the problem was that the creator of the show originally intended for the role to be played by a white man but changed it since CBS had come under fire for having a lineup of shows almost entirely composed of white male leads (with the exception of one male BIPOC). The show ended up hiring a more diverse writer’s room, but having one does not do any good unless one actually listens to them. One of these people was an executive producer and writer for the show and left because the creator of the show used him more for public appearances than to have him help accurately portray life for a BIPOC on screen, and the other four writers who quit did so for the same reason.
While many shows struggle to properly incorporate diversity into their projects for more than just checking a box off for the network, some shows are making diversity an integral part of their operations. Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist is an example of one of those shows doing this, making sure they have many BIPOC in their writer’s room for every episode (not just for the episodes focusing on BIPOC) and prominently featured in the show, with four of their series regulars being BIPOC. When they wanted to properly showcase the life of BIPOC queer voices in the tech industry, they made sure their creative team putting together the storyline could do exactly that. The main story editor for the episode, Zora Bikangaga, is Black and spoke extensively with the actors of color on the show to include their experiences in the episode. The director, Anya Adams, is mixed race and has experience showing stories of minorities on screen in blackish, Fresh Off the Boat, and The Mindy Project. For the choreography, they even decided to bring in Emmy-nominated choreographer Luther Brown, best known for creating choreography that tells the stories of Black people. The creatives behind Zoey’s made sure that they not only listened to the BIPOC within their cast and crew but that they were put at the forefront to tell their stories and share their experiences in a way that the viewers can either relate to or make others aware of the way they treat the BIPOC in their lives.
The way Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist expressed racism within the workplace was done in an inclusive and mindful manner by making sure the correct voices were in charge and heard. However, this show is the exception in the television industry today. Broadcast networks cater to a larger audience than cable networks, so they like to paint themselves as being inclusive and telling stories for everyone, which is why over the summer CBS announced that starting in their 2021-2022 television season they plan to make sure a quarter of their script development money will go towards projects created or co-created by BIPOC and that their writers’ rooms will be fifty percent staffed by BIPOC for the 2022-2023 season. While this promise seems nice, “developing scripts” does not mean that a script will actually move beyond the pilot stage (or even get that far), and having diverse writers rooms does not guarantee that those people will actually have their voices heard, as was the case with All Rise.
It is wrong for networks and shows to say they value diversity while neglecting the diverse creatives they currently employ; they cannot claim they value diversity when they are repressing the advancement and voices of BIPOC already in their ranks. They want to create this image for themselves, but if more people knew how they treated, they would realize that there is a lot of work the networks need to do before their claims of diversity and inclusivity are properly met.