‘There’s Increased Hunger for Diverse Stories That Represent All of America’ – CounterSpin interview with Shireen Razack and Tawal Panyacosit Jr. on inclusion in TV writing

Janine Jackson interviewed Shireen Razack and Tawal Panyacosit Jr. about inclusion in television writing for the April 5, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.


{ name: “CounterSpin Shireen Razack and Tawal Panyacosit Jr. Interview “, formats: [“mp3”], mp3: “aHR0cDovL3d3dy5mYWlyLm9yZy9hdWRpby9jb3VudGVyc3Bpbi9Db3VudGVyU3BpbjE5MDQwNVBhbnlhY29zaXRSYXphY2subXAz”, counterpart:””, artist: “”, image: “true”, imgurl: “” }

MP3jPLAYERS[0] = { list:MP3jPLAYLISTS.MI_0, tr:0, type:’MI’, lstate:true, loop:false, play_txt:’Play’, pause_txt:’Pause’, pp_title:’FAIR’, autoplay:false, download:true, vol:80, height:71, cssclass:’ ‘, popout_css:{ enabled:true, colours: [“#fff”, “rgba(201,207,232,0.35)”, “rgb(241,241,241)”, “rgba(245,5,5,0.7)”, “rgba(92,201,255,0.8)”, “transparent”, “transparent”, “#525252”, “#525252”, “#768D99”, “#47ACDE”, “/”, 600, 200 ],
cssInterface: { “color”: “#525252” },
cssTitle: { “left”: “16px”, “right”:”16px”, “top”:”8px” },
cssImage: { “overflow”: “hidden”, “width”:”auto”, “height”:”71px” },
cssFontSize: { “title”: “16px”, “caption”: “11.2px”, “list”: “12px” },
classes: { interface:’ verdana-mjp’, title:’ left-mjp norm-mjp plain-mjp childNorm-mjp childPlain-mjp’, image:’ Himg right-mjp’, poscol:”, ul:’ darken1-mjp verdana-mjp med-mjp childNorm-mjp childPlain-mjp left-mjp’ }} };

MP3 Link

Janine Jackson: TV, for many of us, is a place where, at the end of the working day, you can experience places and circumstances far from your own, where human lives can be shown more three-dimensionally than on the nightly news, and where people who are marginalized, and worse, in “real life” can be the star, and speak in their own voice.

It matters deeply that, even as it expands in platforms and formats, TV is not actually exploring all of its creative potential, simply because the people telling the stories do not themselves represent the range of identities and experiences that exist in the world. Those who could bring the underserved perspectives—people of color, women, LGBTQ and nonbinary people, people with disabilities, and all of the intersections of those—are not just rarely hired to be the storytellers. If they do get in the room, they’re treated differently than their white, male, cis and abled colleagues, such that their voices still can’t always come through.

Behind the Scenes: The State of Inclusion and Equity in TV Writers Rooms

Behind the Scenes: The State of Inclusion and Equity in TV Writers Rooms (3/19)

A new report, called Behind the Scenes: The State of Inclusion and Equity in TV Writers Rooms, documents the issue and suggests responsive actions. The research comes from the Think Tank for Inclusion & Equity, a consortium of working TV writers from various segments of the industry.

We’re joined now by the project’s leaders, Shireen Razack and Tawal Panyacosit Jr. They join us by phone from Los Angeles. Welcome to CounterSpin, Shireen Razack and Tawal Panyacosit Jr.

Shireen Razack: Hi, thank you so much for having us.

Tawal Panyacosit Jr.:  Yeah, we’re excited to be here.

JJ: Folks may say, “Of course, we know this.” But documentation is critical for a problem that can be hard to pin down, and easy to wave away. TV jobs, more so than some others, are based on person-to-person connections, getting the right meeting with the right person. And there’s not always going to be a smoking gun, as it were; they can just say, “No, thank you.” So I’m guessing that part of the aim of this research was to give some specificity, to name some particular things that happen and the effect that they have, rather than simply say, “TV writing isn’t diverse enough.”

SR: Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, when we started down this road, it actually started with a diversity town hall, that was about three years ago, that I went to. And I was listening to the stories of a lot of diverse writers at that town hall. And they echoed a lot of the same stories that I was hearing from many of my diverse writer friends, about issues that they’re facing in the rooms, barriers to advancement and that kind of thing. But a lot of that, whenever we would talk to other people, these stories were dismissed as anecdotal or the exception. And so what we decided to do when we brought the Think Tank for Inclusion &  Equity together, was to try and put numbers to those anecdotes, to prove that it wasn’t exceptional or anecdotal, that there are systemic barriers.

TPJ: Yeah, I think that what’s really important to know is that this is really the first time that TV writers are talking to others in the industry, and really lifting the veil behind what’s happening in the writers room. And there’s lots of amazing studies out there, that often are done by activist organizations, and have really set the stage for a lot of the work that we’re doing here. But we really wanted to share, from the vantage point inside the writers room, what is actually happening and, as Shireen was saying, connect numbers with those anecdotes.

JJ:  Absolutely. And I think the part of the value of this work is that it says that, you know, “hiring” and “inclusion” are not the same thing, and I think that’s really critical. To me, one of the standout findings, if we can just get into it, is that 78 percent of writers of color said that they were the only person of color on their staff. And then I was surprised and disheartened to learn that that tokenism is actually structural. What is the “diversity hire,” and then, what’s the effect of that?

SR:  I can actually speak to that from experience. I was the diversity hire on two shows when I first started out. And it’s basically, the diversity slot is for a staff writer, which is the entry level point to your writers room. And generally speaking, what that is, is that networks create these positions on their shows, and the money for those writers comes out of the network’s budget, as opposed to the show’s budget.

Now, it’s great for getting people that foot in the door. But the problem is, the next year or the next season, if the show gets picked up, then that writer’s salary now has to come out of the show’s budget. So what ends up happening is this revolving door, where showrunners don’t want to take on that financial burden, and so instead, go for another free writer, as opposed to bumping up the writer that has been in the room and contributing to the story.

TPJ: Yeah, it’s important to note, also, that in this day and age where there’s increased hunger for diverse stories that represent all of America,  and the world, even, when you’re the only person in the room, and generally, it’s at the staff-writer level—you know, TV writers rooms are generally very hierarchical—so when you’re the lowest person in the room, you’re there to be the idea machine, but not necessarily to have any sort of decision-making power in terms of what actual stories make it to script, and eventually to the screen or casting. And that’s really why I think we chose to go over TV writers, but also because writers are producers, and really shepherd stories from creation to production and all the way through.

JJ:  Well I just think that this is a surprise, I think, to a lot of listeners, to know that the television shows that they’re watching—and we’re talking about cable, network, animated, drama, comedy, you’re spanning the whole range—that the idea that there is a diversity slot, and that that is structurally different from the other writers, I genuinely think that folks are surprised by that. And the idea that that’s kind of like, you know, we understand that we’re supposed to have this voice, but we don’t necessarily accept that we’re really, genuinely meant to incorporate it.

TPJ: It really is a double-edged sword. While it does a great job of getting that foot in the door, and many writers expressed to us, both in the survey, and then we also did a series of focus groups afterwards, and many expressed the stigma that you carry as a diverse writer, similar to affirmative action, where there are questions, or perceptions, that somehow these writers are less talented, or don’t necessarily deserve to be there. And for many, that’s just blatantly untrue. Many of these programs are so rigorous—

SR: The vetting process for most of the network programs is very intense, and they get thousands of submissions. And so the people that get into the programs are the cream of the crop. So to think of them as “less than,” because they were hired because they are diverse, is just holistically untrue.

TPJ: We’re not trying to downplay the role of programs and fellowships, because those are absolutely crucial. But in trying to address one problem, which is entry, it really reveals a newer problem, which is advancement, is that once people are getting in the door, they’re not progressing and getting promoted.

Many are having to repeat titles, once, twice, I mean 73 percent of diverse writers across the board are repeating titles, which means they have to go back a second season at the same level, and 46, I think, had to do it twice or more. And we have a number of examples where people have had to do it three, four, five times.

So this really starts to answer the question, when people say, “Where are the diverse showrunners, where are the diverse upper-levels?” Well, they’re there, but they’re being systematically held back.

SR: They have the experience but they don’t have the title.

JJ: I understand how often—and it’s not just television, it’s in lots of industries—where the person of color, or the LGBTQ person, gets in there, they’re the only person there, and then they feel this complicated responsibility where they both want to represent the stories that they feel only they can represent, because they’re not being represented. But they also want to do lots of other things. So tokenism works in a more complicated way than people might understand, right?

SR:  Gosh, there’s so many different facets to that one statement. Well, one of them is just that, once you’re in the door, there’s a version of the room where they look at the diverse writer as being the person that’s going to answer all the questions about every possible diversity there is.

And so it’s like, for me being South Asian, having to comment on what a Vietnamese community is like, is just kind of absurd, but that’s sometimes expected.

The other version of this can be that you’re the only diverse voice in the room, you’re also the lowest level on the totem pole, and so they don’t listen to you at all. They kind of expect you to just sit in the corner and be silent.

TPJ:  Many of us are more than just our identity, we’re genre geeks, or something.

SR: Yeah, I mean, Tawal and I are a great example of this; one of the reasons we wanted to be TV writers is because we’re huge genre geeks.

TPJ: Sci-fi, fantasy, horror, all that stuff.

SR: You know, we can bring a lot to those genres from our backgrounds, but it’s also just we’re big geeks. I mean, we want to write those genres. And we shouldn’t be relegated to basic dramatic storytelling where there is a diverse character.

TPJ: Right. And I think that that was one of our findings, too. It was like something like 51 percent of diverse writers had never worked on a show that had non-diverse leads. So in other words, sometimes diverse writers aren’t even in the room, because there needs to be some sort of justifying factor. If there’s not a black storyline, or a Chinese storyline, or a gay storyline, or a storyline about people with disabilities, then there’s no need to have those people in the room.

JJ: Right.

TPJ: And so I think that really relates to what you’re talking about Janine, which is the recognition that people are three-dimensional beings, and I think what we’re really hoping for is the ability to bring those three dimensions into the room.

Anna Quindlen (image: Charlie Rose)

Anna Quindlen (image: Charlie Rose)

JJ: Years ago, a columnist/writer, Anna Quindlen, was talking about editors who were rejecting her column and they would say, “Oh, we don’t need your column, we already carry Ellen Goodman,” who was another white woman. And so what Anna Quindlen said was, “There’s not only a quota, there’s a quota of one.” And that was just evidence that there’s not an actual understanding that inclusion and diversity enriches and improves. It’s not like, “Take your medicine, and then you can go play again.”

TPJ: Right.

JJ: It’s that this actually makes the work better. I feel like I should just say, “period,” but I would add that one of the things that the report underscores is that it also is good business; if you’re trying to say you’re interested in business, well, it’s also good business, right?

SR: Absolutely. I think I heard a statistic that by, I think it’s 2042, minorities will be in the majority. And if that’s true, there needs to be a lot more representation on TV, and there needs to be a lot more authentic storytelling to reach those audiences and to feed the hunger for authentic stories for those audiences.

JJ:  I think lots of us look to…I know that lots of us look to creative arts—like music, like movies, like TV—not just as an escape from our daily life, though heaven knows that can serve a useful function, but as offering different ways to look at life, and different lives to look at. I doubt you could count the number of white people, for example, who changed their minds about black people because they saw Bill Cosby. It’s just true. There are lots of folks who have that cousin who “hates the gays,” but, you know, “Queer Eye! It’s so great, it’s so fun and human!” Television changes our view of the world, and of one another. It’s a keystone industry.

TPJ: It saves lives. Before TV writing, I was an activist and organizer. And so that’s kind of how I got to be involved in all this. I actually went into TV writing because it was something that I loved, it was something that always brought me solace and comfort, especially during those times when I was struggling with identity, and feeling alone and isolated. But I could find myself reflected in shows and and in people, and that made it a little better, that made it a little easier getting to that next day. And I wanted to really do that for others. And it was a real eye opener to realize that I wanted to write stories that could kind of change the world, but that even in TV writing itself, that a lot of the same things that we wanted to speak to are being experienced by studio writers.

JJ: There’s no excuse for discrimination in any field. But it seems weirder when the field is creative, you know? You can do a show about talking cows in outer space, but it can’t be written by a person with a disability? It just shows that the criteria once again are just people, you know, people who are used to being with people who look like them. And yet, in a way, the impact is multiplied, because this is our window on other worlds, on other possibilities.

TPJ: TV is a platform. Regardless of how you feel, you’re making a statement either way. You’re adding something to the culture.

SR: Yeah, and one of our friends often says, “With a great platform comes great responsibility.”

TPJ: Totally Spider-Man!

SR: But we took that very, very, very seriously, and we want all TV writers to take that very seriously, because if we’re perpetuating stereotypes on screen, we’re putting that out there into the general consciousness, it’s contributing to the divisiveness in society. So if we can get rid of those stereotypes and speak to the communities that are being essentially demonized on TV, and show them as human beings, and amplify their humanity, it could help with a lot of the problems that we’re having in society right now.

JJ: The report that we’re discussing, Behind the Scenes: The State of Inclusion and Equity in TV Writers Rooms, it’s self-reported from TV writers, but it also swept in a lot of television writers; it’s also representative in many ways. So I want to ask you about that, but also, what about the recommendations that the report provides? And what do you make of the response to it?

TPJ: In terms of our sample, we definitely wanted to be conservative. I think it was important that we didn’t overreach. We wanted this to be taken seriously. So we were doing our due diligence. And you’re right to say that the sample was self-reported, self-selected. So what that means is, we can really only confidently, statistically speaking, speak to the experiences of the writers who took the survey.

Here’s the other thing: The actual numbers representation for many diverse writers working are so small that we, in our collection, we managed to hit about 10 percent of all TV writers, almost a quarter of all women, nonbinary working TV writers, 50 percent of people of color. The numbers, unfortunately, aren’t tracked for LGBTQ and people disabilities, so we’re not sure what percentage, but we imagine we tracked a high percentage of those people too, because those numbers are so small and because, as Shireen pointed out earlier, many of us are all connected, we speak to each other, we provide support for each other to lean on as we’re kind of going through some of these challenges.

SR: In terms of recommendations, we’ve broken them up by different groups, I guess you could say. We’ve looked at it from the perspective of, what can agencies and management companies do better? What can studios and networks do better? What can showrunners and upper-levels do better? And what can the guilds and unions do better? Some of the recommendations are spread across all of them, because it’s a big issue, it’s a big problem, and it’s going to take everybody working together.

So the first and foremost thing that we need is a better reporting and tracking of the data, because the only way we’re going to know if we’re moving the needle, or if things are getting better, is if the data is being collected and reported.

TPJ: And reviewed.

SR: Yeah, reviewed. And that it’s transparent.

TPJ: One of our biggest recommendations is also just education. A lot of writers are creative geniuses, and then they’re thrust into this showrunner role, where they have to oversee hundreds of employees, including the writers room. And many don’t have any general management experience. So management education is important.

Implicit bias. Just really thinking about how can we be more open and really more aware about how our biases are impacting our worldview and our interactions with others. I think really bringing that, there’s an opportunity there. I think for all of us, education is something we can all really, truly benefit from.

And then lastly, I think, people asked like, “Well, why does this matter? Why is this important now?” Some of the things we found—for example, 64 percent of diverse writers have experienced bias, discrimination, harassment in the writers room—this is an urgent issue. And so one of the other major recommendations is that there has to be an independent, third-party reporting system for people, somewhere that’s not at the same studio where people are worried about, am I going to be able to be hired by them next time? Or really, really providing some safe outlet for reporting. And we’re also talking about exit interviews, and why those are important.

SR:  Yeah, because a lot of times when writers are not asked back to a show, the narrative that is presented to the networks and the studios is entirely coming from the showrunners and the upper-levels, but the writer who’s being let go is never allowed to tell their side of the story. And so for diverse writers…

TPJ: Many are scared to tell their side of the story.

SR:  Yeah, absolutely. But there are a lot of stories that we’ve heard from the salons, from the survey, and from talking with our friends, that the reason why people are being let go, or why people sometimes are choosing to leave: There are significant reasons, and they need to be addressed by the networks and the studios, which is why we want exit interviews to be implemented.

JJ:  And I think also activating audiences, and helping audiences understand what they’re missing—because I want to say that, although I knew the hiring numbers, generally speaking, I was not aware of the behind-the-scenes things that were happening, that were keeping even diverse folks who were hired from getting their voices through. And I think a lot of folks are in that position, and were sort of thinking, “This is a creative realm. We’re getting to see all the best that’s coming at us.”

And so I think that just this Behind the Scenes, as the report is titled, is very, very useful, and that audiences will also be very useful in demonstrating their hunger for these new kinds of stories.

SR:  Absolutely. And one thing that I can definitely say is that networks and studios are very much tracking what’s going on, especially on Twitter, and what people are saying about the shows, what they like about the shows, what they don’t like about the shows. So if there’s something that audiences want, or want more of, or something they don’t like, you know, social media is a great thing sometimes.

JJ: Well let me just ask you, Shireen Razack and Tawal Panyacosit Jr.,  final thoughts? Things you’d like to say to listeners about this new report? Why you think it’s so important?

TPJ: One of our recommendations, absolutely, is that the industry as a whole needs to kind of pull resources together and create a system for monitoring, tracking and reviewing inclusion and equity in writers rooms, but also within the ranks of executives and the different kinds of players.

But we will do it again if we have to. And I think it’s important that this is really, I said it before, but this is unprecedented. This is really the first time that people within the industry are really trying to speak up on these issues.

And we’re following writers room rules, which is, it’s not just about identifying problems, but it’s offering solutions. And that’s really what we wanted to do.

There are a lot of amazing groups and entities that are doing this work already. And we wanted to provide whatever support we could from our insight in the room. And I think what we really hope to see, at the end of the day, are writers rooms where everyone can respectfully contribute without fear of censure or retaliation, where the stories and the people are thriving in a safe and creative environment.

JJ:  We’ve been speaking with Tawal Panaycosit Jr. and Shireen Razack of the Think Tank for Inclusion & Equity. The report is called Behind the Scenes: The State of Inclusion and Equity in TV Writers Rooms. Tawal Panyacosit Jr. and Shireen Razack, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

TPJ: Thank you, Janine.

SR: Thank you so much for having us.


This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.