For the Fall Season and Beyond, TV Has a Pipeline Problem

Shonda Rhimes
Courtesy of ABC

After reporting many stories about the overwhelming whiteness and maleness of the TV industry over the years, it’s hard to not to arrive at one simple question about TV’s efforts to increase diversity behind the scenes:

Are TV executives bringing a plastic knife to a gunfight?

Within certain corridors of power, the impression that much has changed and even more is being done to combat the serious problems of bias and exclusion easily hardens into fact. And of course, any efforts to address TV’s lamentable track record in these arenas are laudable. But are they enough?

Unlike hopeful assumptions, numbers actually are unmovable facts. The stats on the showrunners for the new broadcast network season should not be this dire, but here we are. 

Yes, it’s hard for anyone, whoever they are, to succeed in the TV industry. That’s a given. But the patterns of mentorship and channels of power that tend to reward white guys, and that put significant additional obstacles in the paths of anyone else, are alive and well. They’re incredibly resilient, in fact. At this stage, they appear to be more powerful than the nascent efforts to change the way the industry does business.

I take the networks at their word: I believe they do want to increase the number of non-white and female creators, directors and writers they employ. And some networks have gotten better in certain areas.

But much work remains to be done. A stated desire for change doesn’t necessarily translate into actions that produce significant results over time. I’m sure reading stories on TV’s problematic track record in various arenas— when it comes to who gets hired as directors, cable and streaming creators, writers and so forth — begin to feel like watching reruns; if you grow tired of reading them, believe me, I get tired of writing them, too.

But accepting that some entrenched problems will never change is just not in my DNA — nor is it in the DNA of most TV executives. When TV’s most powerful people want specific things to happen, they happen. If the head of a network really, really wanted a multicamera sitcom about aliens working as bank tellers put into development, you can be sure a “Space Bank” script would arrive on his or her desk by the end of the month. This is an industry that is all about rising to creative challenges and solving difficult problems. That’s what it’s all about, in fact.

So TV needs to systematically and energetically take on the biggest challenge created by its ongoing lack of diversity: the pipeline problem.

The men and women who run TV programs are not just overworked head honchos trying to hand in episodes on time and on budget. Forgive the sci-fi analogy, but each of those individuals is a potential showrunner incubation factory.

We all know of writers’ rooms that went on to produce a dozen or more TV creators. Every single person that a showrunner hires to work behind the scenes is a potential future Shonda Rhimes or Kenya Barris or Aziz Ansari.

But people tend to hire those they feel most comfortable with, and do we really think that a roster of creators that is overwhelming white and male is going to do much more than hire a token woman and a token person of color for the writing staff and call it a day? There are some writers, showrunners and executives who make it their mission to do much more than that — and that’s good. But there are also quite a few who do even less than the bare minimum. And in any case, individual efforts will not necessary lead to comprehensive solutions to complicated problems that affect the entire industry.

The stats in today’s story make it clear that whatever efforts are being made by the TV community as a whole, they’re not enough. If anyone thinks the showrunner roster in this story is likely to end up spawning an array of TV empires that look like America — or that look like the inclusive and successful TV factory Rhimes has created — well, I can’t say I agree with your police work there.

The formal and informal friendship and mentorship networks mostly populated by white guys are very resilient. Intentionally or not, they effectively hinder those with fewer connections and without powerful advocates. Sure, a few white women and some men and women of color make it through TV’s gauntlet every year.

The point is, the gauntlet shouldn’t exist.

It’ll be interesting to see next year’s list of broadcast network showrunners, and whether anything changes. Those who don’t learn from history, after all, are doomed to rerun it.