You can’t say you care about diversity and inclusion and then make it impossible for historically underrepresented writers to build a career.

Studios have launched a host of careers in television through their pipeline programs.But you can’t open one door then padlock the next… aka why diversity and inclusion are bigger than just starting a career.

When the Writers Guild of America went on strike at 12:00 a.m. May 2nd, it was because our leadership had rightly identified a host of issues writers are facing that were worth a strike – underpayment of residuals, mini-rooms devaluing writers and their work, lack of writers being trained in production and post, a need for payment steps to eliminate free work for feature writers, among others – and these issues affect every single member of the WGA. Even for the more established writers, who’ve been at this 15 to 20 years+, unless they’re making Shonda Rhimes or Ryan Murphy money… their pay is declining, too, because of the same issues listed above.

That’s the right message for the WGA to put out… this affects everyone. Because it does. Without question.

But as a historically underrepresented writer, I want to talk about how everything the WGA is fighting for affects us in particular ways – because as the data shows, things that affect all writers tend to land on our shoulders in harsher, more debilitating ways.

Before I get into a lot of the specifics, let me say honestly that my career exists because of the existing pipeline programs at the major studios. I’m an alumni of the CBS (now Paramount) Writers Mentoring Program and NBC’s Writers on the Verge (now NBC Launch). The people who facilitate these programs are among the most dedicated and passionate folks I’ve met in this business. They do the hard work of helping writers like me, who often have no industry connections, make the necessary first steps to break into TV writing. Now you can bet they make sure you’re talented and hardworking and dedicated as hell before they help you take that step… and the application process and curriculum bear that out. But it’s a way for people who have long been denied access to this industry – and specifically writers’ rooms – to get a shot. (By the way, per the Think Tank for Inclusion & Equity “Behind the Scenes” report for 2022, it’s easier to get into Harvard – a 5.2% acceptance rate – than it is to get into one of these fellowships – 0.3 to 0.7% acceptance rate.)

So if the programs worked for me, for others, what am I complaining about?

Well, like most things in our business, everything has changed. I broke into TV ten years ago when the broadcast model was still pretty much where all emerging writers started out. That script got flipped as streaming boomed and more and more outlets demanded more and more content. That saw emerging writers getting jobs on streaming shows, often in mini rooms (shorter rooms to break/write whole seasons in a fraction of the time of a conventional room, often before the shows were actually greenlit to production), and yes, with all that new content, there were a lot of jobs…

Just not jobs for everybody.

Mini rooms tend to be top heavy rooms, meaning if you have a staff of six writers, you might have the showrunner, three co-executive producers (seasoned, experienced writers,) a mid-level writer or two… or if you only hired one mid-level, maybe a staff writer. But more often, there’s no lower-level writer on staff.

Now I hear you… that sounds bad for every lower-level writer. Yep… it is.

Here’s why it hits historically underrepresented writers harder –

Most of those top-heavy job titles are filled by historically overrepresented writers.

That’s always been true… because for years our business was dominated by white males, and while we’ve made progress, they still make up the majority of upper-level writers.

According to the WGA Inclusion & Equity Report for 2022, data from the staffing year 2020 showed that, “BIPOC women make up significant shares of lower-level writers. BIPOC women writers make up the smallest share of EPs and Showrunners at 7.4% and 6.9%, respectively.” It also shows that, “BIPOC men accounted for 16-26% of jobs from staff writers to consulting producer. At the upper levels of Co-EP, EP and Showrunner, they accounted for 10-12% of jobs.” Meanwhile, “White men’s share declined at the staff writer and story editor level compared to the prior season. However, they account for a majority of jobs at the higher levels, making up 64% of EPs and 58% of Showrunners.” [White Women “represented the second largest share of staff writer, story editor (with the same share as BIPOC men) and ESE positions. White women are also the second largest share of upper-level positions, though they still lag behind white men considerably.”]

So if no lower-level/staff writers are being hired at all… and historically underrepresented writers often aren’t considered for those upper-level positions, do you see the problem?

Historically underrepresented writers end up stuck.

They get stuck because there are no lower-level jobs. Or because the shows can only afford a lower-level position after they hire all those upper-levels, so that Indigenous, Latinx, AAPI, Disabled, Middle Eastern, or Black writer who has already been a staff writer will be asked to repeat that title – and pay rate – in order to work at all.

They also get stuck because mini rooms, which are where so much of the room work is now, result in writers not getting the experience they need in order to climb to those higher titles. (Per the Think Tank for Inclusion & Equity “Behind the Scenes” report from 2022, 56% of lower- and mid-level writers did not cover set on their most recent show.)

Or they get put in the terrible position of being over-promoted (thanks to short season orders) without that experience on set or in post, and then aren’t prepared when they’re asked to perform at a level that requires that experience.

So how can I think the programs are important and useful, cheer the studios for having them and financially supporting them, but complain about the studios not doing enough?

Because it doesn’t do any good to open a door into a room if all the other doors are locked.

I came into an industry that still had a functioning mentorship system in place… writers who had already learned to produce on set and wrangle post taught other writers how to do these parts of the job – parts you can only learn on the job.

But we’ve seen all the stories about writers in mini rooms or on streaming shows who don’t ever have the opportunity to go to set or post because the studios have rigged the system to eliminate writers from the process as soon as the initial writing is done. [I say “initial” because the writing never stops until the episode is locked and delivered to the network/outlet. You write in pre-production, you write on set, you write in post. It’s all writing.]

That lack of opportunity… those are the locked doors I’m talking about. Great, you got your first writing job… now good luck getting the experience you need to grow your career, to learn to produce, to learn post, to become a showrunner… because the studios have taken away, by and large, the mentorship structure that allowed those doors to open, to give rise to the creators and showrunners of the future.

And when the goal of opening those doors is tied to diversity and inclusion, to bringing in historically underrepresented writers and stories, then there’s a baseline truth that has to be accepted: you can’t invite us to the table and then tell us that’s all we get… no chance to learn how to make the meal, create the recipes, or be the boss of the creative mix that results in a new, cool, hit television show.

According to the LA Times (05/24/22), Netflix, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, pledged $100 million over five years to organizations that help underrepresented communities find jobs in the entertainment industry. That’s a great and positive thing to do – but what the WGA is asking for in terms of writer protections, better compensation, and more opportunity for writers in general is more valuable to historically underrepresented writers… because those protections will allow us the chance – the chance – to build a career that doesn’t just make us successful, it provides greater product and content for the studio itself… because having writers on set and in post always makes the product better and usually saves money because decisions in a crisis can be made quickly without a game of telephone tag trying to reach the showrunner or another executive producer that can cost time, which costs money.

In July of 2020, CBS Television Studios began a five-year pact with the NAACP to develop content that not only utilized diverse voices but to expand the storytelling space and create more inclusive content. I’ve worked under this umbrella myself to pitch some potential show ideas, and the work they’re doing is important across the board in encouraging people to expand their ideas about what a show could look like when it’s both inclusive and avoiding stereotypes we’ve all become used to on TV. But I can’t lie… when I first heard about this endeavor, my first thought was… “not enough of us have been trained to showrun to make this work.” What does that mean? It means that historically underrepresented writers who do come up with a winning show idea – but don’t have experience – often have to be paired with experienced showrunners to get their projects greenlit. And “experienced” will often mean “historically overrepresented.”

Why is that? Because again… things changed. A host of us who came into this business when the mentorship system was working have reached that hard won showrunner/executive producer level (including me if my show survives the strike.) Off the top of my head, I can list these talented folks who all came up through pipeline programs: Nkechi Okoro Carroll, Nichelle Tramble Spellman, Simran Baidwan, Denise Thé, Aaron Rashaan Thomas, Debby Wolfe, Akela Cooper, Kirk A. Moore, Brittany Matt, Zahir McGhee, Leonard Chang, and Angela Kang… with many more my brain can’t pull forward right now.

But there are only so many of us who made it through the gauntlet when the system worked… and now that system is broken. Meaning a lack of showrunners from diverse backgrounds to supervise and co-showrun with other writers from underrepresented communities. According to the WGAW Inclusion & Equity Report for 2022: BIPOC writers make up over 50% of employed writers from staff writer to co-producer (i.e., lower- and mid-level). But this up-and-coming cohort of writers is often unable to build the vital skills they need to eventually run their own shows.

Some studios have responded to this by trying to bolster showrunners within their own systems. In 2021, Sony, for instance, launched an in-house showrunner training program. Warner Bros. Discovery (then Warner Media) followed suit in 2022 under their DEI “Access” banner. Fantastic efforts. But it doesn’t solve the problem of not getting hands-on work experience — the best preparation you can have to become an EP/Showrunner — because no matter how many stories you hear or classroom situations you work, it’s just not the same as being there. [I’m also an alum of the WGA Showrunner Training Program, which is invaluable when it comes to the business side of showrunning… but it can’t replace being on set/in post and doing the work for building your showrunner skillset.]

Obviously, I’m not suggesting that the studios have a responsibility to handhold writers from day one of their careers to day one of showrunning. What I am saying is that their investment in the diversity and inclusion they say they want has to include allowing writers the time – and financial stability – to grow into the role of showrunner. Because no one who can’t afford their rent and is worried about qualifying for healthcare every year is going to make it long enough to reach that goal. And a lot of potentially money-making, award-winning ideas will leave town with them when they pack their bags.

[Don’t get me started on how the idea of A.I. writing scripts upends EVERYTHING about diversity and inclusion. Since A.I. can only create from absorbing and reforming written material (plagiarism, for the record,) then it’s going to be reading scripts written, again, by an overwhelming majority of historically overrepresented writers. Women, BIPOC writers, LGBTQIA+ writers, Disabled writers… all of whom have only recently gained any traction in this business… will have little to say about what future A.I. scripts might look like… because their points of view, their voices would be so little of what the computer program would study to create a “new” story.]

I talk about these talent development programs with a drop of fear in my heart. Because we’re all worried that they’ll be next up on the corporate studio cost-cutting chopping block. Warner Bros. Discovery set off alarm bells all over town last year when they eliminated the studio funded writing and directing talent development programs. DEI warrior Karen Horne, Senior VP and lead of WBD’s DEI division, swept in and saved the programs by bringing them under her wing. But we all know that if bosses are looking to find that line item cut they can justify to a board… developing new, diverse, inclusive talent might start to look like something that can go.

But fear isn’t a reason not to fight. It’s why the WGA is taking on this strike, heart bold, resolve solid… fighting for every writer.

It’s why I needed to call attention to writers like me… writers I mentor, writers who haven’t even dreamed of being writers yet… who need me to fight for them the way my mentors fought before me to push that door open so I could step through.

The need for sustained, consistent DEI in the talent development space in our business is real and will be real for a long time to come as we close gaps created by an inequitable history. And the best way to invest in diverse voices and points of view — besides giving us that first shot – is to make sure we can afford to stay in the game. Fair pay. Fair treatment. Protected term employment. The opportunity to learn and grow.

So yeah… everything the WGA is fighting for is good for all writers. But it’s essential for historically underrepresented writers who are still trying to make up ground after being excluded from the business for decades.

TV writing is a mentorship business. Don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise.


Hey, writer peeps!

While I was moving some files onto my external drive, I decided to see if, by some miracle, I could find my applications from the years I got into the CBS Writers Mentoring Program and NBC’s Writers on the Verge.  And shockingly — I found them.

I’m not sure if this is remotely helpful or not, but I know the letters/statements of interest and the essay questions are often people’s biggest concern. So what follows is my letter of interest for the CBS program and my essay questions for WOTV. If you find some guidance here that helps you along the way, fabulous. I am not correcting anything — so forgive any typos or poor grammar.

And good luck to you all!

CBS Letter (2010):

As a female writer of color, it’s been encouraging to see both my gender and my ethnic group represented more onscreen and behind the scenes.  My ability to broaden that presence comes from a diverse life experience.  I grew up in a small town, but moved to the city to put myself through college. I’ve worked in jobs as generic as hotel operator and as intense as police dispatcher.  I come from a military family of Southern descent but was raised in California because my father wanted his kids to experience more freedoms than he’d grown up with.  It’s these elements of my history that I try to weave together to create stories that resonate for me as a 21st century woman.

One fascinating aspect of TV writing is the relationship that develops between writer and audience as a show progresses through weeks and seasons.  My motivation to study writing came directly from the impact shows like “Hill Street Blues” and “thirtysomething” had on me, and it’s my hope to someday have that same effect on viewers through my writing.  I feel that a tour with the CBS Writing mentors would allow me to put a final polish on my work and to become another flourishing representative of what a strong and capable woman of color can do in the writers’ room.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

WOTV essay questions (2011):

1. What from your background do you bring to the table as a writer that provides a
fresh perspective in your storytelling?

When I think of what I bring to my writing that is unique to my experiences, there are two main things that come to mind. One is my own experience growing up in a very racially and religiously diverse family. When we moved to my father’s last military posting at China Lake Naval Weapons Center in the middle of the Mojave Desert, there wasn’t any other family in town that looked like mine. Over time that changed, but in those early years, that sense of being so different, even amongst the ethnic group I was identified with, gave me a strong desire to write material that not only shows what diversity looks like, but also peels away the facades we put up to hide what being different in any way really feels like.

Later, after moving to Los Angeles, my years working in law enforcement and post my own involvement, sharing stories with my friends and relatives that still work on the job, I gained a very personal insight into the impact that crime has not just on the victim, but on the family of the victim, and on the people who are pulled into the aftermath, be they sworn officers, civilian personnel or volunteers exposed to some of the ugliest things people can do to one another. I try to maintain that awareness whenever I write projects involving crime or disaster and the aftereffects.

2. What television show most inspired you to become a television writer and why?

The list of television shows I’ve watched is almost too long to be admitted in public, but of all the different dramas I’ve been a fan of, the one that most fueled my desire to write television was “NYPD Blue.”

The story arc of Andy Sipowicz was one of the most compelling character studies I’ve seen, and his transformation from alcoholic racist on the verge of losing his career to a compassionate, sober husband and father, and a respected leader of his precinct was a years-long roller coaster that exemplified the kind of involving storytelling I strive for. Along with Andy’s ever-evolving story, we were invited to view every aspect of life at the 15th precinct, where things could be hopeless one week and touched by the possibility of hope the next, where the cops, lawyers, victims, and perpetrators who walked through the doors could be simultaneously heroic, human, evil, and yearning for redemption.

A scene in which Andy relates a horrifying story about a murdered child to his fiancée Sylvia always comes to mind when I think of “Blue.” It was a one scene out of hundreds, and yet it was moving as he tried to explain to her why his faith had been destroyed and how she had given a little of it back. Those are the moments I think make a great show, and it’s that level of complexity I hope to achieve every time I begin a new piece.