“You have the power”: Diversity in Progress Panel at ATX TV Fest

On Saturday during the ATX TV Festival, I attended a panel entitled, “Diversity in Progress,” sponsored by the Writers Guild of America (WGAE) Diversity Panel.

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It was moderated by WGAE council member/HOUSE OF CARDS showrunner Beau Willimon (who I also saw speak at Hopkins).

According to the panel moderator, Beau Willimon, here are some of things that the Diversity Council does:

  • Outreach to underrepresented groups
  • Events like this panel
  • Showrunners’ workshops
  • Tax credits
  • Working with the DGA and SAG-AFTRA
  • TV Writer Access Project (which Ms. Calhoun mentioned)

He started the panel off by sharing some statistics in three categories: gender, minorities, and age. Women comprise 34% of the membership in the WGA and minorities are underrepresented 3 to 1. I actually thought that women comprised even less of a percentage, so that was slightly encouraging to hear but it is still disheartening that women are not more equitably represented.

The panelists were Wendy Calhoun (EMPIRE), Courtney Kemp Agboh (POWER), and Jenny Bicks (THE BIG C), all female television writers and/or executive producers/showrunners.

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Wendy Calhoun: “You have to keep checking in with your personal voice” 

Wendy Calhoun asserted that, in Hollywood money drives everything, so it is possible for issues of gender and race in employment to take a back seat as the general idea is that, seeing as Hollywood is obsessed with money, “the only color is green.” As an African-American woman, she said that she benefited from diversity programs and was a “diversity hire” but didn’t know it (which she lamented was probably a good thing), and this allowed her to have longevity. She also benefited from having a mentor in Graham Yost, who helped her get a job on ABC’s short-lived series LIFE, which later led to JUSTIFIED. She continued to write her own pieces throughout, so that she didn’t have to always “shape her voice” for whatever show she was writing on, or as she said, “for the check.” One of the most compelling things that she said was that, “You have to keep checking in with your own personal voice.” For example, she wanted to write about about music, which led her to NASHVILLE. She wanted to write about hip-hop, which led her to EMPIRE.

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Courtney Kemp Agboh: “Excellence is the equalizer”

Courtney Kemp Agboh never did any specific diversity programs, but was a diversity staff writer on shows like another one of my short-lived favorites, IN JUSTICE. As someone who loves crime shows and is currently working on one, I found it very interesting that she said that she decided to write because there weren’t many women writing procedurals. That may be a potential path for my career.

In speaking about diversity, she spoke less about the need for diverse individuals in televison, and more about the idea that writers’ rooms themselves need to be diverse environments in which each writer brings something different to the table, which is what she specifically looks for in hiring writers for a writers’ room. She reminded everyone about what really matters at the end of the day: excellence in writing, no matter one’s background. “Excellence is the equalizer,” she said, and she encouraged the audience to “write toward your writing heroes.”

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Jenny Bicks: “Diversity means making a diverse room”

Jenny Bicks started in sitcom rather than drama. I thought that she was spot-on when she echoed what Ms. Agboh said—that true diversity means creating a diverse writers’ room (i.e. she hired white women for POWER), as well as being able to write characters that are not from one’s own background (you’ll get in the room faster if your writing sample has “everybody in it”). What I love about my MFA program is that everyone brings something different to the table—different backgrounds, different perspectives.

She said that even though she, as a showrunner, puts herself on the line every time she hires a new writer, she said that if your work is good, someone will hire you because they want money. She also extolled the virtues of the fact that, as women, we are able to mentor other women. Someone mentioned a statistic that stuck with me that could possibly explain certain areas of employment inequity, and it is this: If women read a job description and can only do 85% of the job, they won’t apply, but if men read a job description and can only do 30%, they will apply and fake their way through the interview! I wasn’t exactly surprised by this, but it just goes to show that women need to put themselves out there more; then maybe in a few years, Beau Willimon will return to ATX TV Fest with new statistics that line up with the true demographics of America as it really is—diverse, filled with people ready and willing to do amazing things.

In conclusion, I’ll leave you with the words of Ms. Calhoun, who declared, “There is something you can do right now and it’s on the page…put this need for diversity right there on the page. You don’t have to feel like it’s outside of you, if you’re a writer or producer, you have the power.”

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