TV writers seek N.Y. law to boost diversity in their industry

A group of TV writers are looking to flip the script in Albany in favor of more diverse hires for their industry.

Members of the Writers Guild East of America and the Directors Guild of America traveled to Albany May 22 to support a proposed bill that offers entertainment companies a financial incentive to hire women and people of color for television writing and directing.

The legislation wouldn’t redirect any money away from companies that don’t make such hires.

Instead, it would allocate up to $ 5 million of the existing $ 420 million Empire State Film Production Credit specifically for diverse hiring in writing and directing.

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“I think of it as something that will create more jobs, in general. It will help bring more opportunities for all writers, because right now, let’s face it, most of the TV writing jobs are in Los Angeles, not New York,” said Geri Cole, who made the trek to Albany to talk to lawmakers. “I don’t want to move to L.A., so we need to start growing more writing jobs here!”

Cole is the first and only black woman writer for the long-running show “Sesame Street,” a spot she’s held for the past four years.

“This is a very progressive TV show, with a long history of having only the best of intentions, and still a place like this is not diverse,” said Cole.

Robin Thede, a head writer for the first black woman to be a head writer for "The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore." 

Robin Thede, a head writer for the first black woman to be a head writer for “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore.” 

(WGAE)

Like many industries, Cole said, TV writing is about who you know and gaining access to the inner circle.

“Those who hire go to their networks, they are small and they are tight, and it’s really hard to get in there,” she noted.

Robin Thede, the first black woman to be a head writer for a late night show — “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore” — was even more blunt about the late-night comedy world.

“In my industry in particular, people hire who they know — and in late-night comedy it’s all white guys who went to Harvard,” she said. “Even white guys who went to Yale have a hard time breaking in.”

Both Cole and Thede worked their way into their roles by going out to comedy clubs, writing and performing improv, and proving they could write funny scripts.

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“It’s not an unusual way to work your way into the business, it’s just that often I was the only woman in the room and the only person of color,” said Thede, who recalled one show where she was known as “the girl writer” by the 15 other men on her team.

Geri Cole, the first and only black woman writer in "Sesame Street" history.

Geri Cole, the first and only black woman writer in “Sesame Street” history.

(WGAE)

Thede is casting for her upcoming late-night comedy show debuting this fall on BET, “The Rundown with Robin Thede.”

Even when she asks agencies for diverse applicants, they have a hard time finding them, she said.

“I want to hire more women and people of color and I’ve got agencies telling me, ‘We just don’t have any on the roster,’” she said.

“That’s another reason we need to pass this bill — we need to make the jobs and the opportunities more visible to everyone, which will lead to more talented people from diverse backgrounds getting employed,” Thede said.

The legislation was sponsored by two Democrats: Sen. Marisol Alcantara, whose district runs from Midtown Manhattan to Inwood, and Assemblyman Marcos Crespos, who represents the Soundview section of the Bronx.

It’s garnered widespread support from entertainment unions and many production companies.

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State Sen. Marisol Alcantara is one of two Democrats to sponsor the legislation, which offers tax breaks to entertainment companies that hire women and people of color for writing and directing jobs.

(Andrew Savulich/New York Daily News)

One of those, Broadway Stages, wrote a letter to Albany in support of the bill.

“(We) maintain a strong commitment to diversity …. Broadway Stages has seen an increased diversity in below-the-line positions due to growth in film and television production … more work needs to be done,” the letter said.

If the legislation becomes law, the Empire State Film Production Tax would be amended to include production writers and directors fees and salaries as “qualified production costs.” When a woman or person of color is hired for one of those eligible spots, the company would get a tax break — but it wouldn’t cost the state any more than is already allocated for the credit program.

Several other writers went with Cole and Thede to Albany, including Tanya Barfield, who writes for “The Americans,” Ashley Nicole Black from “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” which has one of the most diverse writing staffs in late-night TV, Joe Gonzalez from “Bosch” and Cami Delavigne from “Quantico.”

The Assembly version of the bill has 12 lawmakers signed on and will soon be headed to the floor for a vote, according to Writers Guild of America, East.

The Senate version is being considered by the Investigations and Government Relations Committee. Alcantara is pushing to get it to the floor for a vote.

Last year, the Senate and Assembly successfully passed slightly different versions of this bill, but the legislation didn’t make it to Gov. Cuomo’s desk to be signed into law.

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