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CBS announces new goals for diversity in network writers’ rooms

Writers’ room staffs must be at least 40% Black, Indigenous and people of color in 2021-22 season

CBS is committing at least 25% of its script development budget to creators and producers who are Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) starting with the 2021-22 development season, the network announced in a release on Monday.

It has also set a goal for the upcoming 2021-22 television season that its writers’ rooms will be, at minimum, 40% BIPOC. That mandate will increase to 50% for the following 2022-23 season.

It’s a significant change in network television that ought to have thunderous effects, not just at CBS, but in the entertainment world at large as Hollywood figures out how to make substantive change with regards to race.

In recent weeks, streaming services have pulled episodes of television featuring white actors in blackface, and white actors such as Kristen Bell, Jenny Slate and Alison Brie have apologized for voicing characters of color in animation and have pledged not to do so in the future.

In 2017, Color of Change released a study, Race in the Writers’ Room, conducted by Darnell Hunt, the dean of social sciences at UCLA. It found that 91% of television showrunners were white, and that television writers’ rooms were 86.3% white — a stark contrast to the racial makeup of the country, where, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 76.3% of U.S. residents are white. Color of Change also found that 65.4% of Hollywood writers’ rooms had no Black writers.

The changes have come swiftly after ViacomCBS announced that it was appointing George Cheeks, who is Black, as CEO of CBS Entertainment Group, effective March 23.

Previously, CBS has faced harsh and public criticism for the racial dynamics at the network, specifically within a program ostensibly intended to create a pipeline for minority talent. In a November 2017 story, New York magazine reported that minority artists had repeatedly complained that the network’s diversity showcase trafficked in racist, sexist and anti-gay tropes.

The writers’ room mandates at CBS echo suggestions made in the Color of Change for how to overhaul the whiteness of the television industry. “Rather than just talking a big game or holding up Emmy wins that, in truth, provide a misleading impression of their commitments, networks must set public goals for inclusion in both hiring and cultivating talent, and in the content they produce — public goals with real, public budgets and shifts in practice attached to them, to which they can be held accountable by the public,” Hunt wrote in the report.

Color of Change also called on networks to make themselves more transparent and accountable by paying “attention to the dynamics within shows at their point of inception, where the patterns of inclusion are typically set quite firmly, and make key interventions at those points, rather than leaving issues of inclusion to be ‘definitely addressed down the road.’ ”

Hunt also called on networks and showrunners to “develop a more regular and credible process and set of protocols for engaging outside expert groups when sensitive issues are at play, especially when they remain below a basic threshold for inclusion in their writers’ rooms.”

Before joining CBS, Cheeks was vice chairman of NBCUniversal Content Studios. He took over from Joe Ianniello, who took over running the network in September 2018 when then-CEO Les Moonves stepped down. In an August 2018 New Yorker article penned by Ronan Farrow, six women accused Moonves of sexual harassment and coercion.

“While steady progress has been made in recent years both in front of and behind the camera, change needs to happen faster, especially with creators and leadership roles on the shows,” Cheeks said in a release from CBS. “As a network with ambitions to be a unifier and an agent of change at this important time, these new initiatives will help accelerate efforts to broaden our storytelling and make CBS programming even more diverse and inclusive.”

Cheeks is a member of a small but slowly growing cadre of Black entertainment executives at major networks. In November 2016, Channing Dungey became the first Black executive to run an entertainment division at a broadcast network when she became the president of ABC Entertainment. She left in 2018 to become vice president of original content for Netflix. Cheeks and Dungey, along with Freeform president Tara Duncan, occupy some of the most influential roles in American entertainment media.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.