Diversifying television with tax credits for the writer's room

May 8, 2014

Greenwich Village corner of 6th Ave (Avenue of the Americas) and West 10th Street in New York City
Credit Jenna Flanagan / Innovation Trail

Anyone watching television has certainly noticed an increase in the diversity of the casts of most scripted television shows. But what about behind the scenes? The Innovation Trail’s Jenna Flanagan finds out how new legislation in Albany aims to incentivize diversity at the very genesis of most television shows. The writer’s room.

Saturday Night Live made national headlines when Sasheer Zamata joined the cast making her the only African-American woman hired by the show in six years. What wasn’t as widely reported were the additions of LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones to the shows writing staff.

“It’s very hard for women and people of color to get their first or second or third jobs writing for TV and film.”

That’s Lowell Peterson, Executive Director of the Writers Guild of America East, a union 4-thousand strong and fully supportive of Assembly bill 7373 and State Senate bill 5370.  

These two pieces of legislation aim to increase the diversity amongst productions’ writing staff by modifying the state’s existing production tax credit. Production companies that hired women or people of color would be able to write off a portion of their salaries up to 3-point-5-million dollars a year or 50-thousand dollars per writer.

Peterson says if the legislation went through, it would really set New York apart in television and film production.

“There are no other states that currently provide an incentive to hire women or people of color to write and we think that’s a mistake. We think New York has a historic opportunity to do the right thing here.”

He says getting work as a staff writer is rare, and studio heads tend to hire people they know. Historically, that’s meant white and male, but if more writers had the opportunity to ‘get a shot’, Peterson believes more writers could develop careers in a highly competitive field.

“Building the chops and building the connections in the industry so that they get hired for the next job and the job after that and developing their own abilities to craft stories that are really compelling and skillfully done. It takes time to develop those skills and to develop those connections and to build that career.”

The legislation isn’t new. It’d been sitting on the desk of Harlem Assemblyman Keith Wright for years, but it was a high school friend, TV writer Warren Leight, who pushed him to bring the bill to committee.

Sitting in his Albany office, Wright says once he introduced the bill, it got a windfall of support from both minority and white lawmakers and a Senate version was quickly drawn up.

“It’s always important to encourage diversity that’s what makes this state wonderful, that’s what makes this country the greatest country in the world because we are so rich in our diversity. If we were just bland with no flavor at all then that’s what you get. But you have folks that are black that are brown that are red that are yellow, that just add to the culture and the vibrancy of anything that we do no matter what the field.”

The legislation, nicknamed ‘the writers tax credit’ would amend the incentives that make New York City and State an attractive place to film. Wright believes it would also help close the gap on production rival Los Angeles.

“We have a lot of folks especially in communities of color who want to write for a living and this would be a great way for them to gain entry into the emerging or burgeoning entertainment field that’s part and parcel of the city of New York.”

Writer Lisa Takeuchi Cullen in Greenwich Village of New York City
Credit Jenna Flanagan / Innovation Trail

Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, is a journalist turned TV writer. She sees ‘the writer’s tax credit’ as a potential job creator for television writers on the east coast.

“I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard from my reps, from execs that you simply can’t staff a show here because the people aren’t here the talent isn’t here.”

When Cullen’s journalism job went bust a few years ago, the New Jersey resident took a story she’d reported and pitched it to a producer, who eventually picked it up. Her pilot, called ‘The Ordained’ was set in New York City. She found walking around the Greenwich Village neighborhood where some of the filming took place, also gave her a new perspective on writing.

“That was a great feeling for me because as a writer we don’t think of ourselves as job creators but if you write a script and you’re lucky enough to get it produced then those words that you wrote just created hundreds of jobs.”

In the end, ‘The Ordained’ ended wasn’t picked up but that first experience has left her optimistic about her future in television writing, a feeling she thinks more women and minorities should get to used to.

“We have stories to tell and our stories are interesting and I think would make for great television. But because there are so few of us who have the privilege of pitching these stories and writing them, they simply don’t make it on our screen as often as the people who tend to dominate the Hollywood media especially in the writing sector.”

Cullen says that doesn’t mean producers should ‘color match’ writers to characters. She points to America’s literary history of people writing characters who bear no resemblance to the author, but diverse writers add depth to the characters portrayed on TV.

“It’s simply I think a fact that we tend to write characters that are close to our own experiences, our own backgrounds and the characters that we know from our daily lives.”

Neither the Assembly nor the Senate bills have been brought to the floor for a vote. However the Writers Guild, AFL-CIO and New York Women in Film and Television are encouraging their members to contact lawmakers to encourage them to vote ‘YES’ on the writer’s tax credit.