The Shonda Rhimes Effect?

The bad news: There are fewer black shows on TV. The good news: Black TV writers are quietly making their way on mainstream network shows. Here are their stories.

Shonda Rhimes (WireImage)
Shonda Rhimes (WireImage)

At a 1994 writer’s conference, David Milch, creator of NYPD Blue and Deadwood, famously stated, “In the area of drama, it [is] difficult for black American writers to write successfully for a mass audience.” The late David Mills, then a Washington Post writer, immediately fired off a letter to Milch, directly challenging his biased assumption.

Milch ended up offering Mills a gig writing for NYPD Blue, serving as his mentor along the way. Mills’ stint on Blue proved to be the precursor to his own series, Kingpin, and his outstandingly successful collaboration with his college buddy David Simon on The Corner, The Wire and Treme. 

Mills died suddenly last year at age 48 on the set of Treme. A crop of African-American writers are carrying on his legacy, writing for mainstream network shows while aspiring to produce their own shows, run their own production companies and branch out into film: writers like Dee Harris-Lawrence, who was an executive producer for Saving Grace and Detroit 1-8-7; Peter Saji, who scripts dialogue for Courtney Cox on ABC’s Cougar Town; Angela Nissel of ‘Til Death and Scrubs; and Saladin Patterson, co-executive producer and writer for USA Network’s Psych.

But while these writers and others interviewed by The Root have made some gains in the industry, the numbers aren’t in their favor. According to a 2011 study commissioned by the Writers Guild of America, the number of minority writers increased slightly from 9 percent in 2007 to 10 percent of all writers, a slight rebound to 2005 levels.

Still, this small increase in the number of writers of color isn’t reflected in their paychecks; the television earnings gap between minority and white writers has more than doubled since 2007. According to the WGA report, “Minorities have been regularly underrepresented by factors of about 3 to 1 among television writers. As the previous report concluded, it appears that minority writers are at best treading water when it comes to their share of television employment, particularly as the nation itself becomes more diverse.”

Despite the dispiriting stats, the writers interviewed by The Root all expressed a sense of optimism and resolve. Perhaps it’s the Shonda Rhimes effect. Rhimes, after all, has found considerable success as the creator, head writer and Emmy Award-winning executive producer of Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice and Off the Map. As LaToya Morgan, a recent graduate of Warner Brothers Writers Workshop, who writes for John Wells’ Shameless, puts it, “Shonda Rhimes is definitely an inspiration, and her success has been phenomenal. Other black women have had a tremendous impact … opening doors, cracking the glass ceiling and making it possible for people like me to follow in their footsteps.”

Adds Janine Sherman Barrois, co-executive producer of CBS’ Criminal Minds, “I think when a black woman can make a network millions of dollars, it helps people realize other people of color can do the same.”