Disney TV Execs and Producers Talk Building a More Inclusive Talent Pool

Disney Television Studios mounted a panel Thursday at the TCA press tour entitled “Inclusion is Not A Spectator Sport” — a panel on which five of the participants were white and two were Black. According to Tim McNeal, vice president, creative talent development and inclusion and DMA (Donna Michelle Anderson), director, creative talent development and inclusion at Walt Disney Television, that structure was intentional.

“Because these panelists represent decision-makers, producers and executives, a majority of whom are still white, who have the ability and accountability to significantly change mindsets and practices,” McNeal said.

The panel also featured Alexi Hawley, executive producer and writer, “The Rookie”; Brian Morewitz, senior VP, drama development, ABC; Carol Turner, executive VP, production, ABC Signature; Jonathan Groff, consulting producer, “Black-ish”; David Renaud, producer, “The Good Doctor.” Both McNeal and DMA spoke to why Hawley, Morewitz, Groff and Renaud, all white men, and Turner, a white woman, were invited to share their opinions and experiences with viewers and with each other.

“As the expression goes, your Black colleagues are tired. Your women colleagues of color, who have been default-assigned to lead this conversation and be the voice and the flag bearers of this conversation [are tired]— we deeply believe that it is not only the responsibility of marginalized communities who work at the company, so we quite intentionally put this panel together to say these are the folks who have agency and who have accountability and who have the opportunity,” DMA said, emphasizing that top white scripted television producers are still a critical part of the solution to changing established practices and incorrect mindsets about talent scarcity, talent quality and talent pipelines.

Per Turner, the past year’s racial and cultural reckoning in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the systemic disparities magnified by the pandemic, has helped address her own blind spots when it comes to inclusion. “We are producers. When we want to make something happen, we can make anything happen. We can put the most incredible images on the screen and we can make the most difficult shows, but we hadn’t made this a priority, and once we made inclusion a priority, it was actually easy,” Turner said. She noted how she and her team at ABC Signature had robust support to expand its hiring pool and to meet “all the people we didn’t know that had the experience, that had the expertise, that just weren’t part of our circles.”

Morewitz added, “I think it’s impossible not to have woken up this past year to the idea that we’ve, the people who make television and who make movies have been part of the problem because we’ve been telling the same kinds of stories for decades. And those stories have been mostly told through a white male lens. I think we really realized that the different points of view, finding the under underrepresented voices, is key to the change, and it’s certainly a work in progress.”

DMA spoke of how she’s seen first-hand that work in progress and that everyday inclusion approach delivered at a new level of intensity at Walt Disney Television. The executive relayed that she had already been to more than a hundred events a year to meet with talent and to fill requests and that the company has a massive database of potential candidates (even for behind the scenes). But, refocusing, leveraging resources and making the decision to be intentional on the daily about diversity initiatives has made her “very delighted with the collaboration and with the talent response” at the company.

Groff built on that, noting that you can’t rely on the agents and the old networks to supply you with the names. You have to find them yourself, and you have to work with your studio executive. Groff expressed gratitude for Sydnee Rimes, VP, current programming, ABC Studios, for being an unbelievable identifier of talent and meeting writers who are trying to break in. During the height of the Black Lives Matter movement’s resurgence, Groff was able to find an editor, who had previously worked as an assistant at “Insecure,” to edit episodes for “Black-ish” that tackled the topic.

Hawley was accused by former “The Rookie” star Afton Williamson of being unresponsive to her claims of racial discrimination, sexual assault and harassment in 2019. A subsequent investigation by ABC found that Hawley and other executive producers on the show took prompt and reasonable steps to address complaints when they were made aware of them.

“As a white male showrunner, it costs me nothing to say, ‘I want to try and get parity with female and male directors,’” Hawley said. “It costs me nothing to say that I want a diverse staff and inclusive crew and cast and all that kind of stuff. I’m not going to get pushback on that. I’ve heard stories of writers of color who have tried to push on that and they get pushed back. I don’t get pushed back, so if I don’t do the work, that’s on me.

Renaud, a person with a disability, chimed in and observed that if he had been barred from the pipeline, he wouldn’t be working as a producer on “The Good Doctor,” or have a pilot in development with Morewitz at ABC.

“You have to recognize that the different sounding stories and that different sounding voices are good and helpful, and it’s going to make your show better. You have to allow that person to go up the ranks and continue to climb the ladder,” Renaud, who has paraplegia, continued. “And then you’ve got to allow them to tell their stories eventually, and ultimately at some point, you have to give them the reins, and then there will be lots of people on panels that look different and sound different and have different stories to tell.”

McNeal added, “There has definitely been a shift in consciousness that has allowed us to start leaning in and having some difficult conversations about the inequity that existed and continues to exist in the entertainment business, and only then because some of those difficult conversations have we been able to move forward.”

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