How pitching a TV show is like jumping from a plane

The comedian Steven Wright said, “If at first you don’t succeed, destroy all evidence you tried.” Which is probably smart advice for the sake of dignity or whatever and I really should heed it instead of sharing my failures again and again, like now: my NBC pilot got spiked.

This one got reallyreally close, and we’re told it just missed the last slot, and no, there’s no medal for fourth place. (Here’s the Deadline piece about it.) It was my sixth pilot deal, of which one has gotten produced. Pros will tell you this is not a bad ratio, especially for a relative newbie, and that most TV writers never even get that one. But most TV writers have perfectly good careers staffing on other people’s shows. All I do is development so sometimes it feels like all I do is fail.

Steven Wright also said, “If at first you don’t succeed, skydiving isn’t for you.” I’ve never jumped out of a plane, but in my head it feels like pitching a TV show. So then of course the question a not insane person like you might wonder is why I keep doing it. Yes. It’s a good question. I wonder, too.

One reason might be that I’m actually pretty good at it—the jumping part, if not the landing. Another reason is that I get paid. Another is that I look around and realize just how rare and lucky I am, as a not white not guy, to get to pitch TV shows at all.

A thing I do in the miserable weeks following a killed pilot is cry-read the scripts of the pilots that made it. Every year I keep track of who wrote the picked-up pilots, their genders and their races. This year, having nothing but time and sadness, I made a spreadsheet. I also tracked the gender and race of the pilots’ leads, as well as this weird thing: how the writers refer to their characters’ race.

Let me explain. In a script, a character is introduced in all caps, typically followed by a short description, often including age and race: say, “JUAN VALDEZ (40s, Latino).” There are other, subtler ways to indicate race; one I’m seeing more is a living actor as reference (“think Lin-Manuel Miranda”). But I’d noticed a while back that many scripts identify only their non-white characters by race. As if you’re supposed to presume that if “Asian” or “black” isn’t specified, then of course the character is white*. (*Some writers might argue that by not identifying the races of their leads, they’re open to race-blind casting for those roles. But then why specify race at all?)

This is what my 2018 spreadsheet shows. Of the 36 picked-up drama pilots I read from the big four networks, 11.5 were written (one co-written) by women. That’s 41%…which is not bad. But just 2.5 were written (one co-written) by non-white** writers (**going by their photos and bios). That’s 9%. Which sucks. You may be surprised and/or pleased to hear that 43% of picked-up drama pilots this year have at least one non-white character as a lead. That’s good, right? More diversity on screen? But 36% identified only the non-white characters by race.

To me, that last stat is a tell. It indicates that to that writer, non-whites are “other.” And I think that matters! I recently read an interview with a renowned TV creator, a white man, whose new show features diverse leads. He waved away questions about how he researched those roles, saying without apology that he didn’t know anything about those people’s lives, and his solution was to hire a diverse writing staff. I’m all for a diverse writing staff. But creators of shows are creators of worlds. What if creators actually knew the worlds they were creating?

Anyway. I guess the reason I keep sharing my failures is that many of you, my friends, are not white not guys. Many of you are writers. Some of you may be nursing ideas—book ideas, article ideas, TV or movie ideas. But maybe you’ve decided skydiving is not for you.

So I guess I’m here to tell you that you can fall 1,000 feet face first into the dirt in front of an audience, and get up and try again. It’s painful and humiliating and dirt tastes terrible and why do they keep giving me a defective parachute? But I think it’s important that we try. So I’m going to keep jumping. I hope you will, too. xoxo

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