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WRITERS STUDY CHARGES WIDESPREAD DISCRIMINATION : 200-Page Report Documents Age, Sex, Race Hiring Bias in TV, Film Industry

June 24, 1987|JACK MATHEWS | Times Staff Writer

After two years of claiming discrimination against women, minorities and older writers by the entertainment industry, the Writers Guild of America on Tuesday issued a mammoth report that graphically documented its case.

"We are presenting this report to illustrate the need for change in our industry," said the guild's executive director, Brian Walton, at a press conference at guild headquarters in West Hollywood. "We're saying these (figures) are not acceptable."

The 18-month, 200-page study, conducted by husband-and-wife Ph.D.s William and Denise Bielby of UC Santa Barbara (see accompanying story), portrays segments of a Hollywood profession that are not only whistling against the wind but facing a stronger wind.

According to the Bielbys' study, based on information supplied to the guild by its members during the years 1982 through 1985, the percentage of women and minorities writing for film and television was half the percentage of employed writers in the general population, and writers over the age of 40 were seeing the erosion of their number in both jobs and salary growth.

The report is specific, and it points its statistical finger at such seemingly progressive companies as MTM Enterprises and Walt Disney Productions as having the worst records in the industry for hiring and paying women, minorities and older writers.

Only 15% of MTM's writing staff was composed of women in 1985, the report said. They earned one-fifth as much for their writing as their white male colleagues. MTM, the report said, has the worst hiring record for women in the industry. MTM officials were unavailable for comment.

According to the study, women account for 44% of all employed authors in the United States, but fewer than 20% of employed screen and television writers. Minorities represent 6% of employed authors in the general population, and fewer than 3% in Hollywood.

"What we found is how little things have changed," said Denise Bielby. "Clearly, women and minorities are under-represented in film and television."

The report focused on the 16 companies--the three networks, seven major film and television studios and six leading independent production houses--that account for two-thirds of the writers' employment. Some companies came out worse than others, but all of them came in for criticism in nearly all areas.

It singled out two television shows--Alan Landsburg Productions' "Gimme a Break" and MTM's "Hill Street Blues"--as shows with prominent minority characters and no minority writers.

"Our policy here is to hire people that we believe are most qualified for a particular job," said Howard Lipstone, president of Alan Landsburg Productions, which also showed up on the low end of the table for hiring women. "There is absolutely no deliberate attempt made to hire any particular group," Lipstone said.

Besides having no minority writers among its stable of 26 writers, "Hill Street Blues" had only had one woman on the staff.

"We didn't get a lot of women who wanted to write for (the show)," said Steven Bochco, former executive producer of "Hill Street." "It was considered a male environment cop show, that kind of thing."

Bochco, now producing "L.A. Law," said that all three staff writers for the new show are white males in their 30s. He said Terry Louise Fisher, with whom he co-created "L.A. Law," is a woman and they are looking for a woman writer.

"We do have a legitimate responsibility--within reason," Bochco said. "But there just aren't many talented people out there, period. Most of the writers I say no to are men."

Essentially, the Bielbys' study shows that the 16 companies that account for two-thirds of all writing jobs are depending more and more on young white male writers for scripts than for all other groups combined, and are paying them more money than anyone else.

Women who started writing professionally in 1982 were paid 12% less than men who started at the same time, according to the study. At the end of four years, the salary gap had grown to 30%.

Seven years ago, writers over 40--presumably the most experienced in their field--were the highest salaried members of the guild. By the end of 1985, the median older writer was earning only 83 cents to every dollar earned by the median writer under 40, the study shows.

In 1985, during the aggressive new era of Michael Eisner, the Disney studio more than doubled its number of staff writers. But according to the report, the percentage of older writers dropped from 55% before the recruiting binge to 37% afterward.

Mort Thaw, head of the guild's age discrimination committee, accused the employers at the studios, networks and production companies of having stepped through the looking glass to borrow an attitude that says, "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean. Neither more nor less."

"These (executives) are using the word experience to mean undesirable," Thaw said, "and they're saying inexperience is desirable."

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