Last summer, the NAACP threatened a boycott of the major TV networks after finding that not a single new comedy or drama in the fall prime-time lineup had a minority actor in a leading role. Although the emphasis was on acting roles, the situation behind the camera isn’t much better: Of 839 writers on prime-time shows last fall, 55 (or 6.6 percent) were African-American. And 40 of those were employed on UPN and the WB shows. Only 15 black writers were employed on NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox shows combined. NBC had only one black writer out of all its 189 prime-time staff writing positions. CBS had two.
The boycott was planned for ratings “sweeps” week at the beginning of November. On Oct. 29, the following unsolicited query letter went out to 33 agents who represent TV writers:
Dear [agent’s name here],I am a writer who is interested in breaking into television and is seeking representation. I have two comedy specs, which I would be happy to submit for consideration.THE SIMPSONS “Homey the Homey”: Homer finds himself at the center of a controversy in Springfield after an offhand remark to his co-worker Karl sparks a racial fire that literally burns out of control. Only Homer can save Springfield and only the ghost of Bleeding Gums Murphy can save Homer.FRASIER “Love Your Neighbor … But Not That Way”: When Frasier gets a new next-door neighbor he is surprised to find out that she isn’t just sporting a really deep, dark tan. He is even more surprised when he realizes that he has begun to fall for her.I am very proud of both of these. And I believe that with my background I can bring not only diversity but also urban sensibility to sit-com writing. Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing back from you.Sincerely,LaDarius Washington
Spec scripts are scripts you write for existing shows, just to prove you can write. Two days after LaDarius’ letters were mailed, the phone started ringing.
“Hi LaDarius, this is Jerry Miko at the Paradigm Agency. Why don’t you give me call back or you just go ahead and send your scripts over. Again that’s Jerry, J-E-R-R-Y, Miko, M-I-K-O. Talk to you later. Bye.”
“Jim Rothman. I read your letter. And 99 out of a 100 of these I just toss out, but there is something about this one that I like. Send me your Frasier. I’ll give it a read. Don’t expect a response real quickly and I hope that I enjoy it. … Also enclose something about yourself—your background, your education, that kind of stuff. It can’t hurt, could help.”
“Hi, this is a message for LaDarius. This is Katherine in Beth Bohn’s office at APA. … I just want to ask you some questions about your writing experience and about yourself. Normally we don’t simply take queries, but I thought I’d ask you some questions: what you’ve done, your background, anything you are doing now, writing experience, shows you may or may not have worked on. Give me a call when you can, or I will be calling you back.”
All told, his 33 letters produced six phone calls and eight letters. I hasten to add that almost all were rejections. But to get any response at all—even a rejection letter—is actually remarkable. And even more amazing is how polite they were. People who weren’t interested in reading LaDarius called to offer him referrals. One office called just to let him know that her agency wouldn’t consider material from unsolicited query letters but wanted to wish him good luck anyway.
A couple of days after LaDarius’ letter went out, I sent letters to the same 33 agents. Unlike LaDarius’ letter, mine contained no hints of my race (I’m white). What’s more, I included a pre-written response and a self-addressed, stamped envelope. All an agent had to do was check a box on the response letter indicating either yes, they would like to read my specs, or no thanks, they were not interested; then drop that letter into the envelope and toss the envelope into their outbox. I even ponied up the 33 cents for the stamp. I got one written response.
I did get one phone call. Hallelujah. The agent’s assistant said to send in my specs. I did. And I waited a couple of weeks and followed up. The assistant told me to call back next week. I did. I was again told to call back next week. I did. This happened a couple more times. The last time there was a new assistant on the desk. She had no idea who I was or where my specs were.
Unlike LaDarius, whom I obviously made up (though his letters and the responses are real), I actually am trying to break into television as a writer. And after more than a hundred letters, including two previous rounds, nobody had ever called me to say that they couldn’t read my specs but wished me good luck anyway. In fact, until this last round, nobody had ever called me—period. I had received one written response from the two previous mail-outs combined. It was my own letter returned to me with the words “I am sorry but I am unable to discuss representation with you at this time” typed on the upper right hand corner of the page. Apparently, I wasn’t even worth a clean piece of agency letterhead.
And the moral? Some may hold that this experiment illustrates reverse racism. Others—and I tend to be in this camp, when I can force myself to think objectively—see it more as Hollywood behaving exactly as it should have been doing even without pressure from the NAACP: trying extra hard to find minority writers. But the real moral is that in Hollywood you need affirmative action just to get rejected politely.