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Producer Randall Winston on Diversity in TV

Producer Randall Winston on Diversity in TV


TBS's second season of Ground Floor has 10 new 'diversity hires,' and the show's openly gay producer discusses what it means for the future of television.

Photo by Spencer Keenan-Winston

It's been a banner year for scripted series on TV (or streaming on your device of choice). With Shonda Rhimes's production company pushing boundaries -- defending the content of her new show, How to Get Away With Murder as her other hits, Scandal and Grey's Anatomy, continue to thrive. Then there's Jill Solloway's Transparent on Amazon, which garnered critical raves, while also employing many trans writers and crew members. But it's not only dramas that are seeing a shift--it's even taking place with sitcoms.

The openly gay producer Randall Winston made television history by directly overseeing the hiring of 10 diversity hires for the second season of TBS's Ground Floor. The co-producer behind hits Cougar Town, Spin City, Scrubs, and other shows, Winston is proud of what this means for men and women of color, as well as LGBT directors who will be calling the shots behind the camera.

"As a television producer in Hollywood; in terms of growing talent, I have found that it is still an effort for me to find people of diverse backgrounds that are entry level that I can bring into production and make them part of the team," Winston explains. "When it comes right down to it those become the people that you are grooming at all levels of production. And so its great and important for us to be able to have these diversity hires in creatively important decision like a director, who, from the top down can exert their power, influence, and opinion on the creative process." We caught up with Winston to ask him what the changes in TV mean for him and others--and what it's like working in a post-Shonda Rhimes Hollywood.

Out: Why make these diversity hires now?

Randall Winston: I think our diversity hires have been important because they have added to the creative process and been a pleasure to work with thus far. I can tell you this: no one had a stutter step and said, "Oh boy, we're bringing in a lot of color to the show!" The reaction from all of those associated with the show has been nothing but positive, and by landing 10 of of a possible 10 diversity slots for Ground Floor alone [TBS ordered 10 episodes for the second year of the sitcom], it's the single largest infusion of diversified talent that I have seen in over 20 years in this business.

How does changing the landscape behind the scenes affect what people get on TV?

There are a number of subtle things that happen. Let's face it: We are all subjected to popular cultural opinion and now social media-which now can send out this notion of what is OK to say. Not that is makes us overtly more concerned, but it does make us more sensitive. There are comments that people may be prone to say or think they can get away with saying if someone (who doesn't agree with that viewpoint) on set isn't there to in turn reply, "Maybe there is another way to do this--that's not OK."

I actually had a situation occur just this week with regards to sexual orientation on the set where one of my crew members who was working heard some other crew people saying pejorative things using the two "f" words on set and were offended. The offended party felt strongly enough to want to both confront the party who had made those comments, and comfortable enough to bring this to my attention so that I would be on notice that his was happening. For them to feel comfortable enough to say that to me because I am open with my sexual orientation and am the producer that I am speaks to the fact that we have created an important environment. When I stated in this business, I cant recall a producer who I could have gone to and said I am offended by what I heard, and this is why. When the crew is diverse and comfortable behind the scenes, it will translate to what the viewers will on TV In more ways than one.

What does it mean to be a gay, black producer in Hollywood? What barriers have you faced?

I think it means that I have a sensitivity and a filter--and something to offer. I have worked with a lot of writers and producers where I have had the opportunity to say just that. I think that "barriers" is a word that implies that things were insurmountable. Certainly there have been instances where people have made comments or statements that were raced based that were so ingrained in their mindset that I had to think to myself, That was not their intention, but this is the result. And how do I navigate those waters? I think what was most interesting to me when I first became a producer was when I would go into the big conference rooms at -- pick your studio -- and the absence of color and sometimes of gender stuck with me. I was thinking, How was this such a non-issue to so many others in the room? And so I guess that this is part of "arriving"--now more and more people feel that everyone should be represented. Yes, one needs to earn his place at the table, but people should be out there looking, so the TV landscape will therefore be more reflective.

How do you hope to change or break down obstacles for future filmmakers and aspiring writer-producers of color who also happen to be gay?

I tell many that honesty -- which is sometimes a hard thing to live up to -- is the most important tool that you can have. Its the most important thing I can offer to people who are coming on.... I can do better, but I try to offer my time to students and youngsters who ask for my advice. To me, this is part and parcel in looking to find a talent to help grow with. This is a super hard business to be in and there is work to be done. That said, honesty and pride in ones work are still valuable.


How do you prevent the diversity hires from looking like a publicity stunt?

I think that, on one hand, it is incumbent upon the person to earn their seat at the table, so to speak. But that is one reason why this season on Ground Floor is so special. This really is a situation where we are bringing these diversity hires back into the fold. We have produced a number of shows and worked with these people in other capacities, so to have them come back its awesome.

Going back to honesty, I think directors and writers have to feel genuine themselves. They know they have earned their keep, so to speak, and no one has to feel (during the creative process) that the diversity hire has been "placed upon them." Lastly, I think things are only "stunty" when its fake--when it's a character that is a caricature. If everyone hired an octaroon [the dated term for a person who is multi-ethnic] for the purposes of satisfying their diversity needs, that wouldn't be genuine or honest on their part.

This fall there were a number of shows with black actors -- such as How to Get Away With Murder and Blackish -- as leads, as well as an Asian-American led show. What are you looking forward to most, and what does this now mean for TV viewers?

I am anxious to see how Blackish does. From the pilot I saw, it's definitely reflective of my childhood and my family. I think there is an honestly in Lawrence Fishburne's character and its representative of a generation of people who are here. I know one of the guys who is writing on it, so I think that Blackish will do well because they are coming at it from a real experience--no caricature characters. From the viewers' standpoint, I think it's important for people to see themselves on TV. I feel good television that portrays different people in an honest way can give those viewers a sense of togetherness and realness--something that they can identify with.

What are your thoughts on Jim Parsons now being the highest paid openly gay TV star in history?

I love it and think it's awesome. I feel that he is open and made no bones about it. I don't think he had any big coming out, and it's a nice step. That's a road that's been groomed by Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen, and others. Any openness is so important and healthy for people who are coming into the business and feeling like they can be themselves and be comfortable. They shouldn't feel like they will be pigeonholed into something that they don't want to be.

Do you feel as though we have passed a threshold in that capacity?

Well, not that money is the end-all be-all, but yes, absolutely I think Jim's show [Big Bang Theory] has had tremendous success, and he is a big part of that. The fact that he is being rewarded appropriately is important.

In a post-Shonda Rhimes success world, is it still hard for men and women of color and those from the LGBT community to be involved in producing, writing, and directing capacities?

It's tough to be a writer and producer, period. Do I think Shonda Rhimes has kicked down some doors? Absolutely. I would also venture to say that I think Shonda Rhimes would go on to say that she wants to be known as a great writer and not a great black writer. And without her -- and she is an incredible talent, this touches base on some of our earlier discussions on diversity. Without Shonda Rhimes at the helm, would Scandal star a black woman? Would Grey's Anatomy of had as many black doctors that they did? Would her latest show How to Get Away with Murder feature Viola Davis as the lead actress?

There are plenty of times where a casting agent calls me and said how they felt how nice it would have been to have a part opened up a bit more to someone of another ethnicity-but there is always that hesitation. Is it going to be imbalanced, are people going to be turned off, are they not going to be able to relate to it? And so they you have it. Those types of things are representative of the type of hesitations that people still have because there is still something not quite genuine in the quest for the diverse role. That is the difference between people who are putting together an honest show and one that is balanced and it they have a specific point of view--who try to elevate it. This compared to someone who is like, "In order to make my balance sheet work out, I have to have this person." So, if it weren't for the success of Shonda, while Kerry Washington is a great and deserving actress, her road would have been a lot longer. And so the quest for honest entertainment, that will be reflective of the society that most of us live in here in America, will go on.

Season 2 of Ground Floor is currently airing on TBS.

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