When showrunner Peter Lenkov said at a press conference three weeks ago that there were no Latinx writers on the new Magnum P.I. — a CBS reboot starring Jay Hernandez — because “it’s incredibly hard to find writers,” it drew plenty of criticism from journalists, other TV writers and producers, and the advocacy organization National Hispanic Media Coalition.
The next day, when Lenkov clarified on Twitter that he “made a mistake” and the CBS reboot does, in fact, have a Latinx writer on staff, things got worse. TV writers and producers on other shows wondered if Lenkov, who also runs Hawaii-Five-O and MacGyver, had forgotten one of the three female writers in his Magnum writers’ room (there are seven writers in total). Latinx Hollywood took it further, reacting to a detail in Lenkov’s tweet — that the writer is an alumnus of the CBS Writers Mentoring Program — and therefore not on his radar since Lenkov did not find her on his own or pay for her salary.
What actually happened, according to Lenkov, was that he was thrown by the newish term “Latinx” in the question, fumbled his answer at the panel, and then caused more confusion with his follow-up tweet. Since then, Vulture has independently confirmed there is a half-Cuban woman on the Magnum P.I. writing staff who graduated from the CBS program last year. She did not respond to Vulture’s requests for an interview.
Sources who have spoken to Lenkov in recent days told Vulture that he has had trouble sleeping because he feels so badly about his mistake. Lenkov declined to be interviewed, but sent a statement through CBS Television Studios, which produces Magnum and his other shows: “During the TCA panel, I quite frankly didn’t understand the question and I misspoke about Latinx representation in the writers’ room for Magnum P.I. This regrettable moment has been very humbling and I hope to use it as a learning and growth experience moving forward. Telling stories is my passion and having authentic voices write and direct my shows is important to the creative process and to the audience for whom we produce the shows. I am currently working with Brenda Victoria Castillo, Alex Nogales, and the wonderful folks at the National Hispanic Media Coalition to help build on this commitment for my current and future series.”
Although Nogales, NHMC’s president and CEO, and president-elect Castillo accept that Lenkov simply made a mistake, they have met with him to discuss inclusivity and representation on his shows and to introduce him to some of the 150 writers who have completed the NHMC’s TV Writers Program. “I think he’s earnest, I think he’s sincere,” Nogales said of Lenkov. “I think we can expect that he will be inclusive. And, look, CBS thinks highly of him. He’s got three shows and they’re major shows. So we’ll see where this goes. But I’m optimistic that we can get some things done with him.”
Beyond being an embarrassing moment for a high-profile producer, the episode has served to illustrate Latinx Hollywood’s frustration with its continued invisibility in the industry, as depicted in the lack of recent Emmy nominations and lack of lead acting roles and high-profile jobs in writing and producing ranks. According to UCLA’s fifth annual Hollywood Diversity Report, Latinx make up 18 percent of the U.S. population, yet only land 6 percent of the speaking roles in TV; Latinx consumers buy 24 percent of movie tickets, yet only get 2.7 percent of the speaking roles on film.
“How we are perceived is always going to be the way we are treated,” Nogales said. “And there’s a direct correlation between how few of us are in front of the camera and back of the camera and how people look at us. The vast majority of the population doesn’t know Latinos in any depth and they have seen us in very few roles that are positive.”
In May, Vulture reported that of 35 new shows picked up across the five broadcast networks for fall, half of them feature people of color in lead roles, a sign that decision-makers are listening to the cries for more representation. However, Latinx and Asian actors remain underrepresented. Of those 18 shows, six feature Latinx actors and one features an Asian actor. The rest of the actors are black. With six of its nine new shows featuring people of color in lead roles, CBS — long criticized for its lack of diversity — was in first place in terms of casting the highest number of nonwhite actors for the upcoming season.
Behind the scenes, however, the results were more bleak: Only four of the 18 shows featuring people of color in starring roles also have people of color in key creative and producing positions — a point that is imperative to Nogales as he works to educate Hollywood leaders, including Lenkov, on these disparities.
“Peter is a powerhouse kind of a guy — they’re allowing him to be a showrunner for three major shows that they produce,” Nogales said. “The fact that he brought Jay Hernandez in is a big step in the right direction, especially for CBS, who has historically been lily-white. Peter is Canadian and he wants to know more about the Latinos who live here in California, so we are going to introduce him to Latinos who are his social equals, so that maybe he and others can stop thinking of us as the ones from the very bottom.”
To that end, Castillo of NHMC sent Lenkov eight to ten scripts from writers who completed the NHMC TV Writers’ program and will probably send more as the producer goes through them. “He’s reading them right now,” Nogales said. “I’m not gonna force him to take a writer he doesn’t want to work with, but we’re going to keep talking and hopefully he’ll bring in a minimum of one.”
CBS, like ABC and NBC, has its own writing program, which is entering its 16th season and has graduated over 100 writers, such as S.W.A.T creator Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, The Walking Dead co-executive producer Angela Kang, and Star Trek: Discovery writers Bo Yeon Kim and Erika Lippoldt. Each fall, five to eight participants are selected and paired with an executive mentor to work on a piece from October to December. From January to April, the writers have weekly workshops with industry leaders until staffing season in May when the CBS team helps them land interviews. The Latinx writer who is staffed on Magnum P.I. completed it last year.
“Our first point of interest is creating staff writers, but this is really about creating next show runners,” said CBS executive vice president of entertainment diversity and inclusion Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i. “Notable alumni from our program that are now in the position to create their own writers room utilize us a resource and reach their hand back to lift others up.”
The CBS program and others like it have been controversial in the past, as writers who landed gigs were met with prejudice and biases, resulting from being perceived as the network’s “diversity hire” or “free writer.” Networks seeking to raise the number of people of color in their writers’ rooms paid for the salaries of those writers, essentially giving showrunners a writer they did not have to pay out of the show budget. Since 2015, CBS changed the way it handles those salaries, agreeing to only pay the first 23 weeks of a writer’s stint to, in effect, evolve the program into a partnership with producers.
“We want to bust those biases,” Smith-Anoa’i said. “We would never refer to our writers as the ‘diverse’ writer or the ‘free’ writer. That is not what this is. Many of the writers that come through our program also have gone through ABC or NBC because what this is really about is having access to the decision-makers. And that’s the bridge we are serving. I’m not going to tell anyone that they have to hire this person, but people come through our program to get access to meet as many people as they can and share their talented work.”
Nogales acknowledged he’s heard complaints from some writers who complete network diversity programs and then feel voiceless once they are working in rooms where they are the only person of color. “We have to take what we can get,” he said. “A lot of times we don’t have the connections and that’s what these programs provide. And the next step as an advocacy organization is to put pressure — and the majority of the time it works.”
The question posed to Lenkov at the press conference also dealt with cultural identity and how much of the new Magnum’s Latino background would be explored in the series. (Magnum’s background is not mentioned in the first episode, the only one that’s currently available to the press.) Although procedurals don’t routinely go heavy on character development, viewers do get to know characters as time passes. At the press conference, executive producer Eric Guggenheim said, “We plan to acknowledge it throughout the series.”
“It is gigantic just to have Jay Hernandez in that role,” Nogales said. “This particular show has a history, a pedigree. If [Hernandez] carries it off, not jumping up and down and saying, ‘I’m Latino,’ that’s okay too. But it’s important to have the writers in there because they will give it a nuance. We don’t necessarily write like whites. We have a different understanding of how society works and how life is because of our own personal experiences, so it brings another coloration to the show.”