In the spring of 2020, a TV writer of color got a thrilling phone call: They'd been hired to write for season two of "All Rise." Joining the drama about a Black woman at the heart of the justice system (Judge Lola Carmichael, played by Simone Missick) felt significant during nationwide protests over the murders of George Floyd and other Black people at the hands of police, as well as in the midst of a pandemic that highlighted racial inequities and class disparities. The call was "a shining star in a really dark hour."
But there was a lot that the writer didn't know about what happened in the writers room during season one.
"Working on this show was a process of discovery about what the studio knew and what the network knew," the writer tells me. "And they didn't tell us — not when we got the job or when we were signing the papers. It was a process of peeling back these layers, this discovery of who we were working for."
The story of who the "All Rise" writing staff worked for — the turmoil his tenure caused among the staff, Warner Bros.' response to it, and the showrunner's own attempts to improve as a leader — is an object lesson at a time when the TV industry is undergoing scrutiny, thanks largely to many years' worth of #MeToo scandals and the fact that Hollywood is finally beginning to address its history of bias and tokenism. It offers a glimpse into the real-time evolution of television at a key moment in America's racial history: TV has long thrived on cop and courtroom shows that didn't just frequently feature criminals of color, they also reflexively portrayed police and the criminal justice system in mostly positive light. For decades, TV has often glorified these institutions in ways that they didn't deserve, and, even in ambitious narratives, has lent charismatic glamour to cops, lawyers, investigators and judges who broke the rules as they dished out their own brand of "justice."
The story of "All Rise" also speaks to the industry's attempt to not just hire voices from marginalized communities, but to its spotty track record when it comes to actually listening to them. And of course, this story says a lot about what is and isn't considered acceptable workplace behavior in 2021 — and why the industry's flawed systems may well need major reform.
In late March, not long after the studio learned I was reporting this story, Warner Bros. TV, which produces "All Rise," dismissed showrunner Greg Spottiswood, affirming in a statement its commitment to "a safe, professional, respectful, and inclusive environment." CBS, which airs "All Rise," said in its own statement that the network was "deeply disturbed by the claims against Greg Spottiswood, particularly following previous corrective action, and we fully support the decision by Warner Bros. Television to remove him from the show." According to the more than a dozen writers and support staffers I spoke to, the showrunner created a troubled workplace that one source said was "toxic," exhibited troubling behavior around race and gender, and effectively drove away staffers, including a large number of people of color.
Warner Bros. conducted two inquiries into Spottiswood's leadership, and mandated extensive coaching and training. The studio did not address specific questions about what ultimately led to Spottiswood's firing. But part of the second investigation, which sources say began in February, a month before he was dismissed, involved a comment he allegedly made during a Zoom meeting last fall.
According to four sources who were present when the remark was made, and two others who heard about it immediately afterward, this is what allegedly occurred: A writer was in the middle of a pitch when executive producer and co-showrunner Denitria "Dee" Harris-Lawrence spoke up to say that she had received an important "All Rise" email. Harris-Lawrence, who is Black, asked a second person on the call, who is also Black, if they had received the email. The second person said they had not. Harris-Lawrence said she would forward the email to the other writer.
"Look at that," Spottiswood allegedly said, "a monkey passing the ball to another monkey."
According to one source in the meeting, "No one said anything. I think Dee was still reading the email. I'm not even sure whether she heard it. The other [person] was just completely frozen. And that's when Greg said, 'I didn't mean it like that.'" The meeting continued for at least 30 more minutes, sources say, and no further reference was made to the remark.
That evening or the next day, one source spoke to the second African-American person in the scenario described above, who was enraged, the source said. This individual, according to the source, was also "hurt — angry hurt."
"Frankly, when that comment happened, and then especially when there was an investigation about it, I thought, OK, so this is the headline grabber, but it doesn't necessarily tell the whole story of why 'All Rise' just didn't work as a workplace," says a source who worked on the show. "It's kind of like getting him on tax evasion."
NOT A YELLER
Hollywood has been famously sluggish in taking action against problematic bosses, particularly if the person in question is a rainmaker. As a showrunner with no connection to "All Rise" puts it, "Does anyone really believe that Weinstein, Cosby, and far too many others were able to commit decades of criminal acts without the complicity and collusion of numerous high-level executives at agencies, studios, law firms, and other entities? Safe workplaces are either a priority or they are not. And in the current entertainment industry, they are still, decidedly, not."
Attorney Mariann Wang, who has represented numerous clients bringing harassment and abuse allegations, including one who sued Harvey Weinstein, says of the recent Scott Rudin scandal, "I guarantee you that a lot of people are like, 'Come on, everyone knows this is the only way you get things done — and so what if he had a temper?' But they can't say that publicly." Wang continues: "The whole industry so plainly feeds abusive personalities. HR is often tacked on at the end as a CYA thing, when it should really be fundamental to the whole endeavor and to figuring out, How do we treat people decently? How do we ensure that people really have a place to go if they don't feel safe?"
Spottiswood has not been accused of anything remotely like sexual assault. He's not even a flamboyant screamer or baked-potato-thrower in the mold of Rudin. In fact, his tenure at "All Rise" is a cautionary tale precisely because descriptions of his alleged behavior, attitudes and conduct fall into subtler categories that are probably even more prevalent in the TV industry — and more likely to be enabled.
For this story, I spoke to 30 sources in all — at the show, at the network and at the studio, and I also consulted experts on the industry and experienced TV veterans who addressed the systemic issues the "All Rise" situation illuminates. Ultimately I interviewed a total of 20 people who worked directly with Spottiswood, including six individuals who were willing, despite the potential risk to their careers, to use their names when speaking about their experiences working on the show or with Spottiswood. According to most of the "All Rise" sources I spoke to, Spottiswood created a "hostile" atmosphere in dozens of quiet, confidence-shredding ways, and was regularly insensitive, arrogant and defensive in workplace conversations, including those that would necessarily take place at a show about a Black female judge.
"Greg made the choice to write a television show about people of color, and hired a room full of people of color who could have elevated and added perspective to the story he chose to tell, despite it not being his lived experience," says Conway Preston, a white writer who worked on the first season. "And instead, he all too often denied their input and made their lives miserable every step of the way."
"A QUALITY OF LIFE DECISION"
Spottiswood hails from Toronto and had a multi-decade career in Canada, working as an actor, a playwright, a TV writer, and sometimes a showrunner on a string of projects. He broke into American TV in a big way with "All Rise," partly on the strength of the fact that he brought the project to the table. At a press event in 2019, he said that the original inspiration for the drama came from Steve Bogira's "Courtroom 302," a nonfiction book about a year in the life of a busy Chicago courtroom. Spottiswood noted then that, in the process of developing the project with "All Rise" executive producers Michael M. Robin and Leonard Goldstein, he "threw out the white male judge from the book and … created the character of Lola, and we peopled our ensemble with the people of Los Angeles."
From the first season, Spottiswood did assemble a team that, as the saying goes, looked like America. Apart from him, there were seven writers and a writers' assistant on the original season one staff, three quarters of whom were people of color and three of whom were women. (IMDb.com and Wikipedia show that 57 percent of the first season's episodes were written or co-written by writers of color, and 33 percent were written or co-written by women.)
All eight people on that original roster have since left the show.
In a statement, Warner Bros. said both the studio and Spottiswood felt strongly about having a person of color serve as a co-showrunner and executive producer. Sunil Nayar, who is South Asian, was the first to fill that role, but left, profoundly frustrated, in 2019, and was replaced by Dee Harris-Lawrence.
Shernold Edwards, a Black writer who quit midway through season one, says she had to leave in order to protect her mental health: "It was a quality of life decision. One of the most disturbing parts of it was that I had to make the decision to walk away from a nine-episode extension and the money and the credit that comes with it."
Preston says that Edwards's departure was brutal, in part because it came not long after Nayar's. "Before, everyone was miserable and frustrated, but we had Sunil and Shernold," he says. "When they left it was really disheartening, because they had given so much of themselves to protect all of us, and to protect the story and the characters. To lose them because they had been treated so poorly, it was just gut-wrenching."
According to multiple second-season sources, the show's sophomore year was a rerun of season one: A mostly new staff consisting mostly of people of color was assembled, and also became disheartened by Spottiswood's alleged mismanagement. There were additional departures despite the fact that during the COVID-19 pandemic, job insecurity in the unstable entertainment industry reached new heights. "The root of it all is that he's disrespectful — of people's appearances, but of their time as well," says a second-season staffer.
This disrespect bled onto the screen, according to many sources from both seasons, who describe a showrunner so entrenched in his worldview that it was difficult to get him to consistently build responsible storytelling around life experiences that did not match his opinions and expectations as a middle-aged white man from Canada. "It was all so insidious that I think it's hard to convey the gravity of it to people and how bad it made us all feel," says a staffer who worked for him. "It was a lot of backhanded stuff and very polite Canadian degradation."
OFF THE RAILS
Of course not every employee experiences the same workplace in the same way. According to an "All Rise" cast member, the situation in the writers' room felt "zip codes away," and the safety precautions arising from the pandemic only made that distance greater. "Oftentimes actors are handled with kid gloves, whereas maybe a first-year writer or something like that doesn't get that same treatment. I am fully aware people can be two different ways in two different contexts. But I will just say that my interactions with Greg were always extremely positive." The cast member says that the on-set atmosphere was "nurturing," and expresses surprise at what's being said about Spottiswood: "It feels kind of disorienting, and it almost feels like they're talking about another show in terms of the allegations that have been made."
Spottiswood did not respond to most of the questions he was sent about the allegations in this story, and instead issued a statement, which reads in part: "I created 'All Rise' with the intent of amplifying the power of a Black female lead along with a diverse cast to share with viewers a new POV on a myriad of important issues that our criminal justice system is currently facing. It was essential to me that I collaborate with a diverse group of talented writers and craftspeople to ensure that 'All Rise' was an inclusive and representative environment and that it reflected the city it was set in. I recognize that I was not as successful as I hoped and that my communication style during the creative process sometimes was counterproductive."
There should be, on and off TV screens, spaces in which all kinds of people can have hard conversations about race, gender and culture, as well as the room to make mistakes as they reckon with complex subjects with fraught histories. And as the "All Rise" cast member notes, "This is truly, genuinely the most diverse workplace that any of us [on set] have worked in."
But among those cranking out scripts, what one source describes as Spottiswood's poor management and "petulance" frequently sent the show off the rails during both seasons: "The intersection of a constant managerial shitstorm, plus a lack of perception around key issues, meant that there was often little or no time for discussions that should have occurred."
There is, of course, that Zoom discussion those who were present are unlikely to forget. On Nov. 9 of last year, Spottiswood is said to have made the "monkey" remark. Not everyone associated with "All Rise" was aware of it: Executive producers Robin and Goldstein, sources familiar with the situation say, did not learn of Spottiswood's Zoom comment until I first asked them about it in March, and characterized their reactions as "horrified, shocked and appalled."
But according to a source who was on the call, it wasn't just the remark that was offensive and unsettling, but also the utter failure by Spottiswood to address it or apologize for it in any way — during the call, that day, or at any other time. "It was just not acknowledged, which in and of itself was jarring, aside from the words used," this source said. "I don't think he meant to employ the weight of that term, but he absolutely did use those words — and then no one said anything. And that to me says more about the work culture than the actual use of the term. Intention doesn't dictate harm. You have to be able to show some level of accountability, especially in a workplace scenario where you're in charge. You have to realize the gravity of the situation and make amends for the harm done."
According to three sources, "All Rise" staffers never seriously considered going to Warner Bros. Human Resources about the remark. Two of them say they worried about possible retaliation; all three say they were aware of the prolonged "climate survey" that the studio did with regard to Spottiswood's conduct during the first season. All were aware that, for the staff, it had yielded nothing but frustration. One source says the consensus was: "Don't bother."
IN THE BEGINNING
Shernold Edwards first encountered Spottiswood in the mid-aughts when she was a Canadian TV executive. A few years later they crossed paths again when they were briefly on the same writing staff. That experience set off a few alarm bells, she says, but she more or less brushed them off. However, the world of Canadian scripted TV is a fairly small one, and Edwards says people she trusted told her they believed Spottiswood was sexist. Two other Canadian sources who worked with Spottiswood made similar allegations to me (one noted that she was twice offered the chance to work with him again but "declined without hesitation"). But Bernard Zukerman, a producer who hired him to run two Canadian dramas, says, "I didn't find that at all, and I would not have stood for it." He adds, "I liked working with Greg. He cares. He was passionate. He was responsible."
In any case, Edwards was wary when Spottiswood approached her about working on "All Rise." "I tried everything not to take the job, I really did," she says.
Despite her misgivings, she watched the drama's pilot and met with Spottiswood and executive producer Leonard Goldstein. When she factored in the show's premise and a lead performance by Simone Missick that she greatly admired, Edwards's resolve to steer clear of her former colleague began to crumble. "I wondered, Is it possible to do good work here? Maybe it's possible," she says. "And I thought maybe I knew enough about him that I could weather it for at least a season. Within two weeks I was like, I've made a terrible mistake. But I realized I have these younger writers who I see are starting to suffer. I was like, OK, my job here is to survive and to help them survive."
Sunil Nayar says that, initially, he was excited to not just try to do good work, but also to share leadership of a team that would explore social issues and criminal justice. "The opportunity of a show like that is huge, especially when you think about what's happened in the last year and a half," he tells me. "And when I think back on that first season, I think, Boy, the right staff was there."
"All Rise" received generally positive reviews and was successful enough to get a second season. But many sources from both seasons say that an unusual amount of chaos hampered the generation, evolution, and completion of scripts, citing Spottiswood as the cause. "In terms of organization, it was the absolute worst," says one source. Another staffer puts it this way: "He really enjoyed holding forth, and he had weaponized the art of monologuing." A second-season staffer concurs: "Greg needed an audience. His writers were there to be his audience."
The end result was a show that sources say frequently fell behind. While some disorganization and difficulties are to be expected in a show's first season — especially from a showrunner new to American TV — the same chaotic dominoes began to fall early in Season 2, according to three sources, one of whom says "we worked 24/7." When "prep," or pre-production, would begin on a given episode, sources say, it wasn't unusual for production staffers to have to rely on early documents like story areas or outlines instead of scripts, a situation that many TV professionals would agree is less than ideal.
"By the time season two rolled around and WB and CBS were getting the outlines when they got them and getting the scripts when they got them, they had to know it was completely dysfunctional and poorly run," says a source.
One "All Rise" writer, a man of color, says that — despite welcoming complicated conversations about race, representation, and gender — he was frustrated by the constant expectation that he, someone with less power and status than Spottiswood, would be available to do the heavy emotional and educational labor necessary to prop his boss up. "It's a puzzle that I don't ever want to be on the receiving end of again, because, yes, people should be able to make mistakes, to learn and improve," he says. "But it's the people downhill that are constantly asked to extend their good faith, and usually at a moment of acute crisis that affects them."
Industry executives often claim to want inclusive staffs and respectful workplaces — and some no doubt actually do want to create those kinds of professional environments. But based on hundreds (thousands?) of conversations I've had over the past several years with people working at talent agencies, at production companies and on dozens of films and TV shows, it's still common for those on the front lines to be ground down by a frequently disrespectful and even abusive system that is all too often inclined to indulge in surface change — if that. In her early days on "All Rise," one source recalls feeling filled with a sense of possibility when she looked at the photos of the show's cast — five of whom are people of color — hanging over the whiteboard in the writers' room.
"It felt like the possibilities were endless in terms of the rich, culturally inclusive stories that we could tell, but the way everything was run by Greg — it was the polar opposite of that," said this source, a woman of color. "It almost felt like an illusion — the illusion of inclusivity."
Sources from both seasons agree that Spottiswood sometimes agreed to remove or alter story elements they found problematic or offensive. But the sheer number of times they say that they had to raise red flags became exhausting. During one lengthy conversation about a proposed storyline in which a character on the show — a Black bailiff — was stopped by the police, sources recall Spottiswood wanting the character to be dressed like a suspect the police were looking for. Multiple sources remember explaining to him, at length, that American cops randomly stop men of color, especially Black men, all the time. Sources say Spottiswood found that hard to believe.
At one stage the episode in question contained a scene in which the character spoke about the incident with Lola, the series' lead. A man of color at "All Rise" says that he was consulted about how that conversation might go, and that his input and that of other staffers were reflected on the page. But not long after that, Spottiswood, according to two sources, removed the dialogue from the scene. "Everybody's like, 'Where'd that really important conversation between those two Black characters go?'" says a source. "He said, 'I took it out because they didn't feel real. That's not how those two characters would talk to each other in that moment.'"
James Rogers III, a season one writers' assistant, says Spottiswood took details from his life without consulting him or getting the full context of that personal information — and yet also relied on him to rubber-stamp ideas about the African American community. "Yeah, I was the stand-in for the Black men in America," he says. "I think he looked at me as a Black person and thought that I could supply authenticity. But he went about it backwards. He went down the road and then looked in the rearview and said, 'Are we still going in the right direction?' As opposed to asking me for directions."
As Shernold Edwards feared before she took the "All Rise" job, Spottiswood's treatment of both real and fictional women was, in her view, problematic. Edwards recalls arriving at the writers room one day in the middle of 2019. "Everybody was shook, and it was uncomfortable," she says. "I saw this junior female writer, and she was up at the board, and she was pitching her heart out. And Greg was just tearing her apart, tearing everything she said apart." Asked if he was present for the meeting in question, another staffer replies, "I do not know if I was present for the exact moment Shernold is describing, because it happened so often."
Three female "All Rise" staffers say that, in their opinions, Spottiswood consistently favored the men on staff when it came to various work matters. "I felt he created an unhealthy environment for women, where female writers were treated like second-class citizens," says one. According to Conway Preston, "[Spottiswood] would pitch problematic story lines for our female characters — who make up five of our seven leads — and when the female writers took issue with that, he would get very defensive. He would insist that it wasn't a problem."
In season one, sources say, multiple staffers — many of them women — raised concerns about how domestic violence was depicted on the show. In particular, writers counseled that it would be misleading to portray domestic violence as a one-time event, rather than a complex and often ongoing pattern. But for the majority of season one, they say Spottiswood wouldn't budge from his position that, for one of the show's characters, domestic violence was a one-off event. "We never were able to convince him that when you do things like that, it's irresponsible," says a source.
"GETTING HANDED LIFELINES"
Midway through season one, Sunil Nayar, the co-showrunner, says he increasingly felt that he wasn't being allowed to do the job he'd been hired to do. Spottiswood, he says, turned to executive producers Robin and Goldstein instead. In an email to a Warner Bros. HR person in September 2019 — which I have reviewed — Nayar noted that his "brownness was of paramount import when cameras and reporters are around. But when they're not present, I've never experienced anything like the disrespect I've been shown on this show." (Sources familiar with the situation say that, as non-writing executive producers, Robin and Goldstein were not in the writers' room, and added that they were not aware of any complaints, frustrations or issues Nayar had at that time.)
Later that fall, sources say, a female writer came onto the radar of Warner Bros. HR representatives during a meeting with some "All Rise" staffers. In this meeting, according to a knowledgeable source, an outside adviser brought in by HR told the writer that women in the workplace need to control their anger in order to be heard, and an HR person affirmed that statement. During that meeting, according to this source, an HR representative also pointed out that writing jobs in the entertainment industry are very hard to get.
Around that time, in the fall of 2019, in a larger meeting with more "All Rise" staff and emissaries from Warner Bros. HR, one source recalls a similarly ominous vibe. He says he left the meeting feeling that what HR was trying to communicate was this: "If you want to keep making noise, we are a conglomerate, and we'll bury you."
Some of the turmoil in the "All Rise" writers' room went public via a New York Times story that came out in August 2020. At that time, Warner Bros. said its inquiry had determined that there were "areas for improvement," but that "the findings did not reveal conduct that would warrant removing series creator Greg Spottiswood from the executive producer role."
To be clear, Warner Bros.' response to the situation at "All Rise" is not uncommon in the industry. "This year the studio I work for made a concerted effort to educate [executive producers] and showrunners on how to be more accepting and empowering of voices of color within their ranks," one TV veteran unconnected to "All Rise" tells me. "The webinars were actually quite thorough. As a person of color, I was really impressed. However, when it comes to outlining what is and is not acceptable in how teams are managed on a daily basis is rarely ever discussed. As long as the work is getting done and no one is complaining through official channels, no one checks up to see how the sausage is getting made. It's only when an issue becomes a liability to the studio that they become interested. I think that studios are placing a lot of responsibility in the hands of writers and support staff to report abuse if and when they experience or witness it."
One lower-level staffer who worked at "All Rise" says he experienced a great deal of frustration even when he did try to send up flares.
"I thought, if I'm not doing well at my job, I get fired. He was not doing well at his job and was getting handed lifelines, you know?" this source recalls of "All Rise"'s difficult first season and the HR "climate survey" that frequently intersected with it. "Everyone was like, 'OK, the people who could do something are siding with him.' And no matter what we said, HR would just say, 'That's not actionable.' That was the word they kept using. That's when people began to say, 'I'm going to leave.'"
I sent Warner Bros. TV a detailed list of questions about the allegations in this story. The studio did not address many of the specifics, but sent a statement, which reads in part: "Warner Bros. Television is committed to open communication with our cast, staff, and crew to ensure a safe, respectful, and inclusive work environment. We are saddened to learn that any colleague may have expressed unease about discussing their concerns with the studio. We always want all team members to feel supported, encouraged, and empowered to report issues as soon as they arise, so that we can review or investigate, and implement any necessary changes in a timely fashion."
THE MACHETE EPISODE
By November of 2019, Shernold Edwards says that she was just about ready to follow Sunil Nayar out the door. That month Edwards attended a table read of a script written by Greg Nelson, a white writer on staff and a friend of Spottiswood's. According to multiple "All Rise" writers, some preliminary versions of the script, which sources say Spottiswood worked on with Nelson, mentioned a crime committed with a machete by members of a Latinx gang. At one point in what Nelson says was a "bootleg" draft of the script, the murder victim's heart was cut out with a machete; two other sources say that in a later draft of the script, the mention of the heart was dropped, but a character says the gang "took turns" with a machete to kill a man.
Though the nature of the crime was altered again — it apparently became a gun homicide by the time of the table read — Edwards recalls she still found a number of aspects of the script problematic, and says lines that were in the script at a fairly late stage, in which a character called the gang members "the worst of the worst" and "vicious psychopaths," were, in her view, "inflammatory." For his part, Nelson notes that "in response to valuable feedback," various aspects of the episode were made "more nuanced and rounded": It was, in his opinion,"the normal process of writing TV — making changes as you rewrite, in response to notes, feedback and input."
Before some changes were made, but immediately after that table read, a Latinx member of the cast came to Edwards in tears, saying she could not appear in the episode as written. Edwards outlined what occurred at the table read and her own concerns in an email to Spottiswood, Robin, and Goldstein. In the email, which I have reviewed, she also recounted a conversation that occurred afterward: "I was asked by the writer of an episode…why a character's race or ethnicity should inform that character's decisions and behavior. This is not the first time I've fielded that question this season. The fact that I'm still being asked that question tells me that there are people on the show who are incapable of writing for people of color and should not be writing for people of color. The fundamental problem with the episode is that it was [crafted] in a vacuum by two Canadian white men without consulting the one remaining Latinx writer on staff, or either of the two black writers on staff…. As written, episode 113 is racist, and offensive."
Not long after she sent that email, Edwards says, executive producers Robin and Goldstein met with her. According to Edwards, at the meeting they said they were "handling" the situation. "I said, 'I haven't seen any evidence of that,'" she says. "I got angry. I told them, 'Now I'm angry, and I'm upset that I'm angry. I'm a Black woman who's been put on the spot in this country, and I don't get to be angry.'"
Sources familiar with the situation confirm that both executive producers met with Edwards near the "All Rise" set. These sources add that, according to their recollections, Spottiswood immediately did a rewrite of the script that addressed the actress' concerns about potentially offensive material.
That week, Edwards says, she heard that Spottiswood met with the staff when she was not present and acknowledged that he'd made mistakes. But according to colleagues Edwards says she talked to after that meeting, the showrunner also allegedly said he too was "a victim" of the latest mess. "When the writers told me that — it was in that moment I decided to quit," she says.
Another woman of color says that she asked to be released from her contract in the middle of season one and told Spottiswood she was leaving for another writing job. But she says that she would have left even without another gig because of the atmosphere at the show. A couple days before she left, she says, Spottiswood came into her office, closed the door, and sat on her couch. She recalls that he then launched into a long anecdote about a Warner Bros. actor on a different show who had asked out of her contract and was "blacklisted," failing to work for many years after that.
"I felt I knew why Greg was telling me this story — I felt like it was a threat," she says. She recalls that she reacted calmly, and "once Greg saw he wasn't going to get a rise out of me, he stood up, he smirked, and he said, 'You should know that studios don't like to set precedents.' And then he turned and walked out of the room."
"I GOT REALLY ANGRY"
According to Warner Bros., one outcome of the season one "climate survey" was that Spottiswood was given "mandatory one-on-one training and executive coaching on leadership and management." Those sessions occurred in the first season and continued into the second.
"I came to realize that if you haven't walked in someone else's shoes, you cannot fully understand their feelings or perspective despite your intention of being their ally," Spottiswood said in his statement. "Therefore, over the course of our two seasons, we invited the ACLU, Peace Over Violence, NAACP, Color of Change, Black Lives Matter, a restorative justice organization, and the Harvard Institute of Law to advise our writers room. We also had three full-time legal experts discussing and debating legal and ethical issues around almost every case."
Sources say regardless of the various attempts at addressing the problems, the overall working environment at "All Rise" did not appreciably change. One second-season source recalls having multiple conversations with a fellow "All Rise" writer of color who wanted to leave the industry entirely because this person could not "deal with these Greg Spottiswoods." The source told their colleague, "He is not a representation of how it should be. Do not let this man detour your career."
Another season two source says that Spottiswood frequently made unsettling, demoralizing comments about her appearance. During a meeting with the writing staff, she says he told her that she looked like a puppet and then "started imitating me and making really weird sounds and laughing. I was really, really uncomfortable. I did not laugh. I got really angry. Maybe these comments he makes to me, they were supposed to be jokes? Or an attempt to make a friend? But I'm like, How in the world would you think this is nice? No, no, not at all."
One source who witnessed the puppet incident and a series of other remarks Spottiswood allegedly directed at that woman said, "I could see a change in her — a kind of shutting down." The woman who was the target of the comments says she began putting on sweatshirts for work meetings and stopped wearing makeup: "I do not make any effort to look nice. I don't want attention from him of any kind."
While "All Rise" is made by Warner Bros, it airs on CBS, which has a fraught history around workplace issues. After an array of stories detailing alleged sexual assault, harassment, and/or intimidation, CBS CEO Les Moonves left the company in 2018, though he has denied any and all wrongdoing. In the past several years, CBS News personnel, as well as various executives and showrunners — among them Brad Kern, Bob Kushell, John Glenn, Peter Lenkov, and, most recently, Jim Reynolds — have left in the wake of coverage about their own alleged conduct and treatment of employees.
Even so, old attitudes linger in some quarters. "There's always an excuse for why people leave, for why they complain — they're always the problem," says a source at CBS. "They push back against any other narrative, which definitely helps drive people away. And then the executives congratulate themselves on how inclusive they are, and how there are no real issues."
Last year, CBS touted its new targets for representation of Black, Indigenous, and people of color in its writers rooms and in its development process. The writing staff of "All Rise," in both seasons, exceeded the network's newly stated goal of 40% BIPOC in its writers' rooms. But, at any show or on any film set, things can go deeply awry when an inclusive staff is hired, but many (or all) of those in charge are white and not necessarily up to the task of making creative and managerial decisions with consistent fairness, equity and respect — and then are insulated from the consequences. Multiple sources pointed out that Spottiswood appeared to be surrounded by several layers of protection and empathy, things that were not consistently available — or available at all — to a number of those trying to raise concerns about his management and behavior.
"It felt like they thought everyone was expendable. The attitude, in so many ways, came off as, 'We could just bring in another person of color who could tolerate more.' It felt like, 'If he didn't say the N-word, if he didn't do this or that, there's nothing we can do,'" says a person of color who worked at "All Rise." "And I was like, well, maybe just change your metric about how a toxic work environment is formed and perpetuated. It's not just someone sexually harassing you or calling you some derogatory term — it's all of it, everything that builds up to you feeling like you don't belong somewhere."
As far as what, if any, oversight CBS exercises over programs that originate from outside studios, the network appears to acknowledge that there is still work to be done. "It is a top priority for our network to work even more diligently with our production partners to ensure strong, collaborative creative cultures that align with our values for a respectful work environment that inspires everyone's best work," it said in its statement.
As for Spottiswood himself, he wrote, "I felt I was learning and improving, and while I'm devastated that I will not be allowed to continue with 'All Rise,' I hope the show continues to spread powerful messages. I'm extremely proud of the episodes that were produced during my time, and I wish everyone who remains the very best success in continuing to tell these important stories. I never meant to offend anyone and to those I have, I'm deeply sorry."
When Shernold Edwards quit "All Rise" at the tail end of 2019, she met with Peter Roth, then president and chief content officer of Warner Bros. Television Group, and Susan Rovner, then Warner Bros. Television's president. Edwards says she outlined a litany of things that had gone wrong at the drama, and her notes on the meeting, which I have reviewed, state that both executives acknowledged that Spottiswood could be "condescending" and "arrogant." "They asked if I thought his behavior was due to conscious or unconscious bias," says Edwards. "I said, 'I don't know.' I also said, 'It doesn't matter anymore because this is the second round of HR. We, as a staff, went to HR months ago, and we were promised that things would change, but they only got worse.'" (Through a representative, Rovner acknowledged the meeting took place, but did not recall the specifics of what was said. In her response, Rovner's spokesperson added that the executive thought "it was a positive meeting during which she and Peter tried to convince Shernold to stay on the show.")
The executive turnover that has affected much of the industry in recent years has also occurred at both of the companies responsible for "All Rise." The current president and CEO of CBS Entertainment Group is George Cheeks, a Black man. And last fall Channing Dungey, a Black woman, was named chairman of the Warner Bros. Television Group. Between rising generations of writers, actors, crew members and assistants who are no longer willing to put up with the destructive old ways, a cadre of established creators and producers tired of a system that too often rewards abuse and toxicity, and a new generation taking the reins at certain media conglomerates, perhaps there is reason to hope that real change is possible. As attorney Wang puts it, "It's true of all of the police departments when I sue them, or any large institution—it always comes from the top. If the top people really care about this and treat their underlings decently, guess what? It turns out that the head of HR also cares about it."
Wherever they work, sources I've spoken to for this story and other pieces are vociferous about the need for a massive overhaul of the industry's attitudes, as well as its HR processes. As the advocacy group Pay Up Hollywood says, "As far as all the stories that have come out about not just Scott Rudin but other abusers too — it's as if the top layers of the industry are going through mental gymnastics right now. Because for decades, it was enough to just slander the victims to the press to get off scot-free. They're not used to other people holding them accountable."
One showrunner says that if things do not change—and disrespect, retribution, biases of all kinds and abuse continue to be commonplace—the "best" that can be hoped for is a scenario that sounds a lot like the dysfunctional system currently in place: "The impression I've gotten from a recent interaction with a studio was that they would continue to overlook abuses by the big earners, but they were being hyper-vigilant about not letting any new toxic people onboard." This veteran adds that he recently participated in an HR investigation involving a former colleague. "I answered their questions truthfully, corroborating allegations of sexual discrimination and a retaliatory firing," this source recalls. "This [executive producer] was not asked back for the following season — but I later found out he went on to staff on another show at the exact same studio, and that they bought a pilot from him this past season."
To avoid exactly this kind of merry-go-round, in which consequences are transitory or non-existent, this showrunner advocates for some specific reforms: "We need an independent, industry-wide, third-party reporting system with data escrow, which would flag not only the most severe abusers but would also keep records on persistent lower-level abusers and could share this information across all employers. Unions across the entertainment industry should do more to raise issues of harassment, discrimination, and abuse in the workplace to demand safer, better conditions for all their members. But ultimately, the responsibility lies with the studios. Nothing will get better until they stop covering up the problem and start facing it honestly, for the good of both their workers and their shareholders."
A second showrunner underscores the difficulty of bringing complaints to in-house HR reps: "It's hard to feel safe reporting to the very people who are trying to protect the studio's image."
Pay Up Hollywood also favors an industry-wide, independent reporting system, as well independent investigations that the studios don't control, and the dissolution of all NDAs that protect studios, abusers and even HR departments. "What so many people see, time and again, is someone who is repeatedly hired and rises through the ranks, without anyone ever talking about their patterns of unacceptable behavior, abuse and toxicity," Pay Up Hollywood says. "With this system, there's a paper trail that is created for the benefit of the abused, rather than for the benefit of the studio. If we could put these systems into place, it would be incredibly effective — there's the potential of having a collective going up against an abuser, rather than individual voices. There's protection in a group, both from the industry and from the abuser. And there's power in that."
FALL AND RISE
Warner Bros. has already made one concrete change at "All Rise," which wrapped production of its second season on April 23: It made Dee Harris-Lawrence the sole showrunner. "I like Dee's energy a lot, and she's a very capable showrunner," says the cast member quoted earlier. "I think the show's in excellent hands with her. As much as Greg might have wanted to be able to pull off this show—and I think his heart was genuinely in the right place in wanting to do that—he was not the right guy for the job, for very obvious reasons. So to have Dee in that position, it just feels like a much more natural fit."
In its statement, Warner Bros. says that the studio has "multiple resources, tools, and guidance on best practices for diversity, equity, and inclusion" that are available to all showrunners and productions; these programs include "the industry's only multi-week course for showrunners focused on developing an equity mindset and ensuring inclusivity."
Programs, courses and new practices can help when it comes to the many industry-wide changes that are still needed (and, as sources noted in this 2020 story on the fall of a powerful showrunner, appropriate management training for people in that position is still not prioritized or even provided by most media conglomerates). But when many gatekeepers and decision-makers within multiple powerful entities share similar backgrounds and privileged worldviews, don't appear to think work atmospheres and dynamics like the ones outlined above are "that bad," and often seem convinced that a few hours of executive coaching can fix deeply rooted issues like racism, toxicity, abusive narcissism and misogyny, it's difficult to imagine how much will truly change in Hollywood, unless individuals, guilds and other formal and informal coalitions pushing for better working conditions unite to make it change.
I have written stories like this for years now, and, while I'm continually humbled and impressed by the courage of those who come forward, reporting these pieces often feels like being trapped inside a depressing version of "Groundhog Day": Over and over, similar demoralizing, vindictive and abusive dynamics are described to me (and other reporters), powerful companies continue to wait until dozens of people have endured far too much professional and personal damage and stress before anything is done (if anything is done), and all too often, those same companies, in their statements and attitudes, appear to believe that everything is fine now that they've fired That One Problem Person. (Of course, if you have been around the industry for more than 10 minutes, you know that at every network, at every studio, at every big — or medium or small — media conglomerate or production, there is usually more than One Problem Person.)
As one TV veteran noted earlier, some individuals who are problematic (to say the least) are protected and enabled because they're seen as the sources of large amounts of actual or potential revenue or of choice work opportunities. But Greg Spottiswood was largely unknown to the American television industry when "All Rise" came along — and he remained in charge for almost two years, despite the staff's frequent interactions with HR, despite high turnover and despite negative press coverage. In my decades of reporting on the industry, the interlocking, multi-layered buffers he appeared to benefit from are not a luxury I've routinely seen extended toward humane, thoughtful, kind and able industry veterans, especially those from marginalized groups (who, all too often, don't even get a shot at the top showrunner or executive jobs).
Before Spottiswood was fired, I asked many sources why they thought that he still had his job. One theory comes from Edwards, though it was echoed by others: "Greg makes a show that is very palatable for CBS and its audience, because it's representation without authenticity. So they can look at Black and brown folks, but they don't have to hear about our real experiences."
And then there's the perception that, among established people in the entertainment industry, a certain blithe arrogance isn't uncommon. As one former "All Rise" writer puts it, "When it comes to the studio or the network, part of all this has to be, 'We don't want to admit we bet on the profoundly wrong horse.'"