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Developmentally empowered

Drama, comedy brass at the nets morph into good ol' gals club

Say what you will about glass ceilings in showbiz and a Hollywood seemingly driven by the fantasies of adolescent boys, but the gender balance in the network development world has swung so far in the other direction that key executives — mainly of the feminine variety — wonder aloud where all of the men went.

“Right now, for whatever reason, we’re digging a little harder to get a male point of view,” says Francie Calfo, executive VP at ABC who, along with entertainment president Steve McPherson, has cultivated a team of top-rank gray suits that includes drama topper Suzanne Patmore-Gibbs and new comedy head Samie Kim Falvey. “There are so many women available right now,” Calfo adds, “but we need to keep both voices in the process.”

These days, when a development job opens up, the majority of viable candidates are women.

“There has definitely been a period in the past two or three years where women who have been up at it a long time have been getting these top positions,” notes NBC exec VP of entertainment Katherine Pope, whose sway at the Peacock net is superceded only by entertainment president Kevin Reilly. “And you can’t underestimate the fact that they inspire other women to get into it.”

There are several reasons for the rise of the top-level female development execs, including one obvious one: The networks target more women viewers than men.

“Women really drive a lot of the viewing in the home and drive the advertising through the products they buy,” says Pope. “You see the broad success of a show like ‘Desperate Housewives’ or ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ and certainly reality TV is so driven by women 18-34,” adds Pope. “You have to be incredibly aware of that. And part of it is about putting more women in the room and in those decisionmaking roles.”

Nancy Tellem, president of the CBS Paramount Network Television Group, calls the change a “natural evolution.”

“In my generation, of the people going to college together, men and women alike for the first time were viewed as contemporaries,” she says. “The generation before us, those distinctions were more defined. But as they retired and the new generation started taking those jobs and appointing people, the distinction between men and women dissipated.”

Ten years ago, when Jamie Tarses was named ABC Entertainment president, she paved the way for Tellem and a host of other women who would follow suit, Susanne Daniels, Gail Berman, Susan Lynne, Dawn Ostroff and Nina Tassler among them.

As a result, Tassler believes, the explosion in female development execs has helped expand the variety of programming seen on TV.

“Twenty years ago I used to joke that if a Martian came down to Earth and watched TV, he’d think we were a society of cops,” she says. “But now we have shows about ghosts, ‘CSI,’ ‘Lost,’ ‘Desperate Housewives,’ singing shows, amateur shows … there’s such a breadth to the content. I tend to think that may be a reflection of the number of women who are developing shows.”

Pope says that’s because “women tend to approach the job a little differently.”

Today’s top executives prefer to spend time with their families after hours, Pope notes — and that actually forces them out into the real world more often.

“Our lives are not compartmentalized,” Tassler says. “It’s a mish-mosh, a real melting pot. There are different elements that comprise our lives: We’re mothers, we’re teachers, we’re caregivers, we’re volunteer workers, we’re chauffeurs.”

Calfo calls her home life “a great reality check.”

“We’re people who have their tentacles in a lot of places — school, home, the workplace,” she says. “I’m always reminding my team, immerse yourself in the world that we’re developing for.”

The execs all agree the development suites are mostly gender-blind these days — but there are still some frontiers that could use more balance.

“There are still other ceilings to be broken,” Tellem says. “On another level, you still don’t see too many (female) CEOs.”

Development toppers


  • Suzanne Patmore-Gibbs, senior VP drama development; Samie Kim Falvey, senior VP comedy development. Report to exec VP Francie Calfo and entertainment president Steve McPherson


  • Wendi Trilling, executive VP comedy development; Laverne McKinnon, executive VP drama development. Report to Nina Tassler, CBS Entertainment president


  • Kim Fleary, exec VP comedy development. Reports to Dawn Ostroff, CW entertainment president


  • Susan Levison, senior VP of comedy development. Reports to Peter Liguori, Fox entertainment president


  • Katie O’Connell, senior VP drama. Reports to Katherine Pope, exec VP of entertainment, and Kevin Reilly, entertainment president

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