Women Rise to Power at Britain’s Heritage Networks, Production Companies

During her stint at the BBC, a rite of passage for many British TV execs, Sophie Turner Laing was charged with helping implement former chief Greg Dyke’s Making It Happen campaign, a drive to change the culture at the pubcaster. “I still have the yellow card that says, ‘Cut the crap,’ which Greg gave us all to use,” she says. Fifteen years later, Turner Laing is CEO of Endemol Shine Group — and part of a remarkable generation of women in Britain who have continued to cut the crap and make it happen.

Many of the most powerful executive suites in the U.K.-based television industry today are occupied by women — a far cry from the male-dominated glass offices of Hollywood. These female pioneers have overseen production and distribution of some of the biggest shows in the world, from “Got Talent” and “Sherlock” to “American Gods” and “Big Brother.” Two of the most important jobs in British broadcasting have also recently gone to women: Alex Mahon has just taken the reins at Channel 4, and Carolyn McCall becomes CEO of ITV in January.

Not that problems with gender equality don’t persist. On-screen there are disparities in roles and salaries. The BBC recently revealed a chasm between its top-earning men and women and an overall gender pay gap of 9.3%. And the recent sexual harassment scandals have pointed up the problems of male privilege in the entertainment industry.

But with more and more women in key leadership roles — such as FremantleMedia CEO Cecile Frot-Coutaz and BBC director of content Charlotte Moore — the outlook is positive in Britain.

“I certainly have more contemporaries and peers that are female than I did when I started,” says All3Media CEO Jane Turton, who counted off the names of several of them. “We are making progress on gender.”

A recent study by British media regulator Ofcom found that most of the Big 5 TV companies in the U.K. employ more women than men. Despite the inroads of women at the very top of the industry, the numbers fall when it comes to senior posts more generally, and also with regard to older women. Viacom ranks best, with women making up 48% of its senior staff, ahead of ITV (42%), the BBC (39%), Channel 4 (36%) and Sky (31%).

Veteran producer Beryl Vertue wrote the script for female TV execs in Britain, forging transatlantic links as far back as the 1960s and paving the way for “All in the Family” and “Sanford and Son,” both remakes of British shows. “It was the beginning of the feminist movement, and I used to fly from England and fly out again, and in the U.S. they used to find that quite intriguing,” she says. “I’m known as the originator of the format deal. It was quite exciting.”

Vertue went on to chair the producers’ trade group Pact, and was involved in the effort to allow British producers to keep rights to their programs, which was enshrined into law in 2003. Her daughters, Sue and Debbie, are part of family-owned Hartswood Films, which gave the world “Sherlock” and is now developing “Dracula.”

Says All3Media CEO Jane Turton: “We are making progress on gender.”

“It’s tricky,” Sue Vertue says of TV’s gender issue. “Management is not doing badly, but when you start getting into crew, it’s harder for women and rarer to find them. You feel proud when you say you’ve just had a female director.”

Like Beryl Vertue, Turner Laing worked her way up from the ground floor, and says she never found doors were closed because of her gender. “I’ve been fortunate, but that doesn’t mean everybody else in the industry has been, and I am conscious of that,” she says. A stuffed Kermit the Frog in her West London office is a reminder of her start in TV, under Jim Henson. “He was like the talent whisperer. Everybody wanted to work with him, and we would have all lain in the street for him,” she says of the beloved Muppets master.

Turner Laing put in time at both the BBC and Sky, steering the latter into original programming. She was instrumental in the launch of Sky Atlantic, the home of HBO shows in Britain. When Endemol and Shine merged three years ago, creating one of the world’s biggest production and distribution groups, she was brought in to head the new operation, working alongside Mahon, then boss of Shine, to get it up and running.

“There was lots of uncertainty. You could see people thinking, ‘Should I come up with my best idea if I don’t know if I’ll like Sophie or where the company is going?’” Turner Laing recalls. Since then, Endemol Shine has continued to nurture unscripted hits such as “MasterChef” and “Big Brother,” and scripted shows including “Peaky Blinders” and “Black Mirror.”

FremantleMedia’s Frot-Coutaz also oversees a global TV business, with operations in 31 countries. Although she never got one of his yellow “Cut the crap” cards, she counts former BBC chief Dyke as someone who helped her get ahead. “I worked with Greg Dyke, Tony Cohen and David Lyle, who were all supersmart and generous executives and fantastic mentors. They never, ever made me feel anything other than valued,” she says.

“Have I been discriminated against? I don’t think so. Maybe I was and I just chose to override it,” Frot-Coutaz adds. “My back always goes up a little bit when people say, ‘As a woman, how did you find it?’ I say, ‘Fine, but I don’t know what it would have been like if I was a man!’”

Equal pay is an issue in Britain and, to varying degrees, in other countries, Frot-Coutaz acknowledges. She is well-placed to know, given her company’s boots on the ground around the world, which springs from her belief that TV is a local business with a global dimension, and not vice versa. FremantleMedia boasts formats such as “Got Talent,” “Idol” and “The X Factor” and high-end scripted series including “American Gods,” “Picnic at Hanging Rock” and “Hard Sun,” which will air on Hulu in the U.S. and on the BBC in the U.K.

The British pubcaster has yet to hire a female director-general. But it has its first female deputy DG, Anne Bulford, and Moore, as director of content, holds one of the Beeb’s most senior posts.

Moore previously worked at Channel 4 and as an indie producer, and she sees gender as one component of a larger issue of diversity that affects the BBC’s output. “If you’re going to have a diversity of stories, you need a diversity of talent telling them, and that will lead to a richer and more creative industry,” she says. “There are not enough women in senior positions, and that’s something we’ll all continue to work at and encourage [change]. As a woman, you are often very good at getting things done and being organized, and there was a moment when people said, ‘You would be a great producer or production manager, but we’re not sure about the creative side.’ … You can get pigeonholed.”

“It was the beginning of the feminist movement, and I used to fly from England and fly out again, and in the U.S. they used to find that quite intriguing.”
Producer Beryl Vertue

Adds Moore, who greenlit “The Great British Bake Off,” one of the U.K.’s most popular shows: “There are now lots of very strong women that I hope can inspire people.”

Many of these women are recognized on both sides of the Atlantic, including All3Media’s Turton, who took on the CEO’s mantle at the company when Discovery and Liberty bought it from Permira. Playing on a bigger stage has meant focusing on “talent, talent, talent,” she says, assembling the right team of producers and executives, who are now commissioning widely.

Her outfit is behind “Midsomer Murders,” “Gogglebox” and most of star chef Gordon Ramsay’s TV output, as well as new dramas “Rellik,” for Cinemax and the BBC, and “Liar,” for ITV. Turton has big ambitions in the U.S. market, which accounts for about a third of All3-Media’s business, a proportion she wants to drive up to 40% to 50%, possibly through producer start-ups. “It’s not a thing the American market has tended to do, but it’s something we are looking at,” she says.

Likewise, former BBC head of drama and BBC Worldwide exec Jane Tranter, who set up “Torchwood” and “Da Vinci’s Demons” while based in Los Angeles, now shuttles between the U.K. and the U.S. Her new production company, Bad Wolf, is teeing up adaptations of author Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy for the BBC and Deborah Harkness’ “A Discovery of Witches” for Sky.

Tranter has an encouraging message for women now coming through the ranks: “If I got to do that, running all that stuff at the BBC, then going to America, and then Bad Wolf, then you can do it. And there is a way to do it and have children,” she says. “While I have a precarious work-life balance, I’m not like that when it comes to my children.”

Georgia Brown, one of Britain’s rising stars, had feared that starting a family could derail her career at Amazon before it even began. “While negotiating with Amazon, I became pregnant, and having that conversation was the most terrifying moment of my career. I assumed they wouldn’t want to continue,” says Brown, the company’s new head of original programming in Europe. Fortunately, it turned out not to be a problem.

For the current crop of top female leaders like Turner Laing and Frot-Coutaz, mentors have mostly been men — unsurprising given the industry’s makeup during the early part of their careers. But that’s unlikely to be the case for the next generation. Brown cut her teeth at BBC Worldwide, FremantleMedia and Shine and had plenty of women to look up to along the way.

“I learned so much from them all — not just about the mechanics of running a business but how to treat people and encourage a culture of creative freedom and risk-taking. It was incredibly special to see women at the top of their game, encouraging other women, which is something I also strive to do,” she says. “It has never crossed my mind that I won’t be able to achieve my goals because of my gender.”

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