Female TV Directors: Numbers Remain Low, But Clout Is Growing

A new breed of star players is busting stereotypes

The statistics detailing the number of women working as directors in television remain stubbornly, infuriatingly low. Every year when the report from the Directors Guild of America hits, I scratch my head because I usually can think of impressive examples of femmes calling the shots in TV.

Michelle MacLaren has become a trademark of quality, helming badass episodes of “Breaking Bad” (on which she was an exec producer), “Game of Thrones” and “The Walking Dead.” Same goes for Lesli Linka Glatter, who also herds the zombies on “Walking Dead,” sets the Sterling Cooper agenda on “Mad Men” and corrals the CIA operatives on “Homeland,” to name just a few of the shows she’s worked on. Jennifer Getzinger is a regular on “Mad Men,” and she’s taking the clinical approach on Showtime’s “Masters of Sex.” Gwyneth Horder-Payton rides with the gang on “Sons of Anarchy” as well as “The Bridge.”

If Primetime Emmy nominations are a bellwether, and they should be, femmes are holding their own. Two of this year’s five drama nominees were women (MacLaren for “Breaking Bad” and Glatter for “Homeland”) and three of the five on the comedy side: Lena Dunham for “Girls,” Gail Mancuso for “Modern Family” and Beth McCarthy-Miller for the “30 Rock” finale.

Mancuso nabbed the comedy prize — thanking her enlightened parents for “letting me watch as much TV as I wanted” while she was growing up.

In this viewer’s estimation, the drama race should have been a showdown between MacLaren and Glatter for episodes that were riveting and challenging to pull off. But it was a cinch that the prize wound up going to David Fincher for “House of Cards” — a situation that says more about bigscreen-envy than gender.

According to the DGA’s most recent research, for the 2012-13 season, women directors accounted for 14% of primetime episodic TV across broadcast and cable outlets, down from 15% in 2011-12. Of that 14%, only 2% were minorities, down from 4% the previous season. That sobering stat underscores the crying need for studio and network employers to work harder at opening doors on a daily basis for those who have the talent but not the connections to get that first toe in the door.

The truth is that for directors of any persuasion, it takes time to build up the credentials required to land primetime gigs.

A tyro writer can impress with a spec script that requires only imagination, literary flair and an Underwood (OK, an iPad or Macbook) to produce. It’s harder to convince a network that a person with limited experience is ready to be in command of an hour or half-hour that needs to be delivered on a budget and strict timetable.

All of this explains why progress in total numbers has been slow. But in the past few years there’s been a noticeable qualitative leap that in some ways means more than numbers. With the explosion of edgy drama series, female directors are taking on material that is about as far from the three-hanky chick flick as it gets.

MacLaren’s “Game of Thrones” episodes from the show’s third season included “The Bear and the Maidan Fair,” with its excruciating torture sequence; and “Second Sons,” which used leeches in a way that viewers won’t soon forget.

Glatter’s Emmy nom came for “Q&A,” the ultra-tense interrogation episode of “Homeland.”

“Thrones,” “Walking Dead” and “Sons of Anarchy” are so intense with all their violence (kinky and otherwise) that I can’t stand to watch them most of the time. But even as I quickly change the channel, part of me is secretly glad that women are at last joining in the mayhem.

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