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Top Female Showrunners Talk TV Industry Battles, Opening Doors for Others

Producing for Netflix vs. the networks, the increasing clout of female showrunners, and how to fight for distinctive ideas to be heard were among the topics at a panel of women showrunners at the 2018 Writers Guild Festival Sunday. Variety and CBS Eye Speak hosted the discussion with Barbara Hall of “Madam Secretary,” Jennie Snyder Urman of “Jane the Virgin,” and Lauren Gussis of Showtime’s “Dexter” and Netflix one-hour comedy “Insatiable,” expected to debut this fall.

Moderated by Variety deputy editor Pat Saperstein at the Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study in Hollywood, the discussion gave a candid look at what it’s like to be a woman working in the television industry.

Before working on “Madam Secretary,” Hall was the co-creator, executive producer and writer for “Judging Amy” from 1999 until the series ended in 2005. “Back then things were quite different but not different enough from today,” Hall recalled. “It took me twice as long as a man to lead and write my (show) because if I didn’t get it right I wouldn’t have another opportunity.”

Now with political drama “Madam Secretary,” Hall said she continues to handle the “brutal and crazy” pace of writing for network television — along with somehow finding the time to write 11 novels.

“One of my mission statements for the show was to have a show about politics without it being so polarizing,” Hall said, noting that the foreign policy subject matter is less fraught than if the show was based on U.S. domestic politics.

How does she find the time to consider the big picture of where the show is going and not get bogged down? Among her mantras are “Everyone’s job is the hardest job,” “Hire the people you trust and let them do their jobs” and remember “If the show wins, everybody wins.”

Urman addressed having more women than men in the writers’ room when she created the CW’s “Jane the Virgin.” “I hired who I responded to,” she said. “We’ve always been 80 percent female directors since the beginning. I think it’s because I didn’t have the expectation that only men are interesting.”

Urman also detailed some of the discussions that led to innovative creative choices on “Jane the Virgin,” such as the use of texts and other graphics across the screen, the narrator as a character, and the decision to use subtitles for the grandmother, who speaks in Spanish.

Gussis touched on using her position to bring more inclusivity to “Insatiable,” which is set in Atlanta in the world of beauty pageants. When talking about the show’s cast, she said, “As a human being in the world, diversity was important to me.”

During the Q&A segment of the panel, one attendee asked how the women handle self-doubt while working in showbiz.

“I found that to do it as a woman, whatever that means, I employ my feminine instinct,” Gussis said. “I actually try to be the mama bear on my set and in my writer’s room as opposed to being like, ‘I have be in my maleness.'”

She continued, “I had a lot of issues around my femininity for a long time. I didn’t understand what being female and being empowered meant, that felt masculine to me. Somebody suggested using the archetype of goddess instead of woman and see how that feels. I understood finally what it meant to step into power without being hard. To be more open and just embody that in my own way.”

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