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NBC, FX, CW Execs on Supporting TV’s Female Storytellers Post-#MeToo

As the #MeToo movement sweeps through Hollywood, there’s been plenty of talk about how people want to support women — that they absolutely value women’s voices and hope more can be heard to even out decades of inequality. Less clear than the requisite blanket outrage, however, is what Hollywood is actually doing to address the more entrenched practices within the system that have contributed to rampant, stubborn inequity — particularly behind the scenes, where so many crucial decisions get made.

In the TV industry, some of the most influential positions lie in producing, directing and showrunning. But according to a Mount Saint Mary’s University study, only 30% of these key creative positions were held by women in the 2016-17 season; worse still, only 11% of showrunners overall were women, and only 2% of them were women of color. With numbers that dismal, it’s worth noting which networks are, in fact, taking strides toward actual change by taking concrete action.

Two years before the #MeToo movement exploded, for example, a 2015 Variety report revealed that FX had the lowest numbers on director diversity, with white men making up 88% of its directors. A year later, after FX consciously worked to change its hiring practices with the help of Ryan Murphy’s Half Foundation, that number fell to less than 50%.

As FX exec VP of Communications John Solberg puts it, this conscious push to even the numbers means the network has “made dramatic strides in a very, very short period of time.”

FX was also the first to hire a trans woman of color to direct an episode of TV, as Janet Mock made her debut this year on “Pose.”
Giving someone the opportunity to direct their first episode is a crucial way to help break into an industry that otherwise tends to indulge the maddening paradox in which directors — often women without previous connections — can’t get hired because they don’t have a TV credit, but can’t get a TV credit without actually getting the chance to direct.

NBC is looking to combat this problem with its new Female Forward initiative, a program launched by former NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke before she became head of Amazon Studios in February. Now helmed by Lisa Katz and Tracey Pakosta, the program aims to help 10 women filmmakers embed themselves in the industry by matching them to shows that align with their sensibilities, letting them shadow the directors, and finally, having them direct an episode.

“The thing that was so important to all of us was that this not just be a training program,” says Pakosta. “The objective is that they are directing an episode in season … and expanding the pool of directors that we can draw from.”

Katz and Pakosta acknowledge that the overall makeup of NBC’s showrunners — the creative voices who define and helm their shows and who can in turn greatly affect their hiring practices — remains overwhelmingly male.

“We have to start with buying [more] scripts from female writers and creators,” says Katz, adding that when she ran NBC’s drama department two years ago, only 27% of their script buys were from women. Last year, however, that number jumped to 45%. (As per Pakosta, that department’s numbers remain a little more stagnant, growing only 5% — from 33% to 38% — in the same period.)

One network that has generally NOT had a problem hiring an equitable amount of female showrunners is the one that, not coincidentally, has long made it its literal business to cater to a largely female audience.

“From the beginning, we wanted shows that appeal to female viewers,” says CW exec VP of development Gaye Hirsch.

And yes, Hirsch acknowledges that “men can write those” — and the CW has certainly invested heavily in Greg Berlanti’s vision of an all-inclusive superhero universe. The network has also proved a key finding of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film’s annual Boxed In study: women showrunners and executive producers tend to hire more women and feature more female characters on their shows, period.

Even though, as Hirsch puts it, the CW wants to work with “people whose voices make sense for us as a network, whether that’s male or female or anything in between,” the network’s desired audience of young women made it “a natural fit for female showrunners.” And now, years into prioritizing women’s voices for the simple fact of it making good business sense for the network, all five of the CW’s new shows for the 2017-18 season were created by women with existing experience writing and producing for the CW.

As Hirsch says, hiring female showrunners to call their own shots and bring up other women is “not only the right thing to do, but also creatively very satisfying.”

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