Networks Bet Big on Female-Driven Pilots, but How Many Will Make It to Series?

The Time’s Up movement has upended entertainment business as usual. Awards season has been transformed by industry professionals using it as a platform to advocate for change. Executive searches, such as the one taking place at Amazon for a new entertainment chief, have seen the stock of female candidates rise.

Now broadcast TV development, where gains in diversity and inclusion have come only slowly, appears to be building momentum toward achieving some of its goals.

Pilot season is in full swing, with networks having ordered dozens of trial episodes in recent weeks. Only a fraction of those shot will be picked up to series in time for upfront presentations. But a look at the pilots ordered through Feb. 2 indicates that when networks make their pitches to advertisers in May, many will be touting new programs that feature women in front of and behind the camera.

Of the 66 broadcast pilots ordered thus far, 27 hail from female writer-executive producers, and 32 have female lead or co-lead characters.

“Because culture is a reflection of what’s happening in society, I’d be surprised if there wasn’t some responsiveness to what’s going on, particularly because a lot of it has been driven by the artistic community,” said Stacey Schulman, executive VP of strategy and analytics for Katz Media Group.

Multiple TV literary agents who spoke with Variety said that broadcast networks are taking steps to increase female representation this pilot season, particularly on dramas series and in the director’s chair. One agent noted that minority directors are also being sought.

The CW has the greatest female representation so far, with seven of nine pilots hailing from writer-exec producers who are women and eight of nine featuring female leads or co-leads. When network president Mark Pedowitz arrived in 2012, he made a point of courting long-absent male viewers with superhero action series such as “Arrow” and “Flash.” But the current crop of pilots reflects a recent push begun with soaps such as “Riverdale” and “Dynasty” to again bolster female viewership.

At NBC, a “Bad Boys” spinoff starring Gabrielle Union is among six of the network’s 13 pilots that feature female leads or co-leads. Three of the orders come from female creators. The reigning ratings champ in the 18-49 demo, NBC currently airs shows like “Will & Grace,” “Law & Order: SVU” and “Great News,” all of which have a female lead or co-lead.

Over at ABC, female creators or co-creators are driving nine of the 21 pilot orders, with seven featuring a female lead or co-lead, including police drama “Staties,” from Matt Partney and Corey Evett. ABC has a strong track record with female-skewing dramas going back to the days of former network head Paul Lee, who greenlit hit series “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder,” which are still going strong. Current president Channing Dungey has sought to bring even more gender parity to the network’s audience makeup. Ellen Pompeo, the star of ABC’s No. 1 show, “Grey’s Anatomy,” recently signed a new two-year deal that will see her become the highest-paid dramatic actress on television.

CBS, frequently criticized in recent years for its lack of diversity both in front of and behind the camera, includes six shows created by women out of its 13 orders. The one with the highest profile: a straight-to-series order for the revival of “Murphy Brown,” with original series creator Diane English and star Candice Bergen both returning. Among the pilots is one for female-led police drama “Chiefs,” written by David Hudgins and Carol Mendelsohn.

Meanwhile, three of Fox’s 10 pilots were created by women and have female leads. One is an untitled Ilene Chaiken-Melissa Scrivner drama, which follows an FBI agent whose reputation is destroyed when it’s revealed she had an affair with a high-ranking military officer. Another is the work of showbiz scion and comedy writer Erin Foster and is loosely based on her own life. Fox has also ordered an untitled drama from Danny Strong and David Elliot that follows a female attorney at a firm that handles wrongful convictions. Returning shows include the female-led drama “Star” and the Kaitlin Olson comedy “The Mick.”

Schulman cautions that the proof of whether Time’s Up is impacting programming strategy will be revealed not in pilots ordered but in how many go to series.

“Maybe women will get a better-than-average number of at-bats in terms of pilots,” she said. “But what gets on the schedule is the endgame.”

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