2010 was the worst network pilot season for women writers and showrunners. So back then I asked Neely Swanson to analyze why. She is the former SVP of Development for David E. Kelley Productions, and presently an adjunct professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts in the writing division. Here, exclusive to Deadline. is her new analysis of the 2011 season for women pilot writers:
The earth didn’t just move, it was an earthquake for women pilot writers in 2011. Television audiences judge with their remote controls and it’s doubtful whether anyone has ever watched a TV show because it was written by a man or a woman. But this year, for some unexplained reason, women were hilarious, just as last year, for some reason, they weren’t.
The 2010-2011 pilot season was arguably the worst in the last 10 years for women writers. There was no credible explanation for the truly horrible numbers that emerged. As I pointed out in an article written last year, Women Can’t Create and White Men Can’t Jump, of last year’s big 4 pilots, only 20% were written by women or male/female writing partners: 24% for dramas and 16% for comedies. Considering only pilots written by a woman or a team of women, the numbers fell even more drastically to 11%. The only bright spot was CW, which may have produced only 6 pilots, but 50% of them were written by women.
Very little worked last year so minds opened wider to find some different voices, different perspectives. For 2011, there are lots of different voices out there – perspectives from different genders, orientations and ethnicities. Whether this crop of pilots works better than last year’s, who knows? It’s almost impossible to do worse. So hats off to the network and studio execs who may have been listening. You made great strides and the hope is that more will be made. One can only hope that the powers-that-be will continue to try to make television reflect the viewing audience a bit more than it has. It may still be a man’s world, but clearly, they aren’t the only ones holding the remote control. So who, one could ask, was making these choices? Although Network Chairmen continue to be overwhelmingly male, there are significant numbers of female studio presidents and development executives. Network chairmen may have the ultimate say but women factor into the equation in important ways.
Now for the numbers…
For the 81 pilots produced in 2011, it is important to break these down into two categories: women overall (which would include women writing alone, with a female writing partner, or with a male writing partner) and women only (which would include women writing alone or with a female writing partner). This year, with one exception, every network improved significantly in the women overall numbers.
ABC, which had been the leader among the big four in 2010, showed an 8% decrease in the number of pilots written by women overall (from 36% in 2010 to 28% in 2011); however, and this is a big however, ABC, which, unlike the other networks, did not engage any male/female writing teams this year, showed an increase in pilots written by women only (from 16% to 28%). ABC can still be considered a leader in the field even if its overall numbers, when compared to the other networks, put it in 4th place.
FBC showed the most improvement, but that’s a no-brainer. Last year, FBC produced no pilots written by women in any category. ZERO! This year 36% of their pilots were written by women overall, and the 20% of their pilots written by women only still represents a huge improvement over past years.
NBC, likewise, made enormous strides. 41% of their pilots were written by women overall (up from 19% in 2010), more than doubling the number of pilots written last year. More significantly, 36% of their pilots were written by women only (up from 14% in 2010), making NBC the leader in the field.
CBS showed mixed results. By engaging a number of male/female teams, 36% of their pilots were written by women overall (up from 21% in 2010); their record of hiring women only resulted in a negligible increase (from 11% in 2010 to 14% in 2011). Whereas 22% of the 9 CBS comedy pilots were written by male/female teams, none were written by women only. The same was not true of the other nets; and it is here that ABC and NBC shine brightest.
ABC produced 10 comedy pilots, 50% of which were written by women only. NBC was a few percentage points higher: 62% of their 13 comedy pilots were written by women overall, and 54% of those 13 pilots were written by women only. What a difference a year makes as zero comedy pilots were written by women (in any combination) last year at NBC.
FBC, as noted previously, hired no women, in any category, to write any pilots in 2010, so anything this year is an improvement, and improve they did, as women overall wrote 38% of the 8 comedy pilots picked up for production, 25% if you consider women only.
The situation at CBS was a bit more problematic. In each of the last two years (2010 and 2011) CBS produced 9 comedy pilots; this year, 2 of those pilots (22%) were written by male/female teams. In 2010, of the 9 comedy pilots picked up for production, 1 comedy pilot was written by a woman and 1 comedy pilot was written by a male/female team. The overall average, 22%, was identical, with no improvement in a year; but CBS laid a goose egg when it came to women writing comedy without a male partner (from 11% in 2010 to Zero).
Women are funny, except at CBS where they are only funny if they partner with a man. Sometimes it’s a husband and wife (and what marriage isn’t a barrel of laughs), and sometimes it isn’t, but it’s always with a male partner.
Drama, where women have excelled in the past, also yielded mixed results. ABC, which produced 15 dramas this year, showed an overall decline from a high of 25% in 2010 to 13% this year, but this was reflected in a smaller decline when considering women only (from 17% in 2010 to 13% in 2011). Similarly, NBC, which produced 12 dramas this year, declined with women overall, going from 33% in 2010 to 11% in 2011, also resulting in a decline for women writing alone (from 25% in 2010 to 11% in 2011).
FBC, which produced no pilots in any category that were written by women (in any combination), had nowhere to go but up, and up they went. 33% of their drama pilots were written by women (without a male writing partner). As for CBS, they went from 20% of drama pilots written by women overall in 2010, to 60% in 2011. This also translated to a sizeable increase in the number of pilots written by women only, from 10% in 2010 to 40% in 2011 – quadrupling their numbers!
Tiny CW, once again ordering 6 one hour drama/dramedies, remained unchanged, continuing to maintain its leadership position of a 50% balance between scripts written by men and women.
So was there positive change? Absolutely! ABC, even showing an overall decline, remains on a positive path toward eliminating gender bias in choosing projects. CBS, while showing improvement overall, led by the double digit increase in women creators on their dramas, appears to have a bias against women in comedy. But they are also in the enviable position of having Chuck Lorre pitching for them, so there’s not a whole lot of incentive to fill their bullpen with new voices, let alone those on the distaff side. Almost all of their comedies came from proven commodities like Tucker Cawley, Phoef Sutton, Warren Bell and the team of Bill Martin and Mike Schiff; still I’m rooting for Two Broke Girls by Michael Patrick King and stand-up comedienne Whitney Cummings.
NBC, where Cummings also landed a comedy pilot, definitely thinks women have the funny, going from no comedy pilots with women writers in 2010 to 54% of their 2011 comedy pilots written by women only. And the same was true for FBC, a network that should have held its head in shame in 2010, but assumed a leadership position in 2011.
In all honesty, the viewing audience doesn’t care about the ethnicity or gender of the writer; what they care about is seeing something interesting and entertaining, whether drama or comedy. This year the net was cast wider and the resulting pilots were much more interesting and better written than the previous year. This is not to say that the ultimate choices will succeed, and, given the pilots receiving the most publicity and heat leaking from the network viewing rooms, some of those choices are likely to be disheartening. But unlike the previous year, everything was not cookie-cutter safe. We can only hope that the net continues to widen and that the writing staffs on the shows picked up to series reflect the diversity of voices that are available.
Sad to say, but true progress will be achieved when women and minorities are allowed to be as mediocre as white male writers can be. Wouldn’t it be great to arrive at a time when studios and networks come to believe that creativity, because in the end this is about creativity and not writing, is not limited to a single ethnicity or gender. Everyone brings something to the table; but… It’s complicated.
(Swanson writes a blog about big and small screen writers.)