UPDATES Worst Network Pilot Season For Women?

My recent post asking whether this was the worst network pilot season for women writers and showrunners provoked a lot of controversy. I asked Neely Swanson to expand for Deadline/Hollywood on her recent essay about it. She is the former SVP of Development for David E. Kelley Productions, and presently is an adjunct professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts in the writing division. She teaches “The Entertainment Industry Seminar.”  Neely also writes a blog about big and small sceen writers at www.nomeanerplace.com.

womenHollyI received several emails this past week pointing out the scarcity of women writers on the recent pilot pickups.  At a cursory glance it is easy to jump on the bandwagon decrying the lack of diversity among the “creator” ranks, not to mention showrunners and writing staffs, but this was a subject worth pursuing in a bit more depth. Nikki Finke sent a missile to the broadside of various network heads about what was being called “the worst year in a decade for female writers and showrunners.”

Based on announced pilot pickups and using Studio System and the Trades, I made a list of all the new pilots that had been ordered to production as of February 1 for the four major broadcast networks, as well as the credited writers, the production studio and the intended network. Of the 66 pilots I documented, 13 pilots had at least one female writer as part of the “created by” team; however, of those 66 pilots, only 7 of them were written entirely by women. You can do the math yourself, but this works out to a high of 20% involvement by women when writing alone and/or with men; and just 11% when written by women without male participation. A closer look at the all the names will reveal one writer of Hispanic origin, three Asian-Americans and an entire absence of African American writers,.

The WGAW, as part of their diversity program, instituted a “Writer Access Project” to try to draw attention to underrepresented groups – considered to be “minority writers and writers with disabilities; women writers; writers age 55 and over; and gay and lesbian writers.” Their proactive response…a contest?  Why is there no outcry? This isn’t a glass ceiling, it’s a White Boys’ Club brick wall. Showrunners often staff their shows with friends they can trust, even if those friends aren’t the best writers available, and since the vast majority of showrunners are men, so are their friends, and therefore so are their staffs.

But who is it that’s picking these pilots for production? Studio and network executives, of course. And who are these studio and network executives? Who has the power? It might surprise you. Network Chairmen are overwhelmingly male; there are no women within those ranks.  Network and Studio Presidents, however, are almost evenly split with 4 men and 3 women. As far as creative executives with a title of Vice President or above, the tale becomes more interesting and perplexing because the vast majority of these executives are women, 42 female creative execs compared to 28 male executives. Is it possible that women are discriminating against women?

An article in the June 24, 2009 New York Times by Patricia Cohen entitled “Rethinking Gender Bias in Theater” may have pinpointed what is happening in television as well. A research study had been conducted in an effort to find out whether women playwrights were under represented on stages across America and the answer was yes. What was more interesting was why. Women artistic directors and literary mangers, the people who chose the plays to present, discriminated against women playwrights. Emily Glassberg Sands, a Princeton Economics student, “conducted separate studies to analyze this problem. One study considered the playwrights themselves. Artistic directors of theater companies have maintained that no discrimination exists, rather that good scripts by women are in short supply.” This she discovered was true — there was a shortage of good scripts by women compared to the number by men. There are twice as many male playwrights as female which accounts for some of the discrepancy. This may also be the case in television as there are far more male writers than female (usually for the reasons elaborated above).

In another study, Ms. Sands “sent identical scripts to artistic directors and literary managers around the country. The only difference was that half named a man as the writer (for example, Michael Walker), while half named a woman (i.e., Mary Walker).” When female artistic directors and literary managers judged the scripts, Mary’s scripts “received significantly worse ratings in terms of quality, economic prospects and audience response than Michael’s.” When judged by male artistic directors and literary managers the scripts got equal ratings.

The question for television then becomes: are women fighting both the Boys’ Club and prejudice within the ranks of those who do the choosing? The Princeton study certainly brings up more questions than answers.

But one thing is for sure. Whether it’s 11% or 20% something is clearly wrong and needs to be fixed. Ladies in your office suites, are you listening?

After posting this article on the Baseline Studio System blog site, I received several interesting comments, one of which was from a former showrunner who implied that women were receiving more than their fair share of staffing slots. He went on to say, “Here’s the reality. If you have 7 writing slots, there will be roughly 400 writers to read. Of those 400, only 50 will be women. I know this sounds crazy… but there simply are LESS women applying for writing jobs than men. Do some math on this. Of the 7 slots available, at least 3 will be women. In many cases, 4, but we’ll assume 3. That means there are 50 women applying for 3 positions and 350 men applying for 4 positions. The chances of getting a writing job on staff as a woman are 6%. The chances of getting a writing job as a man are 1.1%. This is not me being sexist… this is simply math. But consider the proportions. The proportions of applicants for writing jobs are actually IN LINE with the proportions of people who are getting pilots picked up. So I ask this… which practice is unfair? The one that favors women? Or the one that favors correct math in the applicant pool?”

Certainly judging by his numbers, women comprise only 8% of the job pool, so therefore 12% representation on pilots is more than fair and he should be hiring at most one woman to fill his available writing slots.

Somewhere there is a disconnect. In analyzing the 06/07 season, I read 234 submissions from 219 writers of which 78 or 36% were women (part of a team or writing alone). In using the above reasoning, 3 women (36% of the pool) would have been the right number to fill the 7 open slots. Women fared worse in the 07/08 season but not as bad as the former showrunner would have us believe.  Of the 161 writers that I read that season, 40 were women, representing 25% of the pool which would equate to 2 women eligible for the 7 slots. Was he just unlucky  in the submissions he received? Apparently so. I think it’s interesting to note that about 40% of the students coming out of BFA and MFA programs in filmic writing at USC are women. No one is asking anyone to “favor” women; we are asking that they get a fair representation in the pool.

More interesting, however, was the comment from Julia Jordan who was involved in the original study cited by The New York Times. She wrote: “As the instigator of the Glassberg Sands study and having sat with it and Emily Sands for some time, I need to clarify. Ms. Cohen’s short article did not fully encompass the research and has led to some regrettable confusion. In Emily G. Sands research there is a bit more information to analyze than presented here. The respondents to the audit study rated the artistic quality of the scripts to be equal whether or not they believed them to be written by women. Where the discrimination came in was when the respondents were asked questions about the discrimination of others. They believed the scripts would be less successful out in the world, that top talent would have less interest in them, that they would earn less money and were less likely to be supported by others in the industry. THEREFORE the scripts were deemed to be of lesser value. The female respondents BELIEVE that work by women will be discriminated against and will therefore hurt their own economic standing and or that of their company and so do not promote or produce it in great numbers.

This comment began a conversation and I wrote back to her: “In laying out my article the way that I did, I intended the facts to speak for themselves. I hope I didn’t significantly distort your work because the premise you speak of is, I believe, in play in television as well. First, I don’t think that the women (and as you noticed, female execs far out number men) are consciously aware that they are discriminating and second, I believe the same thing is in play — that the women feel they will be more harshly judged for having favored a woman, or more importantly that they feel that the woman writer’s work will not hold up as well and then the exec will be harshly judged.

To which Julia responded, “I didn’t feel that you distorted it at all. I’m just taking every opportunity to clarify because people tend to jump to “women beware women” with very little provocation. If we can get the pressure on to establish that the audiences don’t have bias, which I believe will hold true across the board, then men and women may change their behavior, consciously. It is so interesting to me the idea of an object’s gender. They have it in other languages obviously. We don’t think in those terms. But writers creating dramatic stories do create human characters and therefore gender. The audience doesn’t know us from Adam, but they become emotionally involved (hopefully) with our characters and their gender is part of the relationship. Theater has a long LONG history of major leading ladies. It seems Hollywood is maybe now beginning to rediscover them and their emotional resonance with the audience and therefore their economic power. I’ve found that when women understand the study fully they are more receptive to the information, otherwise they recoil. And the happy accident with men is that when they find that women are also biased against women they are more open as well. We had a nice bump up in NY in our major theaters.  We went from 16% of productions written by women last year to 40% this year. The publicity does help, immensely.”

I mentioned this study and its possible correlation to women writers in television to a very good friend, a woman producer, who asked if I thought this was a case of “women hating women.” I said that I didn’t really think so but that it was more likely an unconscious bias, one that could be ameliorated if it was brought to their attention. It is truly amazing how quickly perceptions were changed or rather improved in the theater world. Alas, I don’t believe it will ever reach that stage of enlightenment in television, but I do believe they can be improved.

Julia believed “the jump in productions was a response to the push for consciousness that we had in the press last year. I don’t believe it will hold unless we continue to keep them conscious, especially of the huge success the female written plays are having. I have more hope for TV and film than you. Out there you seem to have more of a bottom line mentality, and when there is a way to PROVE that you are delivering, women tend to do extremely well. Granted tv and film are collaborative and the test you are taking isn’t you and you alone in a room, lack of resources support and talent obviously affect the results. But…  We learn by observation. It will be a rolling cumulative process. A few more productions, a few more successes, a few more observe and invest in a few more women and on and on. But it will take past our lifetimes without a big kick. So, more publicity, more shame and more economic studies! People read them and talk about them because they are interesting. How the brain works is interesting. How it chooses what is good and what is bad is largely independent of the object it is choosing or not… What doesn’t seem to work for us is what they like to call “complaining.”  We don’t need to.  We can simply present the evidence.”

Although nicely expressed, I felt her take was overly optimistic. But, we’ll see. I can only hope that a dialog has been started and that enough people with the power to change the status quo are listening (or reading).