“I think I would love for it not to be a thing when there are a bunch of women showrunners somewhere,” Power creator Courtney Kemp Agboh told an appreciative crowd at Tuesday night’s creative keynote panel launching the New York Television Festival.
“It…does…not…have…to…be…pointed out all the time,” she added, pausing after each word to underscore the idea. “Like, ‘Isn’t it great that you’re black, and you’re a woman?’ Isn’t it great that the show’s good? I would just love for it not to be a thing. for it just to be, like, super norm.”
As it happened, the panel wasn’t planned as an all-female event; it simply turned out that way, which could be read either as testament to the increasing number of women showrunners and top creatives (at least among those available on an October night in New York) or the greater willingness of women showrunners to share their knowledge and experience with the NYTVF’s target audience of emerging program makers. Agboh was joined by Blair Breard (Louie), Anya Epstein (The Affair), Barbara Hall (Madam Secretary), Michelle King (The Good Wife) and Stephanie Laing (Veep and the upcoming Vice Principals).
Mentoring was one of the early subjects raised by moderator Margaret Lyons from New York magazine. “I worked for some really great people,” Agboh said, naming co-panelist King and her husband Robert, among others. “I still call them,” she said, “because I don’t know what they know — which is why it’s so important to me to mentor others.” Hall cited David Chase among her mentors, and Epstein named Tom Fontana and his mentor, Bruce Paltrow.
Noting the wide variety of venues represented on the panel — broadcast network, basic and premium cable and streaming — Lyons asked each to describe the perfect number of shows per season. That put King and Hall on the spot, representing CBS and admitting that the demands of writing and producing 20-plus episodes per season is a killer commitment.
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“We do 22, I don’t why,” Madame Secretary‘s Hall said with a sigh. “We’re doing 23 this year, and it’s hard for me to even talk about without crying right now.” Most agreed that 13 is a great number.
“We’re the highest-rated show on Starz and people still say, What?”
— Power showrunner Courtney Kemp Agboh
Breard was unguardedly amusing on the subject of FX’s Louie and the always surprising circumstances of working for a show that’s “about one guy [Louis C.K.], who writes every episode, directs every episode and edits every episode.”
“So in Season 1, we had no idea if we were going to get picked up for Season 2, the show was so weird. … For me it was trying to protect him, put my arms around him and this process, protect the show so he could find what he was trying to say. And we got a pickup for Season 2, we just about lost our mind. … FX didn’t know what it was, but it was so cheap, they just said, ‘All right, we’ll do it again!'” She’s now working on Baskets, starring Zach Galifianakis as a rodeo clown, “and the dailies are bananas.”
Sounding a bit like the techie who announces to his blank-faced friends that he’s going to work for GE, Agboh said her biggest challenge was getting viewers to sample a show that’s running on Starz.
“The thing that frightens me about my show is that I wonder if it’s ever going to reach an audience outside of its core demographic,” she said. “We’re the highest-rated show on Starz, and people still say, ‘What?’ It says something about how television is perceived and how people select themselves out of it. I was talking to a reporter about my next show, which is set in Connecticut, where I grew up, and she said — she didn’t mean to offend me — she said, ‘Well, I’ll watch that one.'”
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