As Hollywood continues its move to more diversity and inclusion behind and in front of the camera, there is one genre that often gets overlooked: unscripted television. During reality competitions and live events, the screen isn’t totally void of representation of women, people of color and other marginalized communities, but behind the camera is a different story.
Carrie Havel is changing that.
She has worked on some of TV’s most successful unscripted franchises including America’s Got Talent, World of Dance, The Titan Games, Little Big Shots, American Idol, Dancing with the Stars and the MTV Video Music Awards. She has also worked on nearly all of the live network musical events including Hairspray Live, Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, A Christmas Story Live and Rent Live. She probably is best known for her work on Grease Live as an Associate Director after a two-minute control room video of her rhythmically calling “Greased Lightning” went viral. She also directed the new series What Just Happened??! with Fred Savage on Fox.
Now, Havel is moving up the ranks as the director of the new comedy competition series Bring the Funny which premieres tonight on NBC.To add to that, she is the only woman directing a new alternative series on a broadcast network this season.
As part of NBC’s inaugural Alternative Directors Program, Havel is part of an ever-changing TV landscape in an often-overlooked part of the industry when it comes to diversity. It’s a program that many are vying to be a part of.
“Every director I asked to participate as a mentor our Alternative Directors Program said yes immediately,” said Meredith Ahr, NBC’s President of Alternative & Reality Group. “They said yes, not just because I asked them to do it, but because they believe in the mission of the program and giving back after all the success they have and continue to enjoy.”
In the new Bring the Funny, Havel oversees all episodes as director. The series features Saturday Night Live‘s Kenan Thompson, comedian Jeff Foxworthy and Chrissy Teigen as judges, with comedian and Insecure actress Amanda Seales serving as host. The competition show features the top comedic acts and, for the first time on television, embraces every style of comedy performance — from sketch troupes, musicians and magicians t0 YouTubers and more — in one competition.
“I’ve wanted to direct a show for NBC for a very long time,” Havel told Deadline. “So when the opportunity presented itself, I obviously was going to jump at it. And interestingly enough, in the cable world, I seem to keep circling with comedians and doing a lot of comedy shows. So it seemed like a good fit as well.”
Bring the Funny marks her first time as a series director on network TV (she directed What Just Happened after Bring the Funny) and she said she wanted to prove to everyone that she was “up to the task” to making the show “look and feel great.” As a women in the male-dominated space of unscripted TV, Havel and Ahr talked to us about how things are changing.
DEADLINE: Would you say that there’s a lack of diversity and representation when it comes to behind the camera for unscripted television?
CARRIE HAVEL: Yeah. On the network level, there’s only a handful of females or minorities that are in the director’s chair. And I’m not exactly sure why that is. I can’t say. But kudos to NBC for realizing it and saying, “Hey, let’s try to come up with a program and try to put some measures in place to try to expand as a pool a bit.”
DEADLINE: Diversity is always talked about with scripted television but hardly in unscripted. Why do you think that is?
HAVEL: The one thing I can think is, in the scripted realm, especially if you’re looking at episodic, there’s a lot of different directors for projects that can come in. Generally, it’s not going to be one director for all of the episodes. But in unscripted, the schedule is so tight…you’re doing an entire season in maybe five or six tape days. Bring the Funny was 10 total days, five rehearsals, five tape days for an entire season except for the finale. So that’s a compressed schedule, and you’re looking at, with a scripted show, probably a week per episode. So the schedule’s a little more forgiving and it allows for more people to come in, and maybe episode one goes to this person and episode two goes to this other person. Whereas you just don’t have that luxury with an unscripted show.
DEADLINE: Why do you think directors in the unscripted space are generally white, straight men?
MEREDITH AHR: We can begin with a historical account of the advent of Reality TV, and how the explosion of live and “as-live” event television attracted directors mainly from News and Sports, both then-male-dominated fields, and Britain, where they were years ahead of us with what they call “Light Entertainment.” Variety shows, and competition series like “Pop Idol” and “Strictly Come Dancing” were all beloved well before they flooded airwaves in America. Producers, agents, and executives were in desperate need for individuals with experience in commanding multi-camera control rooms, with the ability to go live or at least produce a solid line cut. The demand was there, and they brilliantly and quickly filled the supply. I think the historical context is an excuse of how we started, but it is no excuse for why, 15-20 years later, we have not evolved and widened our pool.
I believe two things have contributed to this. One, as more series have been commissioned, we all have relied on hiring the directors with the most experience. With millions of dollars, ratings points, and reputations on the line, a solid director is quite possibly the most important first hire. The catch, of course, is that the exact experience we seek is the barrier to entry for anyone new trying to break through.
The second, is that we have no culture of apprenticeship or on the job training in the field. There are some real diverse and female standouts in the unscripted director world, but not nearly enough; and there are also terrific Assistant Directors who have been dutifully serving for years next to top directors on the most complex of productions. These individuals have every ability, but just need to be encouraged and invited to the table, and mentored by people with broader experience.
DEADLINE: Why did you create the Alternative Directors Program and what impact do you hope it will have?
AHR: We created the Alternative Directors Program because my team and I have been increasingly frustrated by the lack of change in our part of the industry. Instead of being complacent about it, we are choosing to act. We believe that it is a responsibility for those in power to open the doors for new voices who will enhance our storytelling and connect with our viewers in new ways.
First, I hope to get the directors who have successfully gone through our program directing jobs, hopefully for NBC Universal. Carrie Havel is a great example of someone who easily transitioned from the program to directing the series “Bring the Funny” for NBC and the studio.
Second, I hope to open up doors for the directors, and help them expand their professional networks. One director was sponsored by her program mentor to get into the DGA, and at least two have gained a top agent as a direct result of participating in the program and our sponsorship of them.
Third, I hope the program has the broader impact of elevating a much-needed conversation about inclusion, and the responsibility we all share in actioning change. Executives, agents, producers, directors – everyone at every level can make a difference. The key realization is that if you are not actively a part of the solution, then you are part of the problem.
DEADLINE: Unscripted is a different kind of storytelling. Compared to scripted, what are the benefits of having more diversity with directors and people behind the camera? Do you think it’s the same?
HAVEL: I think definitely the more representation you have, the more people look at that position and go, “Oh, wow. I could do that too,” like, “Oh, there are other women. There are other minorities who do this.” So I think that definitely is very important for sure.
In unscripted, I think, if you look at the types of things that you direct, obviously music plays a huge part, not so much in Bring the Funny but in other variety or award shows or any of those unscripted genres. The way someone approaches a live cut to a music performance, I think that’s storytelling right there, especially in a live show. A lot of these shows are live, and you’re basically telling that story based on your choice of what you’re showing the audience. So if you add the live aspect into it, even more, the importance of the director and what the director sees goes up even more, because there is no edit, there’s no careful shot selection that happens after the fact. So I think to see other people from different backgrounds and the way they respond to even comedy performances, sketch performances — you’re basically selecting how you’re going to tell the story for the audience, mostly in a live environment.
DEADLINE: What can inclusive representation bring to unscripted TV that many people aren’t aware of?
AHR: At its heart, unscripted TV is a reflection of ourselves and our time. The ability to tell stories of the lives of real people, whether to highlight how related we are or to showcase our unique perspectives, is a gift with limitless storytelling potential. One way to look at the benefits of inclusive representation is to just imagine all of the wealth of stories still untold, that could be unlocked if shared through new storytellers’ eyes. Access and opportunities are changing the lens of scripted entertainment with brilliant results. Where we are right now reminds me of reading about how men hold 80 percent of all patents. It isn’t because they are smarter, or are more innovative. They have more access to STEM education, role models, encouragement, and mentorship on the process to register their patents. We must open up the pipeline and create an environment where we are encouraging people to join our field, raise their hand, share their ideas, and create apprenticeships to fill in knowledge and experience gaps. What will follow is a much-needed expansion of networks, to attract the best and the brightest diverse minds to our genre.
DEADLINE: Since you’ve been in the industry, how have you seen the landscape for TV change for underrepresented in both scripted and unscripted, and specifically for women?
AHR: It’s a brilliant time for new voices to enter the arena for a few key reasons; first and foremost, women are increasingly in positions of power; second, men and women alike are more aware of the inequalities and barriers to entry that exist, which has opened up the dialogue in a way that was not there before; and finally, for those not influenced by the first two, it has proven time and again that inclusion is good business.
HAVEL: Scripted is fine from what I’ve read. I don’t have any real firsthand knowledge of how that’s changed. I don’t think anyone really goes like, “I want to be an unscripted director.” Or maybe they do. Maybe they should now. But I have to say I kind of fell into it and I realized I loved it. The first show that I worked on that was multi-camera and live, I was like, “Oh yes. This is it.”
So once I realized that, I had the question of how do I become the director. You just have to sort of work your way up. And so for me, becoming an associate director was obviously going to be for me the best way because I want to be sitting right next to the director and learn everything I can about how these shows are made. And in terms of the AD role, I see a ton of female ADs. Tons. Now, from talking to a lot of them, I would say a lot of them don’t have directing aspirations. They’re happy to be ADs and want to be ADs, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
But I think NBC was smart in realizing that, “Hey, if we’re going to look for qualified women and minorities to try to take the next step up and become directors of some of our shows, let’s look at people who already work on our franchises and know the way we work, know the kinds of shows we like to do.” And so obviously a great place to start would be to look at the AD chair and see who’s sitting there. So in that respect, for me, it was great because suddenly the (NBC) program gave me the opportunity to say, “Yes, here I am. Here I am, NBC. I’ve worked on tons of your franchises and I’m ready. I’m ready to take that next step.”