Meet the new normal: the extraordinary spike in demand for television series has vaulted a generation of women into the ranks of superstar showrunners.
A host of shows that have resonated loudly in pop culture--from "Transparent" to "Empire" to "The Affair"--have women at the helm. And Shonda Rhimes now has company on the list of women who are juggling multiple primetime series.
This sea change comes with financial gains, according to data from the Writers Guild of America West, and brings anecdotal evidence of shifts in the way series are made. But it's not just the heightened demand for content that has been good for female creatives; a newfound openness to material, no matter how challenging or narrowly focused, has paved the way for shows with fresh themes.
The unglamorous setting of a women's prison, peopled by a diverse clutch of complicated inmates, none of them nice and ladylike, fighting to survive? Bring it on. The success of Netflix's "Orange Is the New Black," steered by creator Jenji Kohan, has been a game-changer, say numerous showrunners.
"There's such a demand for really unusual storytelling," says Michelle Ashford, creator and exec producer of Showtime's "Masters of Sex." "That's breaking down barriers to the kinds of shows that you would normally not see on television, and that has been really good for (female) writers."
A romantic comedy about a divorced mom in her late 40 s? A backstage melodrama about mostly despicable women who run a reality TV show? Those would have been hard sells even five years ago, says Marti Noxon, showrunner of Bravo's "Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce" and Lifetime's "Unreal," who's also helping guide CBS' upcoming medical drama "Code Black" as an exec producer.
"The idea in television for so long was that shows had to appeal to the broadest number of people--and then all these cable networks started developing their own shows," Noxon says. "Girlfriends' Guide" was Bravo's first scripted series, which opened yet another avenue for femme-friendly concepts. "There have been a lot of complicated female characters in TV, but there were not many places where you could write nontraditional stories. They're not doctors or lawyers or cops."
Ashford recalls developing a project for HBO, right after "The Sopranos" hit, about the porn biz as seen from the point-of-view of the teenage daughter of a married couple who run a successful pornography studio. Even for HBO, the focus was too narrow for the project to proceed. "I think it would be a very different conversation today at a lot of places," Ashford says.
"Women writers are finding television to be a place where they can explore very intimate and personal stories that tackle topics that are interesting to them," she adds. "In the past, people would say, 'That's too small and too specific.' There's this odd confluence of things coming together at the same time allowing this to happen. All sorts of curious stories can find life."
In the case of "Unreal," the mandate to push the envelope came directly from A+E Networks' big boss, CEO Nancy Dubuc. "Nancy came in and said, 'I want an FX show for women and the men who love them,' " Noxon recalls.
While the boundaries of dramas are expanding, traditional half-hour comedies have been a tougher arena in which to break through for women showrunners.
Nahnatchka Khan, who calls the shots for ABC's "Fresh Off the Boat," which she created, says that working in writers' rooms dominated by white men was a constant during her formative years.
"I couldn't help but notice it, but it was also like just one of the rules--like you stop at a red light," Khan says. Yet she's seen a noticeable change in the past five years with the emergence of Mindy Kaling, Lena Dunham, Emily Kapnek and Jennie Snyder Urman, among others, atop series. On "Fresh Off the Boat," Khan's room is a nearly 50-50 mix of men and women, as was the roster of directors for the initial 13 episodes, starting with Lynn Shelton on the pilot.
"That wasn't out of any agenda," Khan says. "I just happened to love their credits, and the pieces all fell into place. Now we're taking it for granted that more balance and more voices will make the comedy better."
Rhimes, too, is an adherent to the idea that the job of showrunner doesn't require a specific chromosome. "Gender doesn't have anything to do with this job," she says. "Either you can write or you can't. Either you can run a show or you can't."
Yet there's a growing sisterhood among show-runners behind-the-scenes, particularly for those still writing the early chapters of their careers.
Sarah Treem, co-creator of Showtime's "The Affair," reached out to scribes she admired for practical advice on everything from managing the pacing of a story arc to balancing her life as a wife, mother of a young child and showrunner. Her cold calls to "OITNB's" Kohan, "New Girl's" Liz Meriwether and "Party of Five" veteran Amy Lippman (now on "Masters of Sex") were graciously received.
"This is not about rah-rah girl power. This is about advice on how to literally run a show and adapt to what you're given in a way that can make it work," Treem says. "It's helpful to have people tell you you're not crazy to be struggling with it, and also helpful to have people tell you you have to adjust the way you're working."
Mara Brock Akil, a comedy vet and creator of BET's "The Game" and "Being Mary Jane," says she has seen a rise in the number of female writers coming through her door during staffing season. But she feels it's incumbent on showrunners to do more to identify and nurture young creatives who demonstrate the potential to run series themselves. "I think there's a lot of talent out there that can get trapped in positions that make them seem like they're not ready to take that next step into showrunning when they are," she says. Overall, Brock Akil adds, she's seeing a new level of entrepreneurial initiative in young writers eager to create their own Web series in addition to pursuing film and TV jobs.
It stands to reason that the number of women at the helm of scripted primetime series has never been greater because the airwaves have never been so crowded. Netflix, Amazon and Hulu have developed voracious appetites for original series, as have cable networks large and small.
The booming demand has yielded some 350-plus original scripted programs across cable, digital and broadcast outlets. It's a seller's market for writers with distinctive voices and showrunners with experience.
Television earnings by all Writers Guild of America West members grew approximately 39% from 2009-2014, according to the WGAW's most recent financial report. The number of guild members reporting income from TV has spiked from 3,166 to 3,888 during that time. As of 2012, women comprised 24.2% of the WGAW's roughly 8,400 active members.
The earning power of female writers grew slightly more than that of male writers during the 2006-2012 period--23.9% vs. 23.3% although women still make less on average than their white male peers, according to the WGAW's 2014 Hollywood Writers Report. Median income for female TV writers in 2012 was $112,081, or 92<t for every dollar earned by male writers, who had a median income of $121,190 in 2012.
Women working in TV are surely better off than many of those working in film. Female screenwriters on average earned a paltry 77<t for every dollar earned by men in 2012, according to the WGAW report, or $61,776 vs. $80,000 for white males.
The WGAW does not break out employment statistics for showrunners specifically. In its 2015 TV Staffing Brief, the guild found that in the 2013-14 season, women held 15.1% of executive producer credits (not all of which are as showrunners) on series, or 136 of 457 exec producer credits. That was down noticeably from 18.6% in the 2011-12 season.
The guild's survey of 2013-14 hiring encompassed 292 shows across 36 broadcast and cable networks. But even in just two years' time, the volume of programming has grown markedly, across more outlets, and so has the stature of women.
Directing has been a focus for a new breed of multihyphenate showrunners, a la Lena Dunham with "Girls," Jill Soloway with "Transparent" and liana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson of Comedy Central's buzzy "Broad City." There are also growing ranks of female director-exec producers who are not showrunners but have a consistent voice in the production, such as "Homeland's" Lesli Linka Glatter. "I think it really deepens the storytelling" to have women more involved as directors, says Glatter, who earned an Emmy nomination this year for directing "Homeland."
Julie Plec is a CW superhero who is spearheading three shows in the coming season: "The Vampire Diaries," "The Originals" and freshman plague thriller "Containment." Erica Messer is the "Criminal Minds" maven who is doing double duty for CBS in also running spinoff "Beyond Borders."
Plec and Messer say there was never a discussion with their studios on whether they could handle the added workload. Instead the conversations centered on what kind of support they would need to make it work.
"Showrunning is similar to parenting" in many respects, Messer observes. "My perspective on (having two shows) is that it's like having another kid. I've told the 'Criminal Minds' team: 'So there's this other thing that is going to take some of my attention. But I love you both It's going to be fine.'"
Multitasking and learning to delegate effectively are the nature of the beast for a showrunner. Having to do that times three should only sharpen those skills, Plec predicts. She's juggled "Vampire Diaries" and "Originals" for the past few seasons; she also directed a "Vampire Diaries" episode last season.
"You have to understand that you can't have your hand in every single detail any more in the same way you can when you're a nice control freak with one show," Plec says. "It's been very good for my personality."
By many accounts, it's the skill at handling the managerial aspects of the job that makes the difference between a capable showrunner and a great showrunner.
"Empire's" Ilene Chaiken says she sees less obvious difference between men and women in pure writing styles than in showrunning styles.
Women often "come from a less top-down approach, and are more able to engage in the process of listening to the room to find the best idea, and guiding the story to that, rather than rigidly guiding it one way," Chaiken says. "I think women do that naturally and more intuitively than men."
"Affair's" Treem has spent a lot of time thinking about the contrasting ways in which men and women approach the storytelling process --particularly given the premise of her show, a "Rashomon"-like look at an extramarital affair from the dual, man-woman perspectives.
"I think a female narrative has more circles around it," Treem says. It's not a straight line of a story, but one that has curlicues around it. I don't think that's accidental. It reflects the way women understand events as they are unfolding."
With more women at the helm of shows, there is little doubt that the hiring hurdle for women, particularly as episodic directors, will decrease over time. Creating a working environment that is friendly to families is also a prime focus for showrunners with children. On "Unreal," Noxon didn't hesitate to hire a co-exec producer who was seven months pregnant, because she knew the scribe was right for the job.
"By making the show an environment where people can work and still take care of a family--that's how women can help other women," Noxon says. "You don't have to stay in the writers room until 11 o'clock at night. If you're doing that, you're not working efficiently enough."
The spread of women throughout key roles on so many shows is becoming so commonplace as to have become the new normal. Sometimes it takes an outsider to bring such progress into sharp focus.
"Masters of Sex's" Ashford recalls a moment last year when a guest actress came up to her and exec producer Sarah Timberman with tears in her eyes after a table read. "We hadn't really thought about it, but the writer of the episode was a woman and the director was a woman, and I was there and Sarah was there," Ashford says. "The actress came up to us and said, 'This is a miracle.'"
"The Affair's" Treem has enjoyed a quick rise from her first staff position on a series, HBO's "In Treatment," to holding the reins of her own much-talked-about drama. The pace of change she's witnessed in her short years in the biz has been remarkable, she says.
"When I was coming into the business, there was a feeling it was going to take another 100 years for women to get to a place that was anything like parity," Treem says. "We're not there yet, but I think it is truly a wave of change. I'm proud and excited to be a tiny part of it."
Photographs by Miranda Penn Turin
THE ROAD TO THE TOP
TV's ultimate multitaskers have taken many routes to running the show
Mara Brock Akil
Creator-EP-showrunner, BET'S "The Came," "Being Mary Jane"
Mara Brock Akil first set her sights on showrunning when she was a story editor on UPN comedy "Moesha." She credits series co-creators Ralph Farquhar, Vida Spears and Sara Finney for recognizing her talent even as a baby writer, and for exposing her to all aspects of production.
"Ralph had a nice way of rejecting you when you pitched a story he didn't think would work," Brock Akil recalls. "He'd say, 'Save it for your pilot.'"
She worked her way up the ranks as a writer on various series until getting her first shot at creating and running a show with UPN's "Girlfriends" in 2000. When her time came to fly solo, she realized that in keeping a running tally of ideas, she'd been honing the creative vision crucial to showrunning.
The "Moesha" trio "gave me the grounding and the training I needed to find my voice," Brock Akil says.
Showrunner-EP-creator, Showtime's "Masters of Sex"
Michelle Ashford is a graduate of Stephen J. Cannell University. She joined his company in its last years as an indie studio when she was hired as a baby writer on Fox's "21 Jump Street."
Working for Cannell meant being exposed to the soup-to-nuts job of making a TV show, as every aspect of production, short of lensing, was handled under his roof. She also took a lesson from his collaborative style of managing creative people.
"I'm so grateful for that experience," she says. "Otherwise I think the learning curve would have been so steep."
Thus armed, she decided early on to focus on running her own shows rather than working for others.
"The quality of your life (as a writer) is very dependent on the person running the show," she says. "I decided it was so much work, I would only do it for my own shows."
Showrunner-EP, Fox's "Empire"
Ilene Chaiken went from zero to 60 as a showrunner on her first TV project as a writer, Showtime's "The L Word." She'd worked as a screenwriter and as an executive in TV, but never had a staff job on a TV series until she was calling the shots.
When "L Word" was picked up to series in 2004, Showtime exec Gary Levine told Chaiken matter-of-factly that she would be the showrunner. The two had worked together before, during her years at Spelling Television when Levine was a development exec at ABC. His faith in her ability, coupled with some experienced lieutenants early on, set her on a path that led her to "Empire," one of the biggest primetime hits in a generation.
"After more than 10 years as an executive, I had the managerial skills you need to be a showrunner," she says. "Not all writers like doing that part of the job, but I do."
Creator-EP-showrunner, ABC's "Fresh Off the Boat"
Nahnatchka Khan was thrown into the world of showrunner multitasking when she was just out of college and hired as head writer of the Disney-produced animated kids show "Pepper Ann" for ABC.
It was a crash course in taking a show from page to screen, as she was involved in everything from editing to sound mixing to color correction. "I'd go to production meetings and be looking at charts, and pretend I understood what they meant," she says.
As she moved into primetime series, Khan found herself taking mental notes on showrunning styles and approaches. "You can't help but keep a running tally in your head: I'll do that, I'll never do that.'" Moving on to her own development was a natural evolution, spurred by her desire to produce "something that I would want to watch as a viewer."
Showrunner-EP, CBS' "Criminal Minds," Creator-EP-showrunner, CBS' "Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders"
Erica Messer has grown up as a writer in the intense world of CBS' "Criminal Minds." She joined the drama in its first season, and took over as showrunner in season seven, in 2011-12.
Because the show has fostered such a collaborative working environment among its scribes and producers, Messer never gave much thought to becoming showrunner until one day during season five, when her husband joined her for lunch at her office. As they ate, a steady stream of people popped their heads into her office with questions and updates about the progress of the episode in production.
"When my husband pointed out that not two minutes went by without someone coming to me for something, I realized that I had the kind of responsibility where it was rare to have 10 minutes of quiet," she says.
Showrunner-EP-co-creator, Lifetime's "Unreal"; Showrunner-EP-creator, Bravo's "Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce"; EP, CBS' "Code Black"
Marti Noxon learned the art of showrunning first from Joss Whedon and later from Shonda Rhimes. She got a taste of it when she started her career as assistant to Barbara Hall.
But she had to conquer her fear of failure before she was ready to go out on her own. "I was making a very good living in television being a good lieutenant," Noxon says. "At a certain point, I realized I wasn't going after my own development because I was afraid of being the person who took responsibility if something failed."
Noxon's first solo flight as a creator and showrunner, in 2005 with Fox's "Point Pleasant," was short-lived. After nursing her wounds, she drew great lessons from the experience. "I finally realized that even a spectacular flop won't kill me," she says.
Co-creator-EP-showrunner, CW's "The Vampire Diaries"; creator-EP-showrunner, CW's "The Originals" and "Containment"
Julie Plec started as an assistant in film and TV. Just as she opted to focus on a career as a TV writer, she got an offer from shingle Benderspink to be its television chief. She made a quick calculation and took the job.
"I knew I could go set up a bunch of shows for them, then hopefully get the chance to write for one of them," she says. That's exactly what happened with the ABC Family drama "Kyle XY." From there, she was off and running --and counts her background as an assistant and an exec as key building blocks to her success as a showrunner.
"Showrunning is equal parts writing, management and production," she says. "I came into it knowing something about each of those (aspects). I think that's better than if you come in knowing a lot about one of those things."
Co-creator-EP-showrunner, Showtime's "The Affair"
Having started her writing career as playwright, Sarah Treem got her first exposure to being a showrunner when she worked as a writer on the third season of HBO's "In Treatment."
The series at that time was run by married writers Anya Epstein and Dan Futterman, who became important role models for her. "They had such a good partnership," says Treem, who wound up co-creating "Affair" with "In Treatment" creator Hagai Levi. She has recruited several "In Treatment" alums to work on "The Affair," including Epstein and Eric Overmyer.
It took time for Treem to feel comfortable exerting her authority on set. Early on, even the receptionist at Showtime once mistook Overmyer as showrunner rather than her. "It's hard to do the job when people don't recognize you as having the job," she says.
'LET ME DO IT'
'Orange Is The New Black' showrunner Jenji Kohan plays by her own set of rules
Jenji Kohan shakes off any discussion of the Emmy rule changes that saw her Netflix series "Orange Is the New Black" forced to move from comedy to drama this year. "If people want to label us, it's up to them," she says. But what suits her rule-breaking personality is that her show is the first to earn nods in both categories. "That part I really like," she says, with a sly smile. The idiosyncratic showrunner talked to Variety's Debra Birnbaum about blazing a path to the top.
You didn't have an easy road to where you sit now.
I saw the writing on the wall early when I knew I wanted to have kids. It was really hard to do when working for other people. You have to accommodate the showrunner's schedule. If I wanted to have a family, I had to be in charge. Now that I'm in that position, we have a very fecund staff; they can all have babies. I've created that kind of environment. But when I was coming up, it wasn't easy. You were subject to the whims of the king--and it was usually a king. Although there was a queen, too, and she didn't like kids.
What challenges have you faced?
The same challenges for all showrunners. It's notes and it's taste. Seeing your vision through. Getting what you want out there.
How have you done that?
Force of will. I think once you prove you can do it, there's a level of trust that develops. You say, "I will deliver. Until I screw up, please let me do it my way."
How has Netflix compared with other experiences you've had?
Toward the end, Showtime was great once all the kinks were worked out, and ("Weeds" was) a hit. I certainly didn't want to give that up, and thankfully, I didn't have to when I transitioned to Netflix. Other experiences have been ... other experiences. (Laughs)
What do you think makes for a good showrunner?
Someone who wants to go home certainly helps. Someone who's willing to change his or her mind and be convinced and swayed. Someone who's not set with an agenda. In our room, the best idea wins, and it's not necessarily my idea all the time. Every show has its own culture, but you just hope for a "no asshole" policy across the board. It's a position of power, and you hope that people don't abuse the power. I've worked for people who've abused their power, and I try not to perpetuate the cycle of abuse.
What's the hardest part of the job?
You have decision fatigue sometimes. You're the final say on everything, so it all comes down to you in the end, and you're to blame for everything. And there are a lot of people's egos and jobs and feelings and work on the line, and it's a delicate balance. It never reaches a point where you can go on autopilot, because there's always another script to write, and there's always another show to edit, and there are always production issues that come up.
But do you ever sit back and let yourself enjoy it?
I'm proud of what we do, and I love the people I work with. When it's going well, it's sublime. When you feel like you're moving the cultural needle a little bit, it's exciting. And when you discover talented people and it shines, it's really, really gratifying.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||Shonda Rhimes|
|Date:||Aug 4, 2015|
|Previous Article:||Richard Marx buys Paradise.|
|Next Article:||Tales from the top of television mountain: in Variety's annual list of TV's most important executive producers, creatives reveal surprising secrets...|