Women In the Writers’ Room

The behind-the-scenes story of this TV season in the U.S. was supposed to be the larger-than-usual number of shows created by women. And that is a good thing. But the other side of the story is that while there are more female creators, there are fewer female writers in TV as a whole; the exact number may vary from survey to survey, but things don’t seem to have improved since a decade ago. Maureen Ryan has a big piece for AOL TV on exactly this issue, where she talks to many TV insiders about why there are still so few women writers – in all genres, comedy and drama – and how the position of “the woman writer,” the one female in the writers’ room, is still a reality in many cases. (In older shows, the one female writer on a staff would often get stuck with writing only certain kinds of stories, like episodes about hookers with hearts of gold. That might still happen today, though this also overlaps with the fact that many of the female writers are junior members of the staff, who may tend to get the assignments the senior writers don’t want.)

A couple of interviewees cite an economic reason, similar to the reason why older writers can’t get hired in TV: television advertisers value male viewers more than female viewers because of their scarcity (more women watch TV than men), so the shows seek out writers who are perceived as appealing to young men. That of course is more of an explanation rather than an excuse: the idea that writers over 50 can’t write shows that appeal to viewers under 50 is a bit dubious, and so is the idea that a show won’t attract young men if too many women are writing for it.

When Angela Bromstad was running NBC, as I’ve mentioned before, one of her good ideas was to lean on producers a bit and encourage them to hire more female writers. Producers probably do have to be nudged in this way, because it’s so hard to assemble a good writing staff that they may stay within their comfort zones (which means writers they know or have worked with, which often mostly means men). But as Community creator Dan Harmon mentioned in the linked interview, once that push was given, it proved to be a good idea that helped the show:

It was conscious on the part of [former NBC programming head] Angela Bromstad, before she left NBC. Angela said, “Get more women on your staff. Make it half women.”… From the mouths of bureaucrats come the seeds of great things. I dug extra hard. You find somebody like Hilary Winston. You find people later like [Emily] Cutler and [Karey] Dornetto.

Other NBC shows increased the number of women on staff in that era, and that in turn leads to more women creators: two of the writers of Parks & Recreation, Emily Kapnek and SNL veteran Emily Spivey, have created new comedies for this season. Obviously it’s not as simple as just saying that every executive can get every show to hire more women. But a little push does seem to help. Or at least, the situation might be different if network executives would make this kind of thing more of a priority.

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