Coming On TV This Fall: Fewer New Shows Written By Women

When Nikki Finke pointed out that this looks like one of the worst pilot seasons for women on the major networks, several explanations emerged. Several of her commenters' theories about female scriptwriting inferiority aside, what's going on here?

Neely Swanson, former SVP of Development for David E. Kelley Productions and adjunct professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, crunched the numbers for a followup on FInke's site:

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.

Swanson doesn't have a unified theory of the gender homogeneity of network television, but there are plenty of commenters on the site (frequented by Hollywood insiders, or so it is said) willing to blame the decline of the networks' ratings on their blindness to new talent. I'll buy it: who has the time for so much bland, repetitive dreck when there is a wealth of other stuff on cable, the Internet, and DVD?

The argument that these shows were chosen on some pure measure of merit is also absurd: There are so many points at which a show can fail before it gets to your television — and afterwards— that the idea that there is an objective standard of quality, rather than the subjective beliefs of teams of studio executives, is something people tell themselves to justify their ever-precarious positions as cultural gatekeepers. Says Swanson,

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.

Swanson cites a study by Emily Glassberg Sands, of women playwrights, which appeared to show that women judged the same scripts more harshly when they believed they were written by women. According to a respondent familiar with the study's details, it wasn't as simple as women devaluing women:

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.

Pre-emptive discrimination: a novel variant.

Getting through the process is tough even for best-selling author Jennifer Weiner, who's had some experience with screen adaptations. She pitched a script to ABC called "Dick And Jane," but no such luck:

Ultimately, it wasn't surprising. This was a bad year to write a romantic relationship-centered show. It was an excellent year to pitch a gritty police procedural (if you like CSI, you're going to love next season's prime-time dramas!)

Can't wait.

Women Can't Create And White Men Can't Jump: Worst Network Pilot Season For Women, Part 2 [DHD]
For Those Of You Who've Been Riding... [Jennifer Weiner Official Site]

Earlier: Things Not Getting Better For Women In Hollywood