The conventional Mount Rushmore of TV showrunners -- David Chase ("The Sopranos"), Vince Gilligan ("Breaking Bad"), Matthew Weiner ("Mad Men"), etc. -- is quite the boys' club. Furthermore, it is quite the white, middle-aged boys club. That was not the case Tuesday at the creative keynote panel at the 2015 New York Television Festival. The event brought together six female showrunners from six hit series to talk about one thing and one thing only -- running a television show. Why? What did you think they were going to talk about?
Showrunners Courtney Kemp Agboh ("Power"), Blair Breard ("Louie"), Anya Epstein ("The Affair"), Barbara Hall ("Madam Secretary"), Michelle King ("The Good Wife") and Stephanie Laing ("Veep") all took the stage at the SVA Theatre in the New York neighborhood of Chelsea Tuesday for an in-depth discussion about the immense pressure and painstaking minutia that go into writing and producing some of TV's best shows. This was not a Comic-Con panel designed for fans. The New York Television Festival gathers network executives and indie producers for a showcase of pilots and sizzle reels for prospective series and informative panels from industry veterans. The six showrunners Tuesday largely just talked shop.
Breard talked about the importance of mentorship and the difficulty of executing "Louie" creator Louis C.K.'s wildly unconventional scripts, Hall described the relentless demands of churning out over 22 episodes of network TV each year on "Madam Secretary" and Agboh compared the relative lack of restriction with premium cable to the rigorous demands of network TV.
Showrunners Anya Epstein ("The Affair," left) and Blair Breard ("Louie," right) talk about the challenges of producing a hit series at the creative keynote panel at the New York Television Festival Tuesday. Photo: Lauren Caulk/NYTVF
What was more notable, though, at least from an outside-of-the-industry perspective, was what was not discussed -- gender. When festival director Erin Day introduced the panel she expressed her pride in curating an event comprised of exclusively female power players in an industry dominated by men. However, the panel, which was open to the public, was not advertised as such. In fact, the surprised cheer from the crowd after Days' comments implied the audience had not before realized they were attending such an (unfortunately) unusual event. They had been enticed by the quality of the group's work, not their gender. Go figure!
The fact remains that female showrunners are still a rarity in Hollywood. In the 2013-14 television season, women held only 15.1 percent of executive producer credits (the Writers Guild of America West records do not specifically tabulate for "showrunners"), according to Variety, even as the number of scripted series each year climbs well over 400. That is a shame, because all of that data suggests that more women at the top leads to significantly more gender diversity all the way down the line in the industry, from the amount of female speaking roles per show, to the number of female editors.
Tuesday was proof that gender diversity in the entertainment industry comes at no cost to quality or economic viability. The group of showrunners at the panel represented hits on network TV ("Madam Secretary"), cable ("Louie") and on premium cable ("Power"); both in comedy ("Veep") and in drama ("The Good Wife"); with both male and female main characters ("The Affair"). Above all else, the panel was a showcase of six women who are incredibly good at their jobs -- end of story.
“I think I would love for it not to be a thing when there are a bunch of women showrunners somewhere,” Agboh told the crowd Tuesday, only after being asked what changes she would like to see in the industry moving forward. “It does not have to be pointed out all the time."
The industry has a long way to go to reach anything resembling gender equality, but on Tuesday, while gender may have been mentioned, it really was not much of a "thing" and boy, was it refreshing (no pun intended).
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