Female Showrunners Bounce Back in Broadcast

Following two consecutive years of decline, women’s representation among broadcast television scripted series showrunners is set to increase in the 2014-15 season, returning to levels similar to those found in 2011-12.

According to information provided by networks and gathered independently by B&C, the upcoming broadcast season is slated to include 29 scripted series for which women will serve as showrunners or coshowrunners—representing 28% of the total series scheduled to air. That percentage could rise or fall depending on which, if any, shows currently slated for next season find themselves killed or bumped to summer or the following fall.

In terms of raw numbers and percentages, 2014-15 will reverse a downward trend for women showrunners. The 2012-13 season saw 24 broadcast scripted series with female showrunners—26% of the total, down from 28 and 30% in 2011-12. The 2013-14 season was worse, with 20 female- led shows representing 21% of all broadcast scripted offerings.

“If that [expected rise] is the case, it might provide a bit of correction for the last few years,” says Martha Lauzen, executive director of San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. Lauzen produces an annual report on women working in TV titled “Boxed In,” the most recent installment of which found that the percentage of female series creators in primetime broadcast declined from 26% in 2011-12 to 24% in 2012-13. She expects the 2013-14 numbers to be even lower.

The Net-Net Skew

Although studios employ the heads of series, breaking down employment of female showrunners by network speaks to what groups the broadcasters are trying to reach and how. Female-skewing ABC, for instance, will see 12 of its 24 scripted series next season led by women—an even 50%, up from 36% in 2011-12. Six of the network’s 12 new series next season—comedies Cristela, Fresh Off the Boat and Selfie and dramas Marvel’s Agent Carter, Secrets and Lies and The Whispers— will have women showrunners.

The CW, meanwhile, has openly courted male viewers under president Mark Pedowitz while also ramping up its number of hours of original programming. In 2011-12, Pedowitz’s first season, six of the network’s nine scripted series (67%) were led by women. Next season, it will be five of 12, or 42%.

Both networks outperform the rest of the field. Next season, 25% of Fox’s scripted series will be led by women, followed by CBS at 16% and NBC at 13%.

And while women remain underrepresented in broadcast scripted showrunner positions in general, that is especially the case when it comes to comedies. Of the 29 broadcast scripted series to be led by women next season, only seven are half-hour comedies.

Michelle King, cocreator and executive producer of CBS’ The Good Wife, does not know the origins of that drama-comedy disparity. But when other showrunners contact her, looking for references for women writers who have worked for her, “The question they will ask is ‘Are they squeamish?’ or ‘Can they tolerate a rough room?’” The answer, King says, has always been that those writers are indeed tough enough. “But if that is a concern of people doing the hiring, that might give them pause before hiring a woman.”

Rebecca Sinclair, former executive producer and showrunner of The CW’s 90210, attributes the still low number of women in broadcast’s top behind-the-camera jobs in part to a lack of foundational history. “Women who ought to be showrunners haven’t had the same sort of role models that men have had, simply because there were fewer women showrunners in the past,” says Sinclair. But, she adds, progress appears imminent.

“We’re probably going to have a woman president, there are women in combat in the military and yeah, there are women running television shows,” Sinclair says. “That seems to me the natural extension of the realization that women can and should try their hand at every job they’re inclined to try.”