Running primetime shows almost a gender-neutral pursuit
EmptyCarol Mendelsohn remembers what it was like way back when, before it became commonplace to find a woman running a primetime network TV series like she does today for CBS' "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation." "I got my start in TV at a time when the networks basically were beginning to demand that there be one woman on every show writing staff," she recalls. "And that was tough because there weren't a lot of woman writers. So, I was basically a token."
Fast-forward to today. Not only have women fully infiltrated the writing ranks, but they are presiding over shows in numbers that have rendered the point of gender practically moot. Whereas six or seven years ago, they would have filled perhaps a single dinner table, today, Mendelsohn finds, "We could pretty much fill an entire restaurant if you count both current showrunners and alumnae."
Is a showrunner's gender now, officially, finally, effectively, a nonissue?
"I would say yes and no," notes Kari Lizer, creator/executive producer/showrunner of the CBS comedy "The New Adventures of Old Christine." "In my position, I do have unique challenges that are specific to my gender, but they are because I'm a mom, not necessarily because I'm a woman. Most male showrunners whom I've known have a different sort of pull than I do when it comes to missing dinner or the weekday-afternoon soccer game."
Lizer, the divorced mother of 11-year-old twins and an 8-year-old, adds that "when there are daytime things at school, there is no real expectation that the dad will be there, but it's noticeable when the mom isn't. So, from that standpoint, being in charge of a TV series can embody different demands for a woman just as far as personal issues."
Fox's "House" executive producer and co-showrunner Katie Jacobs finds that being the boss in the TV world actually gives her flexibility advantages as a mother that others down the food chain don't have.
"I consider myself extremely lucky," Jacobs says, "because in my position, I can leave for a parent-teacher conference or take my daughter to a dental appointment in the middle of the day if I want to. But I think it's ultimately less about gender and more about job. There are plenty of men and women on both sides of the camera who have no control over their schedule."
Parenthood aside, there now seems to be general agreement that the success of women such as Jacobs, Mendelsohn, Ann Donahue of CBS' "CSI: Miami," Shonda Rhimes of ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" and Meredith Stiehm of CBS' "Cold Case" in running shows has essentially removed the gender issue from the equation -- at least, for the most part.
"I think part of that is endemic to the show-business culture," Lizer says. "Both men and women have gotten used to working with women in higher positions in Hollywood. That's not true of every business."
If someone happens to have an issue with who or what she is while asking for what she wants, "then that's their problem," maintains Mara Brock Akil, who runs both "Girlfriends" and "The Game" for the CW.
"It's tough enough having this job without putting the extra burden on yourself of feeling like you need to overcompensate as a woman to get your message across. So, I don't. I don't note a lot of open discrimination anymore, but I do think sometimes women and people of color aren't always considered in the mix. It isn't open rejection but more about not always being on the radar. Fortunately, we do find a lot more open-mindedness now."
In other words, there is far less need to toss out cliches like, "Sometimes, the right man for the job is a woman." But if you ask Jacobs, she does believe that women bring certain intangibles to running a TV show that men can't match.
"There are huge differences in the way we approach work from the way men do," Jacobs finds. "For instance, juggling a lot of thoughts at the same time isn't foreign to women. And in TV, when you have to deliver 24 episodes each season, when you're in post on three, you're prepping one and you're shooting one, mental multitasking is essential. As a mother, that's second nature. So, dare I say, we may be more physiologically equipped (to run a show)."
Take that, male chauvinists of the world.