“I’ve never really had that issue put before me before,” Kevin Reilly, entertainment president of Fox said on Monday morning. I’d just asked him about the latest report from San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, which revealed that in the 2010-2011 television season, Fox had fewer women working behind the camera than any other broadcast network—a measly 18 percent, and the second lowest-number of female characters, 39 percent of characters narrowly beating out NBC’s 36, and whether Fox’s female-lead comedy boom was a response to those figures. I honestly didn’t think it was a hard question. But apparently, in the entertainment industry, it remains a surprising and unexpected one.
Reilly pivoted to the number of women who watch the network, saying “Fox is traditionally thought of as a male core network. Whether it’s our history of genre or animation, we still have that access point, and we have shows that deliver equally with men and women. When you’ve seen with shows like American Idol, we have not only the highest concentration of women, but young women. We’re not in the one-quadarant business.” Which is nice for Fox, and meeting the needs of female viewers is a worthy goal, but Reilly’s response kind of misses the point. (To his credit, I spoke to Reilly after the session, and he’s promised a follow-up after he’s looked at the SDSU report, which I look forward to.) If you don’t want to be a one-quadrant network, it might help not to have one-quadrant writers.
That’s particularly true on a show like The Mindy Project, which isn’t just a show about a young woman navigating work and life, but about women’s health issues. But, while there are female writers other than Mindy Kaling working on the show, the writers’ room is majority male, and the male writers who have joined the show have received the lion’s share of the media attention as the show has staffed up. “I think our greatest asset is we have at the top of the show the greatest female half-hour writer in television,” executive producer Matt Warburton said when I asked him what the male writers were bringing to women’s health and work-life balance topics. And Kaling gave the answer that almost every executive in Hollywood gives when asked about diversity: “We’re looking for people who can write women super-well,” she said. “That said, we are alwasy looking for really funny female writers. That’s something we’re looking forward in the future,” implying that the current state of affairs was a matter of money rather than hiring decisions.
To her credit, Dana Fox, creator of Ben and Kate, one of the best new sitcoms of the season, about an irresponsible man who moves home to help his sister care for her young child, talked candidly after her panel about some of the challenges of hiring female writers. There are four women on the writing staff of her show, and Fox said she had hoped to hire other female writers who were snapped up by other programs. Fox’s best friend is New Girl creator Liz Merriwether, and she spoke movingly about her desire to promote and support the work of her friends who are female television writers. Even if she’s just getting started on those projects, Fox is a step ahead of the man who runs her network in thinking about diversity in the writers’ room.