Women Created More Television Last Year, But Is It a Durable Sign of Progress?

Over at Women and Hollywood, Melissa Silverstein has what appears to be an early look at figures from the latest report from San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film (the report doesn’t appear on the institute’s site yet). In the last season, according to the figures Silverstein reported, 26 percent of the television shows aired on the broadcast networks and reality programming, were created by women. Silverstein adds what I think are some useful caveats:

This is up one point from last year and five points since the 1997-98 season.

Some things to note:

Women creators rose from 18% to 26%.
Women writers make up 30% of the staffs.
Women make up 25% of executive producers. That’s up three points from the previous year.
I wish the stats actually tracked the actual jobs on the TV shows including all the writing positions so we can see where women are at the different levels. Are women stuck in the staff writer positions? Are women getting promoted to the next levels? That’s what I want to know.

I’d add a couple more. First, I’ve stopped caring about year-on-year data as a meaningful measure of women’s progress in any category in Hollywood, be it highest-paid actresses or the number of women employed in writers’ rooms. These numbers spike one year and fall the next, both because there are so few people involved in these positions in any case, and because they can climb dramatically when women become a trend and tank if a show or several shows get cancelled. We’ll know that change is permanent when the numbers climb steadily over a period of years, and when there aren’t dramatic dips in between. Structural improvement is what matters, not cyclical improvement.

Second, measuring who creates shows is of limited utility. As much as I hate to say it, because I do think it’s great when men and women can partner on projects, it’s not necessarily a test of whether women creators are doing better if the shows they create are sold jointly with male co-creators. If women create shows, that doesn’t mean they’re running them. Whitney Cummings’ creation of 2 Broke Girls isn’t much of a victory on the substance, and it’s not much a victory behind the camera, given that Michael Patrick King’s creative vision now dominates the show. And as I broke down last season, just because women create television shows doesn’t mean they, or whoever end up running those shows, hire other women to write for them.

I want to see progress on these figures. And I do celebrate the shows that women sell, if only because they mean more women with experience, and with some money from studios that if nothing else, supports them as they work on the next thing. But I also don’t want to be fooled by one year of improving figures into believing that the historically resistant television industry has actually started addressing its deep-seated issues with women, both in front of the camera and behind it.