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What we know for sure about women in television

Wmc Features Shonda Rhimes Mike Coppola Getty Images 092817
Shonda Rhimes's move from ABC to Netflix signals a larger shift in the television landscape. Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images.

2016-17 marks the 20th year of my annual Boxed In study, which tracks women’s representation and employment in television. Over the years, some truths about the place of women in this now-exploding medium have emerged. To borrow a phrase from television and cultural icon Oprah Winfrey, there are a number of things we know for sure about women on and behind the small screen. 

Women fare better in television than in film.
We know for sure that women fare better in television than in film. Whereas female characters comprised only 32 percent of all speaking characters in the top-grossing films of 2016, females accounted for 42 percent of characters appearing on broadcast network, cable, and streaming programs in 2016-17.

Behind the scenes, women accounted for 28 percent of executive producers, 33 percent of writers, and 17 percent of directors on television programs in 2016-17. By comparison, women accounted for only 17 percent of executive producers, 13 percent of writers, and 7 percent of directors working on the top 250 films of 2016. 

Television has been more welcoming of women than film for the last two decades, perhaps because episodes require smaller investments than most films. As a result, decision makers may be more willing to hire those in traditionally under-represented groups. The industry’s increasing openness to female-driven projects clearly is paying off in critically and commercially successful programs such as The Handmaid’s Tale and Big Little Lies. Both series took home multiple trophies at this year’s Emmys, including the big prizes for outstanding drama and outstanding limited series, respectively.

Women are stuck in prime time on the broadcast networks.
We know for sure that women’s progress at the broadcast networks has stalled. In the summer of 2017, Shonda Rhimes announced that she will move her considerable talents and operation, Shondaland, from ABC to Netflix. Her defection from the alphabet network signals a larger shift in the television landscape. In 2016-17, the streaming services overtook broadcasters as the leaders in gender representation, both on screen and behind the scenes. 

Last year, females comprised 47 percent of major characters on streaming programs, compared to 43 percent on broadcast programs. Although the percentage of major female characters increased slightly from 41 percent in 2015-16, the networks have been hovering between 41 percent and 43 percent for a decade. 

Behind the scenes, women comprised 32 percent of all creators, producers, executive producers, writers, directors, editors, and directors of photography working on streaming programs. By comparison, the percentage of women working in these powerful roles on broadcast network programs hasn’t budged in a decade. Women accounted for 27 percent of behind-the-scenes individuals working on network shows last year. This represents no change from 2015-16, and an increase of only 1 percentage point since 2006-07.

Until last year, the broadcast networks could crow about having higher percentages of women on screen and behind the scenes than the streaming services. This is no longer the case. Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon are now putting major pressure on broadcasters to up their game. While the networks have become complacent in their representation and employment of women, streaming services are now aggressively pursuing talents like Rhimes, offering them substantial financial packages, greater creative freedom, and a business model removed from the ratings game.

People tend to create what they know.
We know for sure that people tend to create what they know. Data collected over two decades reveals that women are more likely than men to create female characters. In 2016-17, on programs with at least one woman creator, females comprised 51 percent of major characters, achieving parity with females’ representation in the U.S. population. On programs with exclusively male creators, females accounted for 38 percent of major characters. Yet, women make up only 21 percent of creators on broadcast programs, and 26 percent of creators on streaming and cable programs.

Increasing the numbers of women creators (and executive producers) is essential to increasing the numbers of female characters. For every female creator, there are approximately three to four male creators. And so, for every Mara Akil (Girlfriends, Being Mary Jane), there is a Vince Gilligan (Better Call Saul, Breaking Bad), a Damon Lindelof (The Leftovers, Lost), and a Mike Judge (Silicon Valley, King of the Hill). For every Marti Noxon (Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, UnREAL), there is a Chuck Lorre (Young Sheldon, The Big Bang Theory), a Jason Katims (About a Boy), and a Steve Levitan (Modern Family, Just Shoot Me!).   

Achieving more balanced gender ratios in these behind-the-scenes roles will help build the foundation for the portrayal of greater numbers of female characters in the years to come.

Women remain underemployed in key behind-the-scenes roles.
We know for sure that women remain underemployed in positions of power behind the scenes. Overall, 97 percent of the programs considered had no women directors of photography, 85 percent had no women directors, 75 percent had no women editors, 74 percent had no women creators, 67 percent had no women writers, 23 percent had no women producers, and 20 percent had no women executive producers.

Across platforms, 50 percent of programs employed four or fewer women in the roles considered. Only 6 percent of programs employed four or fewer men.  

One can scarcely think of a medium that is changing more rapidly than television. As programs and platforms continue to multiply in this era of peak TV, the need for more perspectives and creativity intensifies. We know for sure that there’s still plenty of room for women to grow in television, and that they have proven their ability to excel, commercially and artistically. The uncertainty lies in whether the broadcast networks, cable, and streaming services will recognize the potential of this underutilized group to tell stories that haven’t been told, and expand the boundaries of what television can be.



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