COVER

DESIGNING WOMEN

ANNE GREGOR March 29 1993
COVER

DESIGNING WOMEN

ANNE GREGOR March 29 1993

DESIGNING WOMEN

COVER

ANNE GREGOR

When the conversation at current Hollywood parties turns to television, four names are likely to arise. All of them belong to women. Marcy Carsey (Roseanne), Linda Bloodworth-Thomason (Designing Women, Hearts Afire), Diane English (Murphy Brown, Love and War) and newcomer Beth Sullivan (Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman) are the reigning creative powerhouses of the small screen. They are revered in the way that Aaron Spelling (Charlie’s Angels) and Norman Lear (All in the Family) were two decades ago. Their companies have produced some of the most popular shows on network television, with Carsey’s Roseanne, rated fourth in the United States and first on Canada’s CTV network according to A. C. Nielsen Co., leading the pack. And they have created uniformly strong, independentminded heroines adept at handling men who refuse to take them seriously. Declared Harriet Silverman, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Women in Film organization: “They are activists. They have a voice—and they use it.”

Increasing numbers of female writers, directors, producers and, to a lesser extent, senior executives are helping to change the face of American television. Although overall the status of women in TV is still slight, there are proportionately more women working in the medium than in feature films, and they have more influence. That stronger women’s participation in the small screen is one reason why in 1990, according to a Screen Actors Guild survey, women had 46 per cent of TV roles, compared with 30 per cent of movie roles.

Hedonist: The main character is more likely to be a woman in prime-time television than in movies. In recent years, the small screen has seen a profusion of such assertive females as TV journalist and single mother Murphy Brown, played by Candice Bergen, or the tough-talking working mother Roseanne, portrayed by Roseanne Arnold. In current big-budget features, meanwhile, the lead female characters are often psychopaths, sex fiends or both (Rebecca De Momay’s crazed nanny in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle; Sharon Stone’s bisexual hedonist in Basic Instinct) or they are mere appendages of male heroes (the wives and girlfriends in Hoffa, Chaplin and dozens of other movies). Said Linda Yellen, an awardwinning television producer, writer and director: “The big advantage in TV is that you have heroines who are female rather than being window dressing for male-driven films.”

Still, women remain a distinct minority behind the camera and in the TV industry’s executive suites. A 1990 study by Women in Film and the National Commission on Working Women found that in prime-time television that year, only 25 per cent of writers, 15 per cent of producers and nine per cent of directors were female. Few of the women working in television actually climb to the top echelons of the networks, where final decisions about programming are made. Only Fox has a woman at the very top, Lucie Salhany, who earlier this year became chair-

Although females still have a long way to go on the small screen, they have made some big inroads

man of the network. “A handful of women have clout,” said Bloodworth-Thomason. “Everyone else is way down the totem pole.”

And for every Murphy Brown or Roseanne, there are several clerks, helpmates, traditional wives—and movie-of-the-week victims. Often based on true stories, TV movies still tend to feature women who have suffered abuse, grievous loss or a variety of violent acts. Indeed, numerous women are brutalized every day in American TV drama. Bloodworth-Thomason told Maclean’s: “I am tired of women raped, tormented and terrified. I wish women could rise up across the U.S. and Canada and say, ‘Hell no, we are not going to watch this anymore.’ ”

The fact that female characters are more prominent in television than in feature films stems mainly from the fact that more women than men watch TV. While men outnumber women at the movie box office (according to a 1991 study conducted by the Motion

Picture Association of America, 23 per cent of U.S. males attend at least one movie a month, as opposed to 19 per cent of females), Nielsen research indicates that female television viewers in the United States outnumber males by almost 3 to 2 in all time slots. And TV advertisers put a premium on female viewers between 18 and 49, who are considered to make most of the buying decisions in American households. As the major networks watched their audience increasingly turn to cable options in the 1980s, they also noted that women viewers were fleeing to the risk-taking, often

female-oriented programming on cable channels—including the nine-year-old Lifetime Television, which is geared specifically to women.

Feminist: But the best-known women in television have struck out on their own, setting up production companies to create some of the major networks’ most popular offerings. Marcy Carsey, 48, set up her own firm in 1980, after a stint as an executive at ABC. A year later, Tom Werner, a former ABC colleague, became her partner in the CarseyWemer Co. They went on to create The Coshy Show, A Different World and their current hit, Roseanne. Like Bloodworth-Thomason, English and Sullivan, Carsey’s success, with Roseanne, is partly a result of her insistence on being relevant to contemporary women. Unlike other working TV mothers, including even Clair Huxtable on Carsey-Wemer’s own Coshy Show, who was a lawyer but never seemed to actually go to work, Roseanne clearly has a life outside the house—and feels the stress of her double duty. Said Caryn Mandabach, president of Carsey-Wemer: ‘We were able to appreciate in full what it meant to be a working mom. This is a show about a woman and her family. Cosby was a show about a man and his family. The point of that show was not to be real, not about coping.”

Still, in many cases it has taken a woman executive to convince network programmers to respond to those gender demographics. “The concept that women control the TV set was threatening to male executives,” said Los Angeles-based Canadian TV producer Carla Singer, who fought to put Murder, She Wrote, starring Angela Lansbury as a mystery writer-sleuth, on the airwaves. Singer, who was the vicepresident of drama development at CBS until she left in 1985, recalls that her male colleagues vehemently opposed the program about an elderly, and female, private detective. “It was tough, an Old Boys place,” she told Maclean’s. “They kept asking me who would watch an elderly woman. I replied, “Your mother and mine.’ ” The show, which has been running since 1984, now ranks eighth in the Nielsen U.S. ratings and first on Canada’s Global network.

Those frustrations, along with the proverbial glass ceiling that women encounter in most industries, have led some females in television to seek their fortunes outside the networks. Many ambitious women have found that there were greater opportunities at cable channels. Indeed, the children’s service Nickelodeon, the moviebased USA Network and female-oriented Lifetime all have women in senior programming positions.

Bloodworth-Thomason, 45, was a freelance scriptwriter until she formed Mozark Productions with her husband, director-producer Harry Thomason, 10 years ago. Their first success, Designing Women, which focuses on the four outspoken, confident women who comprise an Atlanta interior-design company called Sugarbaker & Associates, established Bloodworth-Thomason as a TV producer with a distinctly feminist, liberal sensibility. The show is now in its seventh season. She and her husband, who are close friends and unofficial media advisers to President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary, consolidated that

ANNE GREGOR in Los Angeles

reputation with their small-town comedy series Evening Shade, which first appeared in 1990, and the more issue-oriented Hearts Afire, launched last fall.

Like Bloodworth-Thomason, English, 44, is also in partnership with her husband, Joel Shukovsky, creating Murphy Brown with him in 1988. Last fall, they weighed in with another hit. Love and War, starring Susan Dey and Jay Thomas as constantly squabbling lovers. The two shows are consistently among the top 25 in the United States, according to Nielsen, with Murphy Brown holding the fourth spot on Canada’s CTV network. English, who gained notoriety last spring when Vice-President Dan Quayle decried the fact that Murphy Brown was having a child on her own, attributes that show’s success to the title character’s defi0 ant streak. Said English: “She’s a

0 woman functioning in a man’s

1 world and, in a way, living as a 2man and making no apologies

1 for it whatsoever.” She added:

2 “All of us have that want in us, g but not all of us have the courage ° to do it and to be like her.”

Some insiders say that Carsey, Bloodworth-Thomason, English and others like them might not have won the financing for their productions without being in partnership with men. Noted Silverman of Women in Film: “I have heard from more women producers than I want to that one needs a man to pitch a story. I am beginning to believe it.” Still, Sullivan was able to create the new Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman independently—she is the first woman to both create a primetime network drama and serve as its executive producer. The show, which stars Jane Seymour as a post-Civil War doctor, has emerged as a major hit.

Sexism: Independence from the major networks has not necessarily been the salvation of women in the TV industry. Many women say that the Old Boys club is still alive, well and as closed as ever. “Men hire replicants of themselves,” said Mandabach. “They are not thinking. It is passive sexism. They don’t have nefarious motives.” Women also tend to be ghettoized in lower-paid sectors of the industry, especially movies of the week. Writer Stephanie Liss says that agents fail to take seriously her ambition to become a milliondollar writer—and to aggressively peddle her services for more lucrative projects. Liss told Maclean’s, “I make $25,000 to $30,000 less than the male writers who have reached my stature and garnered the same number of awards.”

s As they agitate for improved status in the televij±i sion industry, many women regard the Old Boys 2 network with an ironic sense of humor. Mandabach §. pointed to the recent appointment of Donald | Ohlmeyer as NBC’s new head of entertainment, noting that Ohlmeyer is a good friend and golfing partner of Jack Welch, chairman of General Electric, which owns the network. “My best advice to young women is to learn to golf,” she said. “The question is, ‘Do women have to be better golfers?’ ” No longer content to be the caddies of the industry, women are fighting for equal time on television.