By Rena Sternfeld
In our continuing attempt to understand what is really happening with the (under) employment of women directors in the American television Industry, we decided to analyze the real employment numbers, show-by-show, episode-by-episode.
To put it bluntly: how many women are actually making a decent living working as episodic TV directors?
Getting exact numbers became even more important in light of new Pew Research demonstrating that in 40% of American households with children under 18, THE MOTHER is the main (or only) breadwinner.
For our new study, we decided to focus only on women director members of the Director’s Guild of America. To become a member of the Guild, one has to work professionally as a director. Hence, all director members of the DGA have experience directing professionally.
We looked at 146 shows from current prime time network shows, like “Once Upon A Time,” “Grimm,” “The Mentalist,” “Revenge,” “Lost,” “CSI” and “Law & Order,” as well as basic cable shows like “In Plain sight,” “Warehouse 13,” “Royal Pains,” and “Rescue Me,” among others. We also analyzed premium cable shows like “Homeland,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Weeds,” “Game of Thrones,” and many more.
In trying to figure out the number of women who can honestly say they are able to support their families through episodic TV directing work, several trends begin to emerge . They are trends because they happen more than once, on more than one show.
1. Women rarely direct an episode of a show in its first season. If the producers do hire a woman to direct, it is usually for just one episode out of the season’s 22 to 24 episodes. It’s as if they are saying, “Let’s introduce the show and get it successfully established, then when we know we’re safe, we’ll let you girls in for a few.”
2. Male directors get hired to direct more episodes than female directors, regardless of their performance. When directors helm their first episode of a show they are evaluated by the producers, the cast, and the crew. Are they good directors? Are they a good fit for the show? If the verdict is “Yes,” male directors are usually rewarded with two to four more shows the following season. Women, on the other hand, will rarely get more than one or two episodes in following seasons. The exception to that “rule” is the very small handful of shows that employ women continuously, like “The L-Word” and “Hung” that are either femme produced and written and/or are specifically aimed at a female audience.
3. A funny thing happened on the way to success… “Dream On,” an HBO show that started running more than 10 years ago, began with 12 episodes. Six were directed by Betty Thomas and six by Arlene Sanford. The show was a success and was picked up for a full order of 26 episodes for the next four years. But were many women directors hired back? Only very few. The men took over. The same story on “Sex and The City”– the first season had twelve episodes, seven directed by women. The show became a hit and, again, the men took over. By the last season, it was hard to find a woman director among them. A friend observed that, with all that female star power at the top, it’s hard to believe they didn’t have a say about director choice, which makes it even more alarming, particularly when those stars are as powerful as Sarah Jessica Parker, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Courtney Thone Smith, Jennifer Garner, and on and on. It’s seems extraordinary that femme star-driven shows like “Alias” and “Nikita” hired virtually no women directors in their many years running. Often the stars, like Garner and Hewitt and others, hired themselves to direct rather than women DGA directors who so greatly need an increase in jobs.
4. Some shows that hire women directors have a “revolving door policy,” recycling a few woman directors from a small static pool of DGA women directors instead of broadening the pool to include more different women. Each women gets one episode and, “Wham-bam, thank you, ma’am! Bring in the next one” — usually just one or two women directors per season (just enough not to raise eyebrows in the DGA diversity program). In this way, the shows appear to demonstrate a policy of hiring “lots” of women director when in fact they do not. Many of those shows have both female leads and target a female audience, yet they still almost exclusively hire male directors. A particularly unfortunate example is “Lifetime: Television for Women,” the programming for which is almost exclusively directed by men!
5. There are still shows that do not employ ANY woman directors at all! ZERO! We’re not just talking about “Sopranos,” “X Files” or “Seinfeld” or “Curb Your Enthusiasm”– none of which hire any women directors at all, nor multi-camera sitcoms that often only use one or two directors throughout the season. We’re talking about “CSI,” which employed NOT ONE woman director in seasons 1, 3, 4, 5 and 6. And only 1 in season 2. All the way through to season 13, there was just one women director per season. “Damages” had no women directors at all, nor did “Deadwood,” “Fringe,” and “Gravity Falls” for Disney Channel or “Lab Rats” for the same employer.
6. The Outliers: There are are only a handful of shows that hire women to direct in greater numbers. “Grey’s Anatomy” (ABC) produced 196 episodes, 46 of them directed by 19 different women (that’s thanks to the great Loretha Jones, the African American maverick among TV producers). “Pretty Little Liars” (ABC Family) had 85 episodes, 21 of which were directed by women, “Single Ladies” (VH1) 25 episodes, 19 directed by women, “The L-Word” (Showtime) with 68 episodes, and 19 directed by MEN, and “The Middle” (ABC) which has hired women directors to helm over 40 episodes out of 96.
7. Infuriatingly, some of the shows that have the worst records of hiring are the most popular, longest running, and most beloved. Dick Wolf’s “Law and Order” for NBC which was executive produced by long-time executive VP of the DGA, produced a whopping 496 episodes, yet hired women directors for just over 30 episodes (female Script Supervisor, Martha Mitchell, directed 14 of them, while the male Director of Photography, Constantine Makris got 156). Femme star-driven “Law and Order SVU” has shot 319 episodes, hiring women to direct just over 25. And “Law and Order – Criminal Intent” has made 195 episodes, with less than 20 directed by women. Equally egregious, “House” has produced 177 episodes with just 14 directed by women, and “Homicide,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Criminal Minds,” and “Glee” share similar awful numbers, as do “Friday Night Lights” and “Desperate Housewives.” And same with “Psych,” “Rescue Me,” “Scrubs,” Rules of Engagement,” and “The Shield.” “Supernatural” can boast 172 episodes, with just ONE directed by a woman! “Smallville” (218/13), “Castle,” (105/8) , “CSI” (295/7), “West Wing”(154/22), “Without a Trace” (160/22), also fall into the same appalling category!
So, what’s the total number of women directors working steadily in the pool of 3,100 television episodes produced in America each year?
THIRTY-FIVE! Once again, 35!
About 35 or so women in the United States can truly say they make a living directing television. No wonder highly employed women directors are hesitant to help change the landscape to get more women into the directing workforce.
Congratulations ladies! You are members of a very exclusive club.*
*The Directors Guild of America has 1,138 women director members. Less than 5% of all feature films produced in America are directed by women.
Rena Sternfeld is a television director who has directed multiple comedy episodes for HBO. She is a proud and active member of the Director’s Guild of America.