The other week, Gloria Steinem called for a boycott of the upcoming NBC drama The Playboy Club. "I hope people boycott it. It's just not telling the truth about the era," the feminist icon said. She should know. She went undercover as a Playboy Bunny in the early sixties to write an exposé about working conditions at the New York branch of the club. (The TV show is set at the original Chicago club.)
Some people will say Steinem did the show a favour by giving it publicity. But the fervour of her distaste underscores what has become the overriding theme of the U.S. network season: women and how they are depicted in mainstream TV. And the season hasn't even started yet. Who knows what fires will erupt when people actually see The Playboy Club, Pan Am, 2 Broke Girls, I Hate My Teenage Daughter and a dozen other shows that are about, and aimed at, women. If the whispers, rants and ruminations of critics are to be believed, so many of these shows are about female empowerment.
What is extraordinary in this context is news on Tuesday that the number of women working as writers and directors on prime-time broadcast programs "took a big tumble in the 2010-11 season." The story, in the Los Angeles Times and based on a study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, says there is "an overall decline in women's employment as actresses and in key creative jobs behind the camera" in the TV racket.
This is the most toxic issue in television right now. Women viewers are coveted by broadcasters and advertisers and vast amounts of money are spent on creating shows to reach these viewers, and yet the number of women involved seems to be diminishing.
Among other things, the study says, "Women comprised 15 per cent of writers on the prime-time dramas, comedies and reality shows on ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and the CW, down from 29 per cent in the 2009-10 season. In the directing ranks, it found 11 per cent were women, compared with 16 per cent the previous year."
As for female characters on the networks, the centre said women accounted for 41 per cent of all on-air characters, which is down from the record-high 43 per cent the year before. And, over all, women make up 25 per cent of all people working as series creators, producers, executive producers, directors, writers, editors and directors of photography. That, too, is a decrease from the previous TV season.
The Times story was accompanied by a photo of Tina Fey and Oprah Winfrey in an episode of 30 Rock. Fey and Winfrey are, of course, among the most powerful women in the entertainment industry and Winfrey's reach of influence is way beyond that.
But even as a handful of women emerge as defining figures in television, the overall contribution of women seems doomed to endless decline.
It has long been the case that few women work as writers on the late-night talk shows. Two years ago, when the shows were surveyed by The New York Times, there were no female writers on the then-new The Jay Leno Show, none on Late Show with David Letterman and none on The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien. Since then, most late-night shows have added women writers, but the champion for employing women is The Daily Show. Of course, it's debatable if The Daily Show belongs in the same category as Late Show with David Letterman.
What matters in all of this is how women are presented to women viewers. In the case of the late-night chat shows, the hosts are men, and male writers who have a similar sensibility to the host tend to be hired in order to best reflect his skills and humour, such as they might be. That's the traditional excuse, anyway.
In the case of prime-time drama and comedy, the situation is different. Almost every aspect of women's lives is presented in these fictions. A female sensibility in the writers room would help, you'd think.
During the recent TV Critics Tour, numerous shows were presented as being driven by women actors, writers and producers. That seemed plausible, given the sheer volume of such shows being hawked to the press. A number of women critics were skeptical, mind you, especially about such shows as The Playboy Club and Pan Am.
Now, as these figures about female employment in the industry are presented, that skepticism has added power. Middle-aged white guys run all the networks, apart from CBS, where Nina Tassler is in charge. Never mind female empowerment as a theme in TV shows. It looks like female employment is the most cogent issue.