Production Theory: Girl Style Now!

By Caitlin McWhirt

The television industry has always been a boy’s club, but with women continually breaking through; creating and running some of the most succesful shows (CSI, anyone?), the question stands, why are so many women still overlooked and undervalued?

All of my life I have been told I could and could not do things because I was a girl. Somehow, I always knew this was malarkey. I actively sought out to challenge these societal constructs, even as a young girl. Once I started writing for television in college, I can count how many times I have been told something like “girls aren’t funny” or “Girls just make better producers” on two hands, which is two hands too many. I wanted to explore different female ran or centered shows to see if these common held ideas about women in creative positions have any affect on the television being made. By applying production theory, women face challenges in the negotiations and production of television programs.

It takes a lot of people to create just one television show.  People coming from different levels of management converge with one another. They all have different perceptions on what needs to be done to make a successful television show, and they each have to find ways of dealing with each other to get the show finished. Production theory examines the relationships between all areas of television by taking examples in television and breaking them down into categories to analyze them (Theory Overview).

There are three basic levels of analysis within production theory: Macro-level, Micro-level, and mid-range criticisms (Vande Berg 259). Macro- level concerns the big picture such as the networks interacting together or a large company buying news channels. Micro-level involves individual television workers such as the writer, producer, or director. Finally there is mid-range, which deals with just one company or niche market (259).

It is important when studying production theory to take into account the influences within each level and how power roles affect attributes of production. It is impossible to complete a show without working with people from all levels of the business. Within every one show there is someone that holds the power to sway things for their agenda (265). It is interesting to see if the producer, advertiser, or CEO of the network, can all be from separate levels of production theory and may win any particular argument within. It all depends on the show and which one has more power (267-268).

Many people use this theory to delve into how television is made. Who has the power is very important to learn in doing this because it is the person with power that can shape the show greatly. Examining the inner workings of television though production theory can tell you who and where the information or entertainment is coming from and gives you a great appreciation of what all goes into making a television program.

This paper will use production theory to take a closer look at television shows that are run and shaped by women. This means I will look at individual women and examine how she deals with the other forces around her such as the network, director, and other workers on her television show. All these shows have been successful, but several are now cancelled. The act of cancellation alone shows that there has been some sort of conflict between the macro, micro, and mid-range personnel of the shows. I will also examine a show that is healthy and thriving to see why it’s doing so well based on production theory.

On the woman created show, Gilmore Girls, Amy Sherman-Palladino had to constantly parry threats against her job and her show from the network. Once one of the main characters graduated high school and entered college, there was a big question on what would happen in the show since the main story line is the mother and daughter relationship is now long distance. The ratings were slipping due to this change and other events in television that drew attention away. The head of the WB at the time seemed to have it out for the show. The cast and crew had the sense it was over. Sherman-Palladino was sure that if the show were not cancelled, she would surely be fired. Luckily, she had a plan for a big story for the series and a new network head eased the transition in story lines and the show regained its viewer ship (Shaw and Rice).

Later, at the end of the 6th season, Sherman-Palladino’s contract was up with the series (Adalian “Gilmore Exit” 24). There was a merger, turning the WB into the CW and the network was moving toward high-concept shows (Shaw and Rice). They wanted sexy thin super heroes, spies, or mean high schoolers, not a mother daughter duo. The cast’s contracts were up after the 7th season, so the network doubted the survival of the series (Shaw and Rice). The writers, which included Sherman-Palladino, wanted a two-year contract renewal, but the network was not planning on having the show around that much longer. So Amy Sherman-Palladino left her show after the 6th season when her and the network could not agree on a new deal (Adalian “Gilmore Exit” 24). One of the writers, David Rosenthal quickly replaced her to finish out the last season of the series. Since her departure from the series in 2006, Sherman-Palladino has tried to get several pilots picked up. They generated buzz, but none of them have worked out (Adalian “Gilmore Exit” 24). It was not until 2008 when The Return of Jezebel James was bought by the Fox network, but it ran for only one season (Adalian “Gilmore Lands at Fox” 2). She is currently working on a new untitled project with CBS (IMDB.com “Amy Sherman”).

Two shows that are a part of a larger franchise are CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and CSI: Miami. Women, Carol Mendelsohn and Ann Donahue, created both of these shows. In 2007 they signed a deal with CBS and Alliance Atlantis giving them around $12 million each over four years to continue working with these shows with an option to present new work (Adalian “Killer Coin for ‘CSI’ Czars” 40). This makes them some the highest paid women in the television industry (Adalian “Eye’s High on Femmes Behind ‘CSI’” 1). The productions of these shows seem to go off without a hitch and they are still among the most watched shows on television even after years of being on the air. They even branched off onto a third show, CSI: NY. The chairman of CBS, Les Moonves, calls it “the most successful franchise in television history” (Kotler A33). In interviews about the show, Mendelsohn and Donahue could not be happier about their success with the shows. They seem to have a strong rapport with all the levels of production. Les Moonves sees them as a crucial part of the overall quality of the show and is determined to keep them happy to continue with the show (Kotler A33). Concerning quality, the women both credit the writing as the most important aspect of the show and value the process of writing the show the most (Levine A6). CSI alone employs around 800 people and the ladies make it a mission to foster young talent. “It’s a collective, a family. Mentoring has always been the most important thing to us.” Mendelsohn says (Kotler A1). This gives the idea that these women ran shows are so successful because the women have great relationships with the mid-range and micro levels within their productions.

The last show I will be taking a look at is Roseanne. In this male created sitcom the principal actress, Roseanne Barr, has a lot of creative credit and has often been portrayed in a negative light for speaking out about her feelings on the production making process. Throughout the beginning of the series Barr had issues with the way her character was written in scripts. She had a clear visualization of the character that she had a big hand in conceptualizing, but thinks the writers do not hear the character’s voice the same as she does. This puts strains on the production because Roseanne often did not know her lines because she was dissatisfied with them. This eventually causes a main director to leave the show and other production problems (Mayerle). By Roseanne Barr’s account in her book My Lives it seems like these problems were there in the beginning. She says that both her and the head writer, Matt Williams, were told they were in control of the show by the producers Carsey-Werner. This automatically started a battle with two sides fighting each other for creative control. Barr had trouble gaining creative credit and felt that Williams was not writing her character the way she wanted (Barr). Williams and Barr continued to fight until Barr was able to fire him (Barr). In this situation, it seems Roseanne had the upper hand and was able to oust any opposition to her authority eventually. It seems most of the shows issues were within the micro level with some mid-range as Roseanne also had issue with how ABC president, Brandon Stoddard refused to help her (Barr). In an interview of Barr at the end of the ninth and final season, she reflects on the duration of the series. She speaks her honest opinion on what happened. She felt that ABC saw her show as a liability, but since if won the night in ratings they kept her around. Not without trying to hurt the show however, they changed the show time to 8 PM, when the show would have to compete with the younger, more “family” crowd. She realized this and made storylines more edgy (Rice). She gained more control of the show over time, gaining the executive producer credit. This gave her more control over the scripts than before. She was also able to have say in who would get rehired. She mentions getting the accusation for firing people, but really just let their contract stay un-renewed. She feels a lot of people blame her for not receiving credit (Rice). This seems to me that because she is the most vocal and demands the power, that people often blame her for her problems. Barr later goes on to make an observation on her impact on television, “Before I came along, there were all pretty negative messages about women. And then I turned it around. We could actually say positive things to and about women, those who buy products. That was revolutionary” (Rice). Part of the reason the show did so well was because it appealed to the large demographic of women. It seems to me the root of this problem is the shock of having a fully female show was to Matt Williams, other crewmembers, and the television landscape. Roseanne Barr’s harsh and uncompromising personality may have also attributed to it, but I find it hard to find evidence stating that this idea is not just nothing way of saying people are uncomfortable having a woman take charge.

I only mention the issues within women-driven shows. There is certainly an argument for male run shows having similar problems within production. Shows get canceled all the time because of ratings or time slot placements. Even men who run shows have to deal with network heads that do not like them or feel like they could be fired tomorrow. It’s a high stress job. Who is to say that the struggles the women have encountered on the shows I’ve discussed wouldn’t be the same if they were men? Great shows like Arrested Development and Freaks and Geeks have all been canceled and have had public problems with different levels of the production realm. The creator of Freaks and Geeks cites poor promotion and airdates as reasons for the network pulling the plug due to poor ratings (Schneider and Adalian). Although the counter claim has merits, the numbers do not lie. Women are devastatingly underrepresented in the television work force. Of the prime-time workforce alone women counted for only 27% of the workforce, although they can share similar production problems women are obviously less sought out or welcomed in television (Lauzen).

To sum up, I can conclude that the television industry has a lot of people dipping their hands in the production process. From Congress, the network head, to just your sitcom writer – they all play a role in what you watch on television. They also have a great deal of power over who gives you this television. Women ran shows are still rare occurrence and only rarely do the upper heads of the network admire them. They all have to fight for their jobs and sometimes the credit they deserve. With so few women in the industry, it seems like the male majority are not sure how to react to the ones who do make it to a higher position in their field. The women can be seen as incompetent, replaceable, or as mother figures of the production processes. There are many women who can be looked to as role models, but their male colleagues speak of so few with praise in regards to the shows I have selected. It is a competitive shark tank of a career I am entering.

Works Cited

Adalian, Josef, and Michael Schneider. “No Revenge of the Nerds.” Daily Variety [New York]. Print.

Adalian, Josef. “Eye’s High on Femmes behind CSI.” Daily Variety [New York and Los Angeles] 5 Sept. 2003: 19+. Print.

Adalian, Josef. “Gilmore Girl Heads for Exit.” Daily Variety [New York] 21 Apr. 2006: 1+. Print.

Adalian, Josef. “Gilmore Girl Lands at Fox.” Daily Variety [New York] 3 Aug. 2006: 2. Print.

Adalian, Josef. “Killer Coin for CSI Czars.” Daily Variety [New York] 26 Jan. 2007: 40+. Print.

“Amy Sherman – IMDb.” The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Web. 15 Dec. 2010. <http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0792371/>.

Arnold, Roseanne. My Lives. New York: Ballantine, 1994. Print.

Kotler, Steven. “Carol Mendelsohn and Ann Donhue.” Daily Variety [New York] 29 July 2005: A1+. Print.

Lauzen Ph.D, Martha M. “Women in Film and Television International – BOXED IN.” Women in Film and Television International – Homepage 0. 2009. Web. 15 Dec. 2010. <http://www.wifti.org/Highlight.cfm?mm_mmid=15>.

Levine, Stewart. “Csi Dynamic Duo.” Daily Variety 16 Nov. 2004: A6. Print.

Mayerle, Judine. “Roseanne – How Did You Get Inside My House? A Case Study of a Hit Blue-Collar Situation Comedy.” Journal of Popular Culture 24.4 (1991): 71-88. Print.

O’Donnell, Victoria. Television Criticism. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2007. Print.

Rice, Lynette. “Wrapping It Up With Roseanne.” Broadcasting & Cable 14 Apr. 1997: 28-32. Web.

Shaw, Jessica, and Lynette Rice. “Mother of Reinvention.” Entertainment Weekly 11 Feb. 2005. Web.

Vande, Berg Leah R. “10.” Critical Approaches to Television. [S.l.]: Allyn & Bacon, 2003. Print.

One thought on “Production Theory: Girl Style Now!

  1. Well-written article! My granddaughter works in TV and movie production in NYC. I’m sending this article to her–looking forward to her feedback. Great topic . . .
    Devin, your editing is impressive!

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