Women Leads on TV Decline As Networks Discover White Dudes in Crisis

The networks had made big strides in representation over the past few years; have they fallen behind on gender?
Fall 2017 TV: Fewer Female Leads As Guys in Mid-Life Crisis Take Over
START UP - ABC's "Start Up" stars Audyssie James as Soraya, Elisha Henig as Ben, Tiya Sircar as Rooni, Zach Braff as Alex, Hillary Anne Matthews as Deirdre and Michael Imperioli as Eddie. (ABC/Craig Sjodin)
ALEX, INC. - "Pilot" - Based on the podcast StartUp, Alex Schuman (Zach Braff, “Scrubs”) is a brilliant radio journalist, husband and father of two who is about to do something crazy---quit his job and start his own company. He quickly discovers it’s going to be a lot harder than he thought. (ABC/Elizabeth Fischer)AUDYSSIE JAMES, TIYA SIRCAR, ZACH BRAFF
ALEX, INC. - "Pilot" - Based on the podcast StartUp, Alex Schuman (Zach Braff, “Scrubs”) is a brilliant radio journalist, husband and father of two who is about to do something crazy---quit his job and start his own company. He quickly discovers it’s going to be a lot harder than he thought. (ABC/Elizabeth Fischer)ZACH BRAFF, TIYA SIRCAR
THE CROSSING - ABC’s "The Crossing" stars Sandrine Holt as Emma, Steve Zahn as Jude and Natalie Martinez as Reece. (ABC/Bob D'Amico)
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For the broadcast networks this fall, women need not apply. With a few notable exceptions — Kyra Sedgwick (ABC’s “Ten Days in the Valley”), Edie Falco (NBC’s “Law & Order: True Crime – The Menendez Murders”), and Anne Heche (NBC’s “The Brave”) — female leads are few and far between.

Networks announced fewer new shows this year, practicing a little restraint rather than buying too many that wind up as late-season castoffs. However, women-led shows were hit hardest: Of approximately 36 new series, just 11 have a first-billed female. Last year there were 41 new shows, of which 20 had a female lead.

LAW & ORDER TRUE CRIME: THE MENENDEZ MURDERS -- "Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders" Promo -- Pictured: (l-r) -- (Photo by: Justin Lubin/NBC)
Edie Falco stars in “Law & Order: True Crime – The Menendez Murders”Justin Lubin/NBC

Blame might go to a handful of trends on this year’s schedules: More military-themed dramas led by tough guys, a rise in male-dominated sci-fi and comic book shows, and a TV trend that IndieWire has dubbed “Dude-Life Crisis.”

This year, (mostly white) middle-aged guys at a crossroads are a phenomenon. Jason Ritter is a troubled man who has a spiritual awakening in ABC’s “The Gospel of Kevin;” Jack Cutmore-Scott is an illusionist who starts fighting crime in ABC’s “Deception;” Zach Braff upends his family to start a podcast business in ABC’s “Alex, Inc.;” Mark Feuerstein is stuck living between his parents and brother in CBS’ “9JKL;” Jay R. Ferguson upends his life to live like the Bible in CBS’ “By the Book;” and Bobby Moynihan reflects on his messy life in CBS’ “Me, Myself and I.”

Also: Jeremy Piven gives up his tech billions to solve crime in CBS’ “Wisdom of the Crowd;” Glenn Howerton is stuck teaching school when he doesn’t get the job he wants in NBC’s “A.P. Bio;” Anders Holm is stuck with a kid he never knew he had in NBC’s “Champions;” Josh Radnor looks for meaning by teaching theater in NBC’s “Rise”… you get the idea.

“It is disappointing to hear that there aren’t more new series being picked up with female leads,” said Kirsten Schaffer, Women in Film LA Executive Director. “Especially given all of the high-profile new shows with female leads on Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. However, we are excited about some of the shows that have been renewed for another season: ‘How to Get Away with Murder,’ ‘iZombie,’ ‘Jane the Virgin,’ ‘Supergirl,’ ‘Madam Secretary’ [and others].”

READ MORE: Network Pilot Season: Why Someone Needs to Kill This Outdated Practice For Good

Some networks are more guy-heavy than others, but CBS’ male gaze was duly noted at the network’s press breakfast Wednesday. CEO Leslie Moonves defended the network, noting that “more women watch CBS percentage-wise than any other network, so our shows have a lot of female appeal… We do a number of pilots, a lot of them have women in starring roles, and there are a lot of women on this schedule. The best pilots win at the end of the day. We think our track record is OK.”

And that’s the dirty secret of network TV: Women viewers watch series with male leads. It’s harder to convince men (particularly young men, who barely watch network TV at all) to tune into shows with female leads.

READ MORE: The 4 Worst New Fall TV Show Titles & How We’d Fix Them

Per a study by Variety, among next season’s new shows only 20% of lead actors were Hispanic or non-white, and only 35% were female, while just 10% of showrunners were non-white, and 29% were female.

TV has made great strides in recent years on diversity and many returning series reflect that trend, such as ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder” and The CW’s “Jane the Virgin,” just to name two.

But the rather disappointing makeup of the new fall TV series is a reminder that the industry needs to remain vigilant in maintaining more diverse representation – both in gender and ethnicity. This isn’t a matter of political correctness; failing to do so means primetime runs the risk of falling backward as streaming and cable continues to steal its thunder.

And that’s a Dude Life Crisis that the networks don’t need.

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