Festivals TV

ATX TV Fest 2018: Why Does TV Matter? Panel

A crowd gathered in Trinity Hall on Saturday, just before noon, for a panel covering representation in television: race, gender, LGBTQ+, religion and more. Moderated by Lesley Goldberg, the West Coast TV Editor at “The Hollywood Reporter,” the panel consisted of Sarah Aubrey (Executive Vice President of Original Programming at TNT), Carolyn Newman (Supervising Vice President of Scripted Programming at eOne Television), Lauren Whitney (President of Television at Miramax), and Karey Burke (Executive Vice President of Programming & Development at Freeform).

L-R: Goldberg, Aubrey, Newman | Photo by: Jackie Ruth

Burke began discussions at the panel by noting that there is a sort of glass ceiling in the industry in which women often get to the Executive VP role, but rarely make it to the top spot in a company as President or CEO. She herself turned down that career track when she was younger, branding herself as a creative, and now regrets it.

Throughout the hour, the women repeatedly gave opinions and advice on breaking into the industry and working your way up within the system. Whitney suggested that the internet is a great resource in a number of ways, but primarily for creating and producing content that will be looked at by networks and studios who want new content and fresh perspectives. Newman added that people at all levels have contact information listed online, and getting in touch with people that way could be helpful when trying to pitch ideas as well. It can be difficult to pitch women’s stories to a room full of men, so connecting with both men and women in the decision-making change is a good idea too.

Burke spoke to her experiences at Freeform and the decision-making that takes place there, too. The network (formerly ABC Family) features a number of shows featuring female leads: “The Bold Type,” “10 Things I Hate About You,” “Grown-ish,” and “Siren,” among others. Perhaps more importantly, as Whitney points out, a number of their shows have women running, writing and producing these programs.

Goldberg also brought up with Burke that the panelist was in the room when Marta Kauffman and David Crane came up with the idea for “Friends.” But would a show like that look the same – straight and white – today? Burke doesn’t think so. Not only did the creators base the characters off of the people around them, but they also had some of the actors in mind when writing, like David Schwimmer and Lisa Kudrow. If this show were being made in 2018, Burke posits, there would be more consideration taken about race, sexual orientation, and other factors, in part because younger generations are more diverse (and/or open about identity) than they were in the 1990s.

Goldberg brought up Ellen’s coming out as a moment when she first saw herself represented on television in a groundbreaking moment and asked the panelists to think of other TV shows or moments that shocked them in terms of inclusion or representation. Burke brought up “The Fosters,” which was airing on ABC Family before she joined the company that was to become Freeform, but was part of her interest in becoming employed there. That show featured a wedding for an interracial lesbian couple and it was the first time such nuptials were shown on TV. Aubrey pointed to “Grey’s Anatomy” and its racially-diverse cast, particularly the fact that several high-ranking doctors on the show were black. Shonda Rhimes, the creator of “Grey’s Anatomy,” has continued to break boundaries on television, including featuring the first black female lead in 40 years with Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope (“Scandal”). Newman’s stand-out was “Transparent,” a show that featured actors, characters and narratives centering around trans identity – something that is still rare, years later.

L-R: Whitney, Burke | Photo by: Jackie Ruth

While it’s clear that we’ve made strides in providing inclusion and representation on television – and no matter what anyone says, that does matter – there is a long way to go. One audience member brought up the lack of body representation on TV without it being a shame or weight loss storyline. For each show that does well creating characters that the LGBTQ+ community, women, people of color, people with disabilities and other marginalized communities can connect with, there are a handful of others that don’t do such a great job at that. The panelists agree that changing the demographics at the studio level, casting level, writing level and more can help to remedy what’s lacking in our current TV landscape.

Featured image credit: Maggie Boyd/ATX TV Festival

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