Neely Swanson is an adjunct professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. She was formerly SVP of Development for David E. Kelley Productions. For the 3rd year, this is from her Baseline blog:

Women Writing Pilots – Nice Work if You Can Get It

By the time you read this, the networks already have announced the pilots they are picking up to series from among the ninety or so that were produced this year for ABC, CBS, CW, FOX and NBC. Certainly the relative success that CBS had with its schedule, and the more limited slots FOX has available, influenced their rationale for picking up fewer pilots to production than ABC and NBC. This year, the CW ordered 8 pilots, up from 6 in years past, an increase of 33%. But more to the point, or the point for the last few years, is how did women fare in the process this year after a banner 2011? It fit the good news/bad news scenario, or if you prefer a food metaphor, it was sweet and sour.

Last year (2011 Much Better For Women Pilot Writers) was indeed an anomaly as compared to the horrendous example of 2010 (Women Can’t Create, White Men Can’t Jump). Overall in 2010 (comedy and drama combined), women, which the industry counts as women writing alone or with another woman or with a man, represented a mere 20% of the pilots picked up to production. That number soared to 35% in 2011, and the greatest gain overall, with the exception of CBS, was in comedy writing. Women, who had written a mere 16% of the 40 comedy pilots in 2010, were credited on 45% of the 40 comedy pilots written in 2011.

The percentage of pilots written by women in 2012 only fell 3%, to 32% of the overall pilots produced, still well above 2010, the year the bottom fell out. The CW continues to remain the high watermark with 50% of their pilots written by women (a number that has not changed in the last three years).

For purposes of analysis only, and as a concession to the so-called industry standard, women shall be considered as women writing singly, with another woman or with a man, although I have not made peace with a man and a woman equaling a woman, and I doubt that women and men agree with that assessment either.

As in years past, it’s interesting to look at the scorecard for each network and compare it to the previous year.

ABC, which had fewer pilots produced by women in 2011 than 2010, a clear anomaly, was back in a leadership position. 36% of their 25 pilots were written by women. Women writers at this network are still funny, having written 42% of the comedy pilots, and are reasonably serious as shown by their 31% representation on drama pilots. For the last 3 years, ABC has taken a leadership position in attempting to be gender-blind.

CBS, is a bit more problematic, having slipped back to 2010 numbers. Of the 17 pilots produced, only 24% had women writers. Breaking it down further, women wrote only 11% of the 9 comedy pilots and 38% of the 8 drama pilots, both of which represent significant declines from 2011 (-11% in comedy and -22% of dramas). CBS is the most successful of the broadcast networks and has a woman as its president, but this kind of backsliding was totally unexpected. If Chuck Lorre were writing all or most of their comedy pilots, that kind of number might be expected, but he’s not and the ones they picked up to production were some of the weakest comedies out there. It’s a good thing that CBS doesn’t need anything because it looks pretty much like they’ve got nothing new and viable going into the 2012-2013 season (with the exception of Golden Boy, a drama that may be too character-driven for their brand).

CW continues to be a leader, both in the quality of their pilots and how many are written by women (holding steady at 50% for the last three years). Always on the bubble as a viable network, the CW usually has the clearest vision of their brand in scripted programming. It is hoped that Mark Pedowitz will be able to find the magic necessary to keep the netlet afloat.

FOX, like CBS, belly flopped this year, regressing to numbers as bad, and in some cases worse, than those of 2010. Only 19% of their 16 pilots were written by women (18% of their 11 comedy pilots and 20% of their 5 drama pilots). This represents an overall decline of 17% from 2011 (including a -20% decline in comedies written by women and -13% of the dramas). Not only are they unwilling to accept that women can write the kind of fire-breathing, adrenaline-pumped action that they believe is their trademark, but despite evidence to the contrary, they don’t think women can write the gross-out adolescent comedy that they think they excel at. They are wrong on both counts. I presume they forgot that New Girl (their one new comedy hit) and Alcatraz were written by women. Unlike CBS, scripted success (outside of animation) has so far been elusive.

NBC, like in several years preceding, is, once again behind the eight ball and took a shotgun approach to pilot season, hoping that some of the pellets will stick. Even if, as in years past, the pellets don’t stick, they, like ABC, have shown little gender bias. Of their 24 pilots, 42% were written by women, essentially the same as last year; 46% of their 13 comedies (a decline of 12%) and 36% of their 11 dramas (an increase of 16%) were written by women. A true hodgepodge of choices, ranging from awful to pretty damn good, at some point their fortune will improve.

Overall, it wasn’t a bad year; certainly not as bad as others originally led me to believe. CBS was disappointing this year but, as a consolation, it is likely that very few pilots will be called up to the Show this year because they already have a deep bench (to misuse a couple of sports metaphors). It is FOX that is particularly troubling because they have neither the bench nor the originality to justify shutting out (again with the sports metaphor) an entire gender from the line-up (you see the trend). 20th Television, one of FOX’s primary suppliers, is definitely not to blame as they produced a total 16 pilots for all the networks, almost 50% of which were written by women.

Mulling the failure of CBS and FOX to adequately consider women writers as a source of creativity for their networks is a low point for the 2012-2013 pilot season. But there is a high point, even though it seems snarky, because this year, more than most in the past, women wrote pilots that were every bit as awful as the men. For the first time in recent memory, or at least in my reading of pilots, women were allowed to be as bad and as mediocre as the men and that is the best measure of progress. So onwards and upwards (or downwards as the case may be) and let’s keep an eye out for everyone. And, as has been asked many times in the past, WHAT ABOUT WRITERS OF COLOR?