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Fox's Kevin Reilly Gets Stumped

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Twice a year, critics, TV executives, writers and actors converge on the Television Critics Association Press Tour in Los Angeles. The critics and reporters are here to get interviews and attend panels on new and returning shows, and the actors, writers and executives are there to sell new programs and re-pitch the veteran fare.

At the summer tour, broadcast network executives and producers try very hard to put the best possible face on the fall shows, and the end result is that most panels are semi-scripted. The proceedings can become so predictable that it's rare for an executive to be caught flat-footed, but that's what happened at Monday's Fox executive session.

Kevin Reilly, the head of Fox entertainment, talked about various subjects -- the addition of Mariah Carey to "American Idol," the network's new comedy block, the decision to give "Fringe" a farewell season -- in a typically smooth manner. But when he was asked by critic Alyssa Rosenberg to address the network's unimpressive track record when it comes to hiring women as writers, executive producers and directors on Fox shows, he was flummoxed.

"I'm not certain how to answer your question," he said. "I've never really had that issue put to me before."

It was an honest answer, if nothing else.

These issues don't come up much during the TCA press tour, but I'm glad they did this time. We need to talk about who's creating, writing, directing and otherwise shepherding shows into existence, because if TV doesn't get continually replenished with fresh blood, new perspectives and different ideas, it will become stale, repetitive and less relevant.

In past stories, I've brought up the overall lack of diversity among directors, writer, producers and creators (as Rosenberg frequently has), not because I have an ax to grind against any network or executive, but because I love television, I want it to continue to evolve and I want the shows we watch to be as compelling, distinctive and varied as possible.

At a Fox party later Monday night, I handed Reilly a copy of the recent academic study which showed that Fox came dead last among networks when it came to employing women as directors, executive producers and writers, among other top-tier behind-the-scenes roles. (The study is fifth down here.)

In the midst of our brief discussion (which included other writers, Rosenberg among them), Reilly touched on one reason this problem is endemic: When it comes to hiring practices and diversity, the networks that air TV shows and the studios that make them pass the buck to each other.

"Below-the-line people, we don't even employ. It's usually the studios," Reilly said.

The definition of "below-the-line people" varies, but the term often refers to creative employees who aren't big stars or well-known creators. The important thing to note here is that TV networks often buy shows from studios, and thus appear to have no control over the majority of hires. So, even though the networks and studios are sometimes part of the same corporate entity, the separation gives both sides a way to deflect blame when dire stats come out -- that is, if they even pay attention to them at all. (Judging by Reilly's reaction on Monday, some don't.) It's one reason, among many, that the numbers haven't changed much: According to Writers Guild of America statistics, the percentage of women among working writers has remained well under 30 percent for more than a decade, and that of writers of color has never risen above 10 percent.

The end result of the network and studio buck-passing is that a network can make efforts to be more diverse in its hiring as a corporate entity (i.e., when it hires executives, assistants and other personnel), but still put shows on the air that aren't truly diverse when you look behind the scenes. On Monday, there was a panel for "The Mindy Project," which was created by "Office" writer/producer Mindy Kaling. The newly appointed showrunner/executive producer for her comedy is a guy, and the writers' room appears to be dominated by men. For a show about an OB/GYN who is obsessed with romantic comedies? Does that even make sense?

That's not to say everything is static; Rosenberg talked Monday to female showrunners who are trying hard to hire more women, and last year several networks, Fox among them, aired well-received shows created by women.

But having a few high-profile showrunners who don't fit the usual mold doesn't mean television's diversity problem has been solved. And I appreciate Reilly's efforts at his network, but I disagree with his apparent belief that having a diverse pool of network employees is a valid answer to the issue at hand, which is the disproportionate representation of white males among those who get to create, run and otherwise exert the most influence over TV shows. (Standard disclaimer: I'm a fan of white males, having married one and given birth to another.)

"We've made a lot of big strides even in the way we approach diversity, and I don't even like that term, because it feels like an initiative that's not part of the fabric of what you do," Reilly said. "But I can tell you when it specifically comes to women, I'm actually really not aware. In terms of gender balance, I think this industry is the most balanced of any industry."

It's not. The statistics on creative personnel bear this out.

As Ryan McGee wrote Monday, "Ultimately, It's not about bringing up the numbers to avoid being asked awkward questions at a TCA executive session. It's about raising the quality and variety of the stories being told on network television. Hiring more women won't automatically create an unimpeachable slew of new programs. But both networks and audiences will be surprised by how many stories they have yet to actually hear."

Agreed. I'm still not sure whether this topic is really and truly on any TV executive's radar, but I appreciate the fact that Reilly at least tried to talk about it. Having said that, it wasn't a subject we could realistically discuss at a crowded, loud cocktail party. As he said, "It's a much more complicated conversation ... We should have a much more cohesive discussion about it."

We should. I look forward to that talk.