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When The TV Industry Doesn't Reflect Its Audience, Critics Ask The Tough Questions


Twice a year, TV critics and TV networks - not always the best of friends - get together to talk about the new season and what's on offer. It began last week, and it's called the Television Critics Association Press Tour. And it's often an opportunity for TV critics to ask tough questions of executives. So we thought it was a good time to check in with a TV critic who's been outspoken with executives on a number of issues. Maureen Ryan is the chief TV critic for Variety, and she's on the tour right now. She joins me from LA. Thanks for being with us.

MAUREEN RYAN: Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So interestingly, this time around three of the four biggest broadcast networks - ABC, CBS, NBC - aren't giving journalists access to executives. Why?

RYAN: Well, there's two answers to that question. One of them is the TV networks' answer, which is that they just have so much great new programming to present to us that they don't have time for their executives to come up and take questions from the crowd. And I think it's a mistake. And I think that the perception among many people, including myself, is that there's something evasive about it. And what confirmed that for me was that the Big Four said that they weren't doing executive sessions and then Fox broke away after some outcry and said that they would put their chief executives out there.

But, you know, I think regardless of what the reasoning is and regardless of what - who has said what, I think the fact is is that, you know, we're in this tremendously unsettled time in our political and social culture. And so why wouldn't you want to, you know, just have something to say or have that conversation with the media?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let me ask you, though, you - not getting the opportunity with these executives, what would you have asked?

RYAN: Well, that's a great question. I mean, I would've asked NBC, how do you think that NBC News' reporting is affected by the fact that a sitting president in a few days will have an executive producer credit on an ongoing basis on one of your TV shows? Is that something that you think is appropriate? And if so, why? You know, I think that would've been my big one for NBC. And I can think of 20 more around that, you know, that I think most journalists could sort of riff on that whole concept.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to turn to an issue that you wrote about recently - rape on TV. Over the past few years, there's been a growing critique of the, you know, gratuitous use of sexual assault as a sort of plot point, if you think of "Game Of Thrones," "Westworld," "Rescue Me." Do you think that this is a problem that is being addressed?

RYAN: I think partly. But I think that there are massive commercial pressures right now to make your show stand out, to make it different, to give it buzz, to give it some kind of heat. So there's this perception - and I don't think that it's true that that kind of wrenching darkness and graphic and violent fare will get people's attention. And I think to some degree, "The Walking Dead" and "Game Of Thrones" are driving this.

As far as many executives are concerned - and I don't think that they're necessarily wrong - you have one episode to grab people. One way that you can basically press a button in people's brain and get them into that place of agitation and/or interest is to assault or kill a woman.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You've interviewed a number of these showrunners, these writers. I mean, what did you discover?

RYAN: Well, I think over the years my - a lot of my reported pieces have become more statistics-driven because I think that the stats really tell the tale. You know, we did an article last summer on new shows for broadcast network TV for the season that we're in now. Ninety percent of the showrunners were white and 80 percent of them were male. And so the problem is that you're not getting a fair cross-section of, you know, human kind.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the things that I found interesting is many of the female writers you spoke to in your reporting about this issue wouldn't go on the record. The male writers did, but the women didn't. Do you think that's indicative of the environment in the writers' room?

RYAN: Yes. Hollywood and especially the TV industry is an incredibly hierarchical place, and the showrunner is not running a democracy. There's very little upside to someone who is below the showrunner's rank speaking up. And what I find again and again is that I really take my hat off to men and women of color and women who actually fight these tropes in the room because every time you open your mouth for whatever reason to contradict the showrunner, you're taking your career in your hands.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think the conversation's having an impact, though, the fact that these issues are being brought up again and again?

RYAN: I really do. And I think that more showrunners are aware that they need to have a diverse array of people around their tables, more executives are aware that they need to have an array of showrunners that reflects a cross-section of American life. And that's really where a lot of this happens, is that at the executive level, who are you hiring as showrunners? Who are you promoting? Whose careers are you fostering?

And then if you are the showrunner, are you listening to the people around that table? Are you taking them seriously? Are you not dismissing them? And I think one role that the TV critic can have is essentially pressuring people to take seriously these issues when they come up on the set, in the writers' room or amongst these writers.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Maureen Ryan, chief TV critic for Variety. Thanks so much for being with us.

RYAN: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.