Four years after leaving Seattle Grace Hospital, “Grey’s Anatomy” star Katherine Heigl is returning to the small screen with NBC’s much-hyped “State of Affairs.” It’s the latest in a long list of shows with one thing in common: strong, flawed and increasingly addictive female characters.
“I’m excited to play her every day I’m on set,” Heigl told TheWrap. “Men have long been the focus and now, with women in these roles, they are fresh, interesting and exciting stories to show.”
Heigl plays Charleston Tucker, a no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is former CIA agent whose job it is to brief the president on pressing national security threats. Alfre Woodard makes history as the first ever female African-American commander-in-chief on network TV.
Making matters sticky: Tucker’s former fiancé — and the president’s own son — was killed a year ago in Kabul.
As a result, Tucker falls into self-destructive behavior in her personal life, while still managing to kick terrorist butt during office hours. On the first episode, Tucker spends her evenings bed-hopping and getting drunk. In other words, she’s no June Cleaver. But, that might be the very reason audiences tune in.
“Women bring an emotion, a compassion and a level of vulnerability that is really important,” said Heigl. “I’m really pleased that women are in the spotlight now. It’s good for us, and also for our children, to see women as smart, intelligent and strong in their own right.”
No longer the bland and supportive wives to hardworking leading men, women are taking over primetime. Of the 23 new network shows this season, no fewer than seven are built around female leads: Téa Leoni on “Madam Secretary,” Viola Davis on “How To Get Away With Murder,” Kate Walsh on “Bad Judge,” Debra Messing‘s “The Mysteries of Laura,” Cristela Alonzo on “Cristela,” Gina Rodriquez’s “Jane the Virgin,” and Heigl on “State of Affiars.”
While not all of them hit it out of the park (NBC’s “Bad Judge” has already been disbarred), some — like CBS’s “Madam Secretary” and ABC’s “HTGAWM” — have become this season’s biggest breakout hits. NBC is hoping its new show strikes the same chord with female viewers, shamelessly promoting Heigl with the slogan: “All the President’s men are nothing compared to her.”
“It’s exciting,” Joe Carnahan, “State of Affairs” executive producer, told TheWrap. “Anytime you can get a star like Katie, it’s a slam dunk.”
More female-driven shows are already in the works. CBS is now betting its most lucrative brand on women. In May, the Tiffany Network announced it’s picking up yet another spinoff to its hugely popular “CSI” franchise. But instead focusing on a male lead, “CSI: Cyber” will be headed by Special Agent Avery Ryan, played by Patricia Arquette.
Executive Vice President of CBS Drama Series Development told TheWrap: “Ultimately we’re looking for good overall viewership. And while we can’t alienate men by any means, women control the remote. They lure in their husbands and boyfriends and brothers.”
CBS hit ratings gold with “The Good Wife,” starring Julianna Margulies, about the wife of a corrupt politician with a penchant for hookers. The show, loosely based on disgraced New York former governor Eliot Spitzer, has been one of CBS’s most successful dramas of the last decade.
While this season’s premiere didn’t do quite as well as the last — with a 1.3 rating in the advertisers’ highly-coveted 18-49 demographic – CBS isn’t complaining. The network’s “Madam Secretary,” starring Leoni, has exceeded expectations with a 2.0 in the adult demo and 14.7 million viewers overall.
“Leoni is just a force to be reckoned with,” said Davis. “It’s performing beautifully with ‘The Good Wife’ on Sunday nights.”
It all started with “Weeds'” Nancy Botwin. The unapologetic soccer mom turned drug dealer, played by Mary-Louise Parker, became such a hit, it put Showtime on the map. The show’s fourth season premiere drew in an impressive 1.3 million viewers, the channel’s highest-ever viewership until that point. The premium cable network soon followed up with “Nurse Jackie,” starring Edie Falco as a drug-addicted nurse and finally “Homeland,” yet another show built around a strong, yet flawed character — a CIA agent suffering from mental illness played by Claire Danes.
“For many years, broadcast TV certainly, offered a fairly unrealistic portrait of human behavior where people had to be likable rather than authentic,” Showtime’s executive vice president of Original Programming, Gary Levine, told TheWrap. “The networks have been trying to get in on the mojo of cable television, especially premium television.”
But while women have been inching towards equal representation on-camera, off-camera things look a lot less promising. According to a recent study by San Diego State University, women are still far less likely to be hired than their male counterparts.
In the past year, women accounted for only 27 percent of all executive producers, directors, editors, writers, and directors of photography working in broadcast. Only 14 percent of all series had a woman director and that, according to experts, can have a direct affect on what’s going on in front of the cameras.
In programs with at least one woman in charge, females made up 47 percent of all characters. On programs with no women creators, females accounted for only 39 percent.
And then, of course, there’s the whole issue of diversity. While the number of caucasian women on TV is certainly going in the right direction, when it comes to women of color, the outlook is grim.
A study by the University of California Los Angeles suggests that while diverse television shows tend to do better when it comes to ratings, the lion’s share of TV programming lacked diverse talent both in front of and behind the camera.
While minorities now represent 47 percent of the US population, among broadcast comedy and drama leads they were underrepresented by a factor of 7 to 1, as recently as 2012.
“At some point networks are going to realize that diversity sells,” UCLA sociology professor and author of the study, Dr. Darnell Hunt, told TheWrap. “Shows that on average do the best usually have anywhere from 30 to 40 percent diversity, which is pretty much what we see in the general population.”
As for Heigl, she’s hoping the television industry gets its affairs in order, and soon.
“Maybe one day it won’t be about whether it’s a male or female,” she said. “That would be incredible.”