SXSW: Lessons Australian TV Should Learn From The US Experience

SXSW: Lessons Australian TV Should Learn From The US Experience

An informal and Candid Conversation with female leaders in television with Sarah Aubrey (EVP of TNT Programming) Janine Sherman Barrois (EP Warner Bros) Dakota Fanning (Actor), Tonya Lewis Lee (producer and cofounder Tonik Productions) and Amy Powell (President Paramount Television)

A panel of high profile executives and actors tell all on surviving the past 10 years in a white male world. Surprising and inspiring were the examples of positive stories about male colleagues that supported their ambitions. It was indeed a revealing and interesting angle on what has been up until now, (and rightly so of course) a conversation that unearthed a myriad of inequities and discrimination by men in power.

What has been lost in the noise have been the positive narrative of men and male bosses who have supported and encouraged women in their teams to flourish.  Despite equally devastating stories that were told – the overriding one being “you had to pretend like you don’t have kids” , the audience was left feeling a sense of hope that change was happening.

It is indeed a very rare business to have more than one woman on a team running a TV show, and as this has started to become more common, it has literally created a massive commercial opportunity for diverse audiences to connect to characters that represented their experiences , hopes dreams and fears. That entertained them as well as moved them the way great art and entertainment can.

Back home, given the recent Lisa Wilkinson pay fiasco, and Jessica Rowe leaving Network 10 to spend more time with the family, The lessons for Australian Television executives are relevant.

The four key lessons:

  1. Don’t ask what current salary is to any potential new hire. A new law in California has had a profound effect on pay parity by preventing studio bosses from asking what the actors or staff behind the scenes last quote was (how much did they earn). In practice, everyone gets the same contract and then it’s a matter of negotiation. This has had a significant impact on the salaries being equalised over the past year or so.
  2. Develop your talent by sending them on the trips/assignments you don’t have to do. Both Sarah Aubrey and Amy Powell, with young children, worked collaboratively to work out a way to minimise overseas travel for the hugely successful Alienist (a show set in 1896, when the first woman, played by Dakota Fanning, joined the New York Police department. They worked out a way to avoid a number of trips, in agreement with each other, and sent more junior members of the team to do the work overseas. The positive outcome of that was they were building a talent pipeline for the future by enabling more junior women and men to get firsthand experience and they were still able to send time with their families.
  3. Hire for potential, not just experience. As there has been many years of systemic and unconscious discrimination, identify key skills that can be demonstrated in ways other than direct work experience. Sherman-Barrois had never directed before and as an accomplished writer didn’t think she could and was encouraged to with great success. Likewise, Amy Powell had no TV experience but her male bosses were 100% supportive and enabled her to thrive by offering her opportunities.
  4. Notice the subtle ways women and other groups may be excluded. Dakota Fanning’s manager insisted that Fanning was part of the marketing collateral for Alienist, along with the two key male actors. The marketing team resisted being confined “creatively” but it was a deal breaker for Fanning and therefore the collateral had to include her in the marketing. Not an unreasonable request given the whole series was about the first woman to join the NYC Police department!

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