Following on from her work with Comedy 50:50, an initiative to address the gender imbalance in comedy, our Controller for Comedy, Saskia Schuster, has changed the terms of our Social Partnership Commissioning Commitments, stating that writing teams must aim towards 50:50 gender representation. Productions now require commissioner sign off on the makeup of their writing teams. In returning scripted commissions the production must demonstrate best endeavours to include female writers in the writing room. This last point could be achieved by commissioning female writers for a gag pass or commissioning a couple of episodes of a returning series from female writers. There are many ways of bringing female writers onto a production that are part of the existing production process.
With this in mind, Saskia has confirmed that she will no longer commission any show with an all-male writing team. The new commitment aims for inclusivity and diversity of voices and given that a lot of scripted comedy is written by male writing duos, there’s a need to maintain and creatively support their voices whilst still advancing gender balance.
She decided to take action after conducting an audit on her commissioned comedy entertainment and scripted comedy shows. Although the producers she was working with had achieved good on-screen representation, writing teams for comedy entertainment shows were predominantly all male and for scripted comedy, there was still the issue that for every five scripts sent to her by a man, she would receive just one by a woman.
She also found out that female writers were often disadvantaged because male writers already had more writing credits since comedy has traditionally been so male-dominated, and therefore female writers found it hard to be employed in the writing room. Producers didn’t know how to expand their network of female writers. And writers found it hard to get meetings with production companies (due to lack of credits) and couldn’t expand the range of producers they were working with, often to the detriment of the development of their work.
For this reason, Schuster created a database of female writers for producers to access free of charge. There are over 500 scripted and unscripted writers on the database. She holds regular events with talks and panel discussions, focussed networking and introductory meetings between writers, producers and agents, as well as setting up shadowing schemes for those who want to experience the writing room without the pressure of feeling the need to contribute. Comedy 50:50 has also just announced its mentoring scheme, together with ScreenSkills. One of our members who is an agent is starting monthly surgeries to give help, advice and feedback to unrepresented writers. Last month saw the launch of The Female Pilots Club, where uncommissioned pilot scripts are performed to an audience of industry professionals and members of the public. The cast included Tracey Ann Oberman, Arabella Weir, Robert Webb, Anna Crilly and Lucy Porter.
At ITV we foster creativity by embracing diversity. That’s why we aim to reflect modern Britain on-screen in our programmes and services, and behind-the-screens in our workforce. This commitment applies to our entire programme schedule, but it’s important to focus our efforts where we know there’s greater imbalance and we can have the greatest impact.
To create change, sometimes it’s necessary to force a change, which is why I adjusted my terms of commission. Following this, my conversations with producers around writers immediately changed and we’ve seen that translate to our productions. The tone of Comedy 50:50 is absolutely about inclusivity and respect. We want to bring diverse voices together through the written word, casting, and behind the camera; our productions should aim to represent the world we experience. Diverse voices, in my view, leads to more interesting characters and stories, a wider range of jokes, better shows. Whilst everything we do aims to have a practical value, Comedy 50:50 also sets out to inspire. Confidence is a big hindrance to progress, and this is something we are trying to address through our shadowing and mentoring schemes. Writing is a solitary occupation, and off the back of our various events, our members have formed support groups where they share their writing and get feedback and encouragement from their peers. We have a podcast This Is Your Laugh coming soon which features successful women in comedy like Dawn French, Cariad Lloyd, Susan Wokoma and Daisy Haggard talking about how comedy has influenced their lives. Everything we do at Comedy 50:50 aims to advance gender balance in comedy; the starting point has been to focus on writers but we will be focussing on directors and crew as the next stage. Saskia Schuster, Controller of ITV Comedy and Founder of Comedy 50:50