Last year, American studios and independent film companies produced about 400 features. In the same period, the three networks churned out more than 4,000 hours of prime-time programming alone. Wouldn't it be simpler for a woman to get a directing start in television?

The answer is no.

"It's actually easier for a woman or a man who is brand new to directing to get a feature film than a TV episode," Columbia Pictures TV President Barbara Corday says. "I see it happening with some frequency."

Gabrielle Beaumont, a director who works in both fields, explains why: "The most difficult thing in the world to direct is episodic television. You need incredible technical knowledge and absolute endurance to shoot 8-10 pages of script a day. On a feature, you usually shoot two pages a day."

Beaumont is talking about prime-time episodic television, an area where women directors are making slow but steady progress. Daytime television offers them slightly better opportunities, and public television hires many women directors. However, men direct almost all of the networks' movies and miniseries.

Why? Television is a producer's medium. The director isn't almighty here--the producer is. A TV director's job is difficult and challenging, but ultimately it is a job for a hired hand. "Generally speaking, in TV the director is the last major creative person hired," Corday explains.

"The project is in place, it's been picked up by the network, you're going forward. Who hires the director? The studio, the producer and the network all have their ideas. These three units generally make a committee decision, but the network has complete veto power."

Are the networks preventing women from directing? Yes and no. "There is no 'directors-approved' list as such that I know of," says CBS executive Tony Barr. "But each of our six program executives has his/her own feelings about directors they like and don't like. If they don't know a director, they will come to others for advice. It's really subjective."

"I don't think people make decisions on the basis of sex," Corday says, "but they want the best possible director for the project. That's where you get down to the nitty-gritty--the best in whose opinion? That's the most subjective conversation you can have."

If the studio or the producer is willing to fight for individual directors, those directors may well be approved. But someone has to stick his/her neck out.

Corday stuck hers out last year when she wanted Sharron Miller to direct "Pleasures." It would be Miller's first movie of the week. "Sharron was our suggestion," Corday says.

"We got the network and producers to approve her. I was familiar with her work from 'Cagney & Lacey,' which is a relatively prestigious credit." Corday co-created "Cagney & Lacey" and is married to the series' executive producer, Barney Rosenzweig.

Ten years ago, Norman Lear was credited with making a conscious effort to hire women directors. "We didn't go out of our way for women," insists Lear, who gave directing starts to Joan Darling ("First Love"), Kim Friedman ("Square Pegs"), Nessa Hyams ("Leader of the Band") and Marlena Laird ("General Hospital"). "We went out of our way for talent, and a lot of talent belongs to women."

Sensitive to the difficulties women directors have in establishing careers, Lear acknowledges that "women may have to be twice as good as men to get that first job. It's very hard for them to establish a first credit."

Among producers whose choices of directors include more women than the average are Doug Cramer and Aaron Spelling ("Dynasty," "Hotel"), Lindsay Law ("American Playhouse"), Gloria Monty ("General Hospital"), Barney Rosenzweig ("Cagney & Lacey"), Esther Shapiro ("Dynasty"), and Dan Wilcox ("Newhart"). Thanks to them, several dozen women are now directing TV on a fairly regular basis.

And a handful of them have even reached the stage where they can be selective about their work. "In TV, the most you can hope for is to pick what you do," director Ellen Falcon says. Falcon, 37, is the first, and so far only, woman to direct all episodes of a sitcom (CBS' "My Sister Sam"). She says that Warner Bros. TV offered her all 13 episodes of "Sister Sam," because of her direction of the successful pilot "Designing Women," one of several shows she's worked on.

"Things are certainly better than they were two years ago," emphasizes Nancy Malone, who directs on "Dynasty," "Hotel," "The Colbys" and "Starman." "But still when you walk on a set you get, 'Oh, a woman director,' as if they were two separate things. People have to get used to something new, and generally speaking, they're getting used to it."

Producers in Malone's specialty, one-hour dramatic series, are hiring more women to direct than ever before. "Cagney & Lacey," "Hill Street Blues," "Jack and Mike," "L.A. Law," "Simon & Simon" and "Scarecrow and Mrs. King" now use women directors at least occasionally.

These breakthroughs didn't just happen, though. Gabrielle Beaumont, who was nominated for an Emmy this year for an episode of "Hill Street Blues," remembers the difficulty she had getting herself considered for "Hill Street."

Even though she had lots of experience, she says, "I ended up writing a letter to the producers: 'Guys, you have to give me a meeting and look at my tapes.' I got my first gig because of my cheeky letter. That changed their minds."

Half-hour sitcoms sporadically provide opportunities to women directors. Some of these shows--such as "The Cosby Show," "Kate & Allie" and "My Sister Sam"--have just one director. Others--such as "227," "Newhart" and "Who's the Boss"--rotate the directing duties among four to seven people, occasionally including at least one woman.

Sometimes, the stars of the show decide they want to direct, so they negotiate for it. Linda Lavin, who directed 14 episodes of "Alice," recalls, "My first show was baptism by fire. The studio and executive producer weren't willing to take a chance on anyone without four-camera experience on this episode, but they had to take me. It was part of what the goodies were for me doing this series."

However, many series, both one-hour dramas and half-hour sitcoms, have never used a woman director. "There should be some way to ensure that a woman gets the same first opportunity that a man does," director Falcon says. "If a show has multiple directors, at least one of those directors should be a woman." So far, the DGA has been unable to convince all producers to follow this practice.

More progress has been made in the daytime soaps. M. J. McDonnell, who directs for "The Young and the Restless" and "The Guiding Light," estimates that women direct at least 25% of the episodes. "The shows are on five days a week so there are a lot of opportunities," she says.

The after-school special is another relatively open field for women. Joanna Lee, who has directed two movies of the week and two "Schoolbreak Specials" for CBS says, "After-school specials do sell on their own worth, but you get virtually no money for them. They are labors of love. Selling a TV movie is political."

Together, the networks make more than 100 movies a year. This year, women directed 5% of them. "TV movies should be an area where we take more chances," admits Steve White, who was NBC senior vice president of movies and miniseries before becoming president of production at New World Pictures. No woman directed a movie at NBC last season, and so far none has been signed to direct one this season, according to a spokeswoman.

In the past year, CBS has used one woman to direct a TV movie: Lee Grant ("Nobody's Child"). ABC has used four: Gwen Arner ("My Town"), Mollie Miller ("B.R.A.T. Patrol"), Sharron Miller ("Pleasures") and Claudia Weill ("Johnny Bull").

Why have women directors made so little impact here? "TV movies are a producer/writer medium," White emphasizes. "They have a tight budget and there's no seductive upside--none of this, 'Gee, this could earn $100 million.' 'The Burning Bed' got a 52 share, but there's no box office.

"Thus, producers tend to be nervous about picking inexperienced directors, even if they're more talented, because inexperience can mean cost. There is no such thing as a low-budget TV movie.

"I myself would rather not hire people who have already proven they can't do an exceptional job. But I often feel we operate like the inspector in 'Casablanca': 'Round up the usual suspects.' "

Miniseries are an even more exclusive club. "A few years ago, you could not find a woman director's name on a list for directors of potential miniseries," observes Christy Welker, vice president of novels and miniseries at ABC.

"Today you do see them. Women are now being considered on the merit of what they've done. That's a key breakthrough." Welker approved the only woman to direct an American miniseries to date: Karen Arthur's "Crossings" last season.

Public television is the one area in which women directors do find work with some ease.

"PBS has traditionally been more receptive to women directors," says Phyllis Geller, vice president of national productions at KCET. "It's the difference between commercially and non-commercially oriented institutions. We can choose people on talent, potential and quality. We don't have to look at bankability."

Geller OKed cinematographer Christine Burrill's directing debut on "Maricela," for "Wonderworks." "Chris brought in an idea we loved," she says. "I saw a short she made, and I knew she wasn't a neophyte on the set. If a producer has faith in a director who doesn't have a track record, then the two of them can get packaged together."

Lindsay Law, executive producer of PBS' "American Playhouse," operates more as a mini-studio head than a TV producer. He authorizes 20 movies a year, a number of which get a theatrical release first. Joyce Chopra ("Smooth Talk"), Nell Cox ("The Roommate"), Jill Godmilow (the upcoming "On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine") and Lynne Littman ("Testament") have worked for him.

"We're not trying to make sure a certain percentage of our programs are directed by women," Law says. "Because of our budgetary constraints, we have to have the kind of passion and commitment a first-time or nearly first-time director brings to a project."

Such directorial passion and commitment are much more likely to find a home in the film industry than in television.

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