In the new Saturday-night series “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” which premieres as a two-hour movie Friday night on CBS, Jane Seymour plays a New England doctor after the Civil War who prepares herself for the unknown when she moves her practice to a remote area of the Western frontier that has never seen a woman doctor.
“Medicine Woman” creator and executive producer Beth Sullivan has a pretty good idea of how the good doctor feels.
For all the significant, hard-fought advances that women have made in the wilds of Hollywood, a woman has never single-handedly created and executive-produced a network drama for prime-time television--even though the key demographic that network programmers generally target with such series are young women.
With the exception of Angela Lansbury, who was eventually awarded sole executive producer credit on “Murder, She Wrote,” all the one-hour dramas currently on the prime-time schedules of CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox are spearheaded by men or--in a few instances--a woman in partnership with men.
“I don’t know why it’s taken so long for a woman to get her own show,” said Sullivan, 43, sitting in her office on the Studio City lot of CBS Studios. “Perhaps it’s been hard to imagine that a woman can carry the load of a dramatic series. One-hour series are such a sprawling undertaking.”
Eleven episodes--plus the two-hour movie--of “Medicine Woman” were shot in Malibu Canyon last summer at a cost-effective $1 million per episode. CBS Productions put up the money for the series and initially wanted to bring in a more experienced executive producer to assist with the production.
But Sullivan fought for a chance to go at “Medicine Woman” alone. She had been steadily building her TV resume for 15 years, writing numerous TV movies, including “The Tracy Thurman Story,” and co-creating “The Trials of Rosie O’Neill” with Barney Rosenzweig.
“I always had to fight against a certain image,” said Sullivan, who became an early champion for women’s rights when she was a UCLA fine arts student in the 1970s. “If you see a picture of me on the set to this day, I go in baggy jeans and a big old overcoat and sunglasses and a cap that hides my blond hair. Because, unfortunately, I look like a Valley cheerleader. I mean, thank God I’ve gotten older, and it’s taken some of the edge off of that.”
The two-hour pilot for “Medicine Woman” tested higher in sample showings than any other series--drama, comedy or reality--in the history of CBS. At first, CBS executives had a hard time believing the numbers. After all, this was a standpat, family-appeal series reminiscent of “Little House on the Prairie.”
“When you get a high test you generally say, ‘OK, that’s nice.’ But it’s probably related mostly to the fact that you have a wonderful pilot with a great story, which does not indicate how good the series will be,” said Peter Tortorici, senior vice president of programming for CBS. “You treat that with with some degree of suspicion.
“We subsequently tested four episodes, and each one tested as high, and a couple tested higher than the pilot,” Tortorici said. “It told us that if we can get people to come watch the show, they will really enjoy the experience.”
“I’ve contended all along that good drama, comedic or tragic, is about catharsis,” Sullivan explained. “That’s what people are looking for. I think Hollywood has gotten bogged down, both in features and television, thinking that comedic or violent release is the only way to go. If someone dies and we’ve done our job properly, then you can care and weep and have a release just the same way you have a release with a belly laugh.”
In Sullivan, executives at CBS Productions believe they have found their own in-house producer who can deliver a steady supply of successful network programs, much in the way that Diane English (“Murphy Brown,” “Love and War”) and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason (“Designing Women,” “Evening Shade,” “Hearts Afire”) have done for CBS.
Sullivan would consider it quite an accomplishment to join their ranks. She said that women today still face an uphill battle in Hollywood not much different from what the fictional Dr. Quinn experienced a century ago.
“The character is extremely close to me. I conceived of her as: What would I do if I had lived in 1867?” Sullivan said. “Most of the issues we deal with have parallels today--like being a professional woman, trying to do that and do it fairly in a way you’re accepted without being bitter or pushy, or doing any of the negative things that people have come to associate with women who get ahead.”
Sullivan, who jokes about being the lowest-paid producer of a network series in Hollywood, has managed to cope with most of those issues.
“I believe I’ve finally, hopefully, matured to the point where I realize that my anger is justifiable in the sense that women today are earning less money than men for the same work,” she explained. “But I just got to a point where I had to personally channel that anger in a way that didn’t dissipate my energy, because it takes so much energy just to do this.
“The anger has to be channeled into something constructive. That doesn’t mean I don’t go home and complain to a friend or a shrink that, ‘Damn, it’s because I’m a woman that this happened,’ or ‘He never would have said that to a man.’ I still have my private moments of anguish.”
Despite her intimate connection with Dr. Quinn, Sullivan did not come up with the concept for “Medicine Woman.” Although she had been pitching projects to the networks for a long time, her character-driven ideas always seemed to lack the dramatic, commercial punch the networks wanted.
After being turned down for an original series she had pitched two years ago, the exasperated writer finally decided to take matters in her own hands.
Sullivan recalls: “I said, ‘Do me a favor. I don’t want to come and shoot in the dark. Give me some vague parameters of what you’re looking for, so that I don’t just keep spinning my wheels. I’m a little different. If you leave me to my own devices, I’m probably more likely to miss because I’m not going to come to you with the average series pitch. I just know I’m not. So give me me some hints. I’ll see if I can live with them.’ ”
The CBS movie “Sarah, Plain and Tall,” starring Glenn Close as a mail-order prairie bride, had just aired and pulled in phenomenal ratings. Tortorici and Jeff Sagansky, president of CBS Entertainment, suggested duplicating the concept as a series.
Fortunately, Sullivan loved the idea. After intensive research, she wrote the pilot, sold it to CBS, quit “Rosie O’Neill” and started her own production company to produce “Medicine Woman” as a series.
Both Sullivan and CBS have a lot riding on “Medicine Woman.” Tortorici describes the drama as a family beacon that he hopes will lead TV viewers back to CBS on Saturday nights, when prime-time network viewing has sunk the lowest. What’s more, the whole practice of pre-testing TV shows to measure viewer interest may come under serious scrutiny if the network’s highest-testing series fails to produce ratings.
For her part, Sullivan remains confident. “I think there’s a place for shows that are wonderful and quirky,” she said, “but there’s also a place for this kind of programming, which some people might think of as old-fashioned or even a bit corny by today’s standards.”