Perspectives: Beth Sullivan
Photo by Peter Kredenser
(From the July '94 issue of "Written By")

I always wanted to be so many different things. I suppose that's why I ended up being a writer. I went to UCLA, first into Anthropology, then into the Film Department because I wanted to make documentaries-ethnographic documentaries. However, I found the mainstream film department much more appealing because my imagination was so stimulated by fiction.

By the time I really felt confident about my writing skills, Star Wars and similar films burst on the scene and the kinds of movies I was interested in writing weren't the ones going into theaters. Instead, I gravitated toward the issue-oriented made-for-TV films. I wrote a lot of them, and then I got into one-hour dramas through Barney Rosenzweig and The Trials of Rosie O'Neill.

Then came Dr. Quinn. I'm told I'm the first woman to create and sole-executive-produce a successful one-hour drama series, but in fact, there were a couple of women who created and executive-produced one-hour dramas some years ago. Those were the great women, the pioneers. They really were up against it.

Of course, I was told these things after the fact, but at the time I started to develop Dr. Quinn, I did not realize what a male bastion one-hour dramas were, nor how difficult it was to convince people I could do it. But I'm sitting here, so I convinced someone, and those "someones" were men and they did say yes. But I do believe they said yes with more reluctance than if I had been a guy with the exact same credits. Actually, my hat is off to anybody who sole-executive-produces an hourly series, let alone a woman who does it. The job is difficult, period. After all, it's not just being a woman that makes executive producing difficult. That part of me that tends toward being contemplative, being a writer, living that rich internal life isn't always matched up with the thinking that enables me to run a large-scale business. I sometimes kick myself and think it's both a blessing and curse to be able to have these two talents equally. It's a difficult balancing act. A lot of writers aren't cut out for it, and I know many wonderful writers at the top of my list who will sit and say, "I wouldn't produce my own work if you paid me! It's such a horrible nightmare."

It would be better if there were more women executives at the networks, but my real challenge in the beginning was to find those wonderful, key supportive people who made a huge difference in helping to mentor and nurture what I was doing. I truly received a lot of support in the process of making this series from all the levels at the network. At the executive level, from assistants, from people in publicity and promotion, and yes, I did get a lot of support from a lot of very generous women.

Talent and How to Judge It. It's funny. Now I'm in a position where I have to hire people or fire people and, in making those judgments, I do ultimately have to judge people on whether they can do the job. That decision has to be genderless, but I believe there are other women who can do what I do, and yes, if there were more women involved at executive levels, there would be at least a few more women doing what I'm doing.

Issues in Content. TV appeals to me most as a mass communication medium. In the midst of good storytelling, I can say a lot of very important things and communicate them to a lot of people. We are seen every week around the world in seventy-five countries by more people than will see most anything made on film. We have a huge responsibility, but a huge opportunity at the same time. So it has always been my intention to deal with certain women's issues specifically-and for me, that really means human issues.

I feel, like any writer, that I express myself through the characters I've written-even male leads. Dr. Quinn best represents my attempt to get at those more human issues, to say things to people that elevate and enlighten, that reinforce good qualities and values, that inspire and give people someone to emulate.

Once I got the pilot deal to write Dr. Quinn, I began by grounding myself in history, which I loved anyway, and I knew the period I wanted was post-Civil War. There were communes, the first woman ran for President, the abolitionist movement blossomed in support of many other progressive issues. It was a very volatile period in terms of ethnic groups and economics and politics. And the feminist movement was very, very active. Women were angry because they thought they'd get the vote but were denied it! So the period was the germ and then, from there, I began to piece other things together. I had very seriously considered being a doctor. After more research I knew I also wanted to bring into play Native American issues which paralleled things going on today with other ethnic and racial groups around the world. Obviously I tapped into many other things many people are feeling globally-a collective consciousness I didn't expect.

I wanted as wide an audience as possible, and I have always admired the work of any filmmaker, such as Chaplin, who could make films that appealed on all levels, that satisfy a sophisticated, intelligent adult and at the same time entertain a child that sits side-by-side with the adult and gets very different things from the same program. We took great care, I especially took great care, in the pilot, to establish all the people as they were, full-blown, with their prejudices, with their weaknesses, with their flaws, and that they are a community we are going to embrace. My intention was to try to show a community of people who could, in spite of their differences, pull together, which is, after all, such an appealing message. I had no idea how appealing.

The fact that the show is so popular in the rest of the world proves that community is the key element. The idea of a group which can't agree on everything being able to still unite around certain basic human moments and issues-that's a very uplifting and inspiring and, I hope, positive influence for people.

Dr. Quinn's Character. Another key element to the show is our attempts to maintain balance-our hero is an outsider, she is of a different class, a different world, a different educational status-and we must always be sure to knock her off her soap box, to make sure that being right doesn't mean she's always right.

Dr. Quinn comes equipped with knowledge that none of the other people have, and yet it's not knowledge that necessarily solves the problems of learning to live together. When she comes close to preaching or proselytizing, we always make sure somebody else says, "Ah, shut up! Don't come in here and tell us how to live. We've been livin' long before you got here."

We want Dr. Quinn to have respect for the people she deals with and not talk down to them. Her vulnerability and respect for those around her contribute to the two essential elements of the show: a sense of possibilities about the sort of community that can be realized, and the sense that an individual's accomplishments can make a difference. Those are my two driving thoughts.

Creative Women and The Business. All creative people, not just women, are going to have to keep fighting. We have to fight for our visions and ideas. Of course we all know that because we've had to fight from day one. And I know fighting is harder at some moments in time. I suppose the Dark Ages were harder than the Renaissance, but the main struggle is not to be co-opted, not to be thrown off track, and to keep our vision intact. I know it's hard for everybody. And it is particularly difficult for women right now. Just as society seemed to be gaining some consciousness of women's dilemmas, there has been a backlash against whatever gains were made. The truth is, we have some ground to gain back, and we still have a long way to go.

On my crew, everyone is respected equally by me, from the craft-service people to the star. I really try to promote mutual respect, and I luckily work with a very good bunch of people who seem to feel the same way. We know we couldn't succeed without each other. If everyone would live their life that way and really feel it, wouldn't this be a nice world?

And that dream should apply to all our activities. Not every woman has to be a career woman. I admire greatly one of the most underrated careers-motherhood, and believe that to do it well, to do it effectively, to raise healthy individuals who are able go out and succeed in the world, is an extremely demanding and challenging job. Women are not only going to have a harder time in this business, they're going to have a harder time in every business. And yes, it is going to be more difficult for us than for men. But, I repeat, it's going to be harder for everybody just to keep with their vision of a better world. As issues become more and more globalized, and the more the profit motive dictates events, just staying creative and keeping sight of creative challenges is struggle enough.

Copyright ©1994 Writer's Guild of America

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The First Time I got Paid for It -- Writers' Tales from the Hollywood Trenches

Beth Sullivan

The first time I truly understood the love/hate relationship that the television business has with its viewers was in a testing session of an episode of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. For anyone who has not experienced spying on a "focus group," it consists of network representatives and the producers of a show sitting behind a two-way mirror and observing a roomful of people ("J.Q. Public") watch, rate and then discuss their opinions of the show just screened for them. It has a creepy, "big brother" feel to it, despite knowing that the viewers, their name cards in front of them, are entirely aware of your presence on the other side of the mirror.

In one of these session, an all-male group was viewing a particularly serious, particularly female-themed episode in which Dr. Quinn herself miscarries a child and, in the absence of Sully, tries to carry the burden of the loss alone, finally realizing that she must turn to others for help. (An Old West debunking of the "Superwoman" myth.) Anyway, I found myself putting my feet up and saying, "These guys are going to *hate* this." Sure enough, I thought, look at all the shifting in their seats, the casual getting up to get a beverage. One guy must have gotten up three times to pour himself some more coffee, his back to the screen. I glanced down at the profile sheet to see who he was. "Mike," a carpenter by trade. To my utter shame forever, I (from working-class families on both sides) made the smart-assed prediction that "Mike" is going to give us a "0." He probably didn't make it to algebra, so at least we're safe from negative numbers.

The episode ended, and the moderator asked the men to write on their cards how they'd rate the episode and to display them. The moderator always starts with the highest rating and asks what the person liked, etc. to get the discussion rolling and to embolden those who disagree to formulate their thoughts. Well, to my shock and amazement "Mike" had put a big fat "10" next to his name card, the only member of the group to do so, the others averaging a still surprising "7"-"8". But "10" from *Mike*? "So, Mike," the moderator began, "you really liked the show. What did you like about it?" Mike took a sip of coffee, choosing his words, then said quietly, matter-of-factly, "I like that it makes you think and feel deeply about things that are important." I was stunned and humbled and also appalled that I let myself get caught up in that facile Hollywood disdain for the audience in an effort to protect my feelings from being hurt by the criticism I expected. It was the first time I was forced to realize that, perhaps, all those other people in the business, whom *I* criticize for underestimating the audience, might actually be doing so for precisely the same simple emotional reason--to protect *their* feelings from being hurt.

Okay, okay, enough psychology and compassion. Back to the point. Ethically speaking, those "unwashed masses," those "people we fly over," are the hardworking, deep-feeling people who make this country run. They must *never* be underestimated. Most of us in this business are but a measure away in talent or hustle from precisely who "they" are. We may afford different restaurants, clothes, and cars, but we all eat, get dressed, and drive to work. We all talk about the same economy, the same Saddam Hussein, and the same president's cigar proclivities. And most of us get our news from our local paper, Time magazine and CNN. The culture of information has a common denominator unequaled in history, due to retail homogenization, mass media and the Internet. "They," in fact, are a diverse, complex and, yes, sophisticated audience that deserves to be heard and responded to.

Pragmatically speaking, it's just plain bad business to underestimate the American television audience. It leads to second-guessing what "they" want, when they're more than willing to tell you. It's even worse business to jump on the bandwagon of every passing theory of commercial sponsorship as to *who* the audience *really* is. The latest theory from the whiz kids of the Madison Avenue ad agencies is that the only viewers truly susceptible to having their buying habits influenced are young, urban
males. (Well, they have to tell their clients *something* to justify their link in the food chain.) The reality, of course, is that aiming
programming only at young urban males (even if the theory was valid) is to alienate the vast majority of Americans turning on their television sets and trying to find something that speaks to *their* hearts and minds. In such a sprawling and diverse population as the United States, this seems like such common sense that one wonders why it even needs to be stated. However, one look at the disastrous fatality rate of new shows each season makes one think it should be shouted from every window. American viewers are "mad as hell" and they've proved they're "not going to take it anymore."

In the last decade alone, the networks have lost another 33 percent of their former viewers. Nothing seems to be being learned, because everything is being dealt with at the development and programming levels rather than listening and responding to the very audience sought after. There's a lot of hoopla made over testing and Nielsens, but there's not much stock put in their results. Network execs have mixed feelings, to say the least, about testing, because of the shows that wind up contradicting the predictions. No responsibility is ever taken for how those shows are publicized, promoted or placed (or even worse, moved around) on the schedule. And the Nielsen ratings are praised or damned, depending on whether the numbers are favorable to the show in question. (A better means of measuring the viewing habits of one hundred million people is needed, and the Nielsens are rightly under fire as they face the Y2K.)

However, there are plenty of other sources from which to derive a more accurate concept of what viewers want. A recent Temple University study, commissioned by SAG, documented how dismally prime-time television underrepresents and misrepresents huge segments of the population, including women, Hispanics, Asian-Pacific and Native Americans, the disabled and seniors (that now includes anyone over 49). To paraphrase former SAG president Richard Masur, there's a large gap between the fictional world created for television and the real-world audience that watches those fictional creations.

How many "flukes" such as Murder, She Wrote, Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman, Ally McBeal or Providence do there have to be before networks stop making pronouncements about the viability of "single female lead" series? The same goes for any other category, such as pronouncing sitcoms dead...until they weren't, until a quality show (Cosby) came along that touched the audience beyond the level of phony laugh tracks. Then drama was dead...until it wasn't. (Even Saturday night was dead...until it
wasn't.) When will programming be based purely on the quality of a series? And when will one of the main criteria for quality be to "think and feel deeply about things that are important"? Because that's what the American audience wants.

Beth Sullivan, the creator and executive producer of the hit television series Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, is a past member of the Writers Guild of America, West, Board of Directors and a former trustee of the Writers Guild Foundation.

Copyright ©2000 Writer's Guild of America

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