Move over, mister: Women are rising as anchors, stars

Critical Eye

December 11, 2005|By DAVID ZURAWIK | DAVID ZURAWIK,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

What was being bemoaned (seemingly endlessly) by television industry analysts and critics as the end of the anchorman era, last week may have morphed into the dawning of the age of anchorwomen.

Last Monday, Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff were named replacements for the late Peter Jennings at the anchor desk of ABC World News Tonight. A few days later, NBC held a news conference in part to squelch rumors that its leading newswoman, Katie Couric, was considering jumping networks -- to be anchorwoman at CBS.

NBC's efforts convinced few. As has been widely reported, CBS determinedly is pursuing NBC's Today show co-host Couric to be solo anchor of its flagship nightly newscast, the CBS Evening News. If she accepts, her salary is expected to be $20 million annually -- $10 million more than is made by anyone else in network TV news. Only syndicated talk show host Oprah Winfrey, who owns and produces her program, takes home more.

In some ways, the past year has been a banner one for women on television -- even those who play fictional characters. An atypically large number of prime-time shows present women portraying strong, intelligent, often powerful characters -- and many of the series are finding an audience.

Commander in Chief, which features Oscar-winner Geena Davis as the first female president of the United States, is the highest-rated new series of the year, with a weekly audience of about 15 million viewers. More important in a society where money equals power, the drama is also No. 1 in upscale households (annual incomes of $50,000-plus).

As the TV season heads into Christmas break and the networks decide which freshman shows to keep, programs featuring women dominate the list of those getting the green light. CBS recently ordered a full season for Close to Home, starring Jennifer Finnigan as a Type-A prosecutor with a perfect conviction record and a new baby. The series consistently wins its Friday-night time period with an audience of 12 million viewers.

It is the same story at all four major networks and cable: Fox renewed Bones, a drama starring Emily Deschanel as a forensic anthropologist who writes best-sellers on the side. NBC is sticking with Surface, which features Lake Bell as an oceanographer and single mom. Both characters hold doctoral degrees in science and supervise teams of highly trained specialists -- making them figures of authority. Ditto on cable, where Kyra Sedgwick's Deputy Police Chief Brenda Johnson commands an elite unit of homicide investigators on TNT's new hit, The Closer.

Despite all the developments in recent weeks, the rise of women on network TV is not an overnight event. ABC, for example, made a business decision three years ago to create series with a strong female point of view to fill what network executives saw as a programming void, according to Francie Calfo, an ABC executive vice president involved in developing Desperate Housewives, Grey's Anatomy and Commander in Chief.

Desperate Housewives, with its sexually charged look at the secret lives of four suburban women, was the No. 1 show on television last week -- seen by 25.4 million viewers. ABC's Grey's Anatomy, starring Ellen Pompeo as the doctor daughter of a famous female surgeon, was the fifth-highest-rated show with an audience of 20.6 million.

The popularity of series like Grey's Anatomy and Commander in Chief, along with the prominence of newscasters like Vargas and Couric, is seen by some as a reflection of changing attitudes toward women.

"When we started the White House Project eight years ago, one of the things we felt is that we were moving into a period when women were going to be leading. And if you look at trends, that has actually started to happen both here and in other countries," says Marie C. Wilson, co-founder of Take Our Daughters to Work Day and president of the White House Project, a national and non-partisan organization dedicated to advancing women's leadership.

"You have real women who are being talked about as candidates for president in this country. You have women who have just run and won in Liberia and Germany. We have had eight to 12 years of women involved in foreign policy, the United Nations and national security -- as secretary of state. And it's not lost on the public that there are women dying in a war. One in seven people in Iraq is a woman, and because there are no front lines in this war, everybody who is over there is a soldier."

Wilson says such social change has helped "normalize" the idea of women in non-traditional roles -- women as corporate or national leaders or experts in matters of national security, economics and government. "The success of women in the last decade as governors, mayors, senators, secretaries of state and soldiers means that the country is more familiar with women in such roles and they aren't going to sit there when Elizabeth Vargas or Katie Couric reads a report about Iraq and say, 'Oh, my God, shouldn't she be talking about the weather?'"

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