On Tuesday night, E! debuted “Citizen Rose,” a five-part documentary series starring actress Rose McGowan, one of the most vocal advocates for the #MeToo movement since Harvey Weinstein’s downfall in October. She alleges Weinstein raped her at the Sundance Film Festival in 1997 (which he denies), and the series promises to reveal what happens when she goes “up against the Hollywood machine.”
McGowan’s show, which she was working on before the Weinstein allegations became public, is the first of its kind as the entertainment industry grapples how to handle the recent flood of sexual misconduct allegations against powerful figures. While scripted television such as “Law & Order: SVU” plans a Weinstein-inspired episode and late-night talk shows take serious turns to discuss accusations with their guests, it seems natural the nonfiction TV world would jump to produce content about this timely topic.
However, this week at the RealScreen Summit — an annual reality TV conference in Washington — some production company executives were skeptical about the future of nonfiction programming that looks at the cultural reckoning surrounding sexual harassment.
“In terms of pitches that you’re seeing . . . are you seeing anything that somehow reflective of this movement?” moderator Nicole Page, a New York-based attorney, asked the panel of executives and TV producers. “Are people talking about it in terms of content at all?”
There was a pause. “I think it’s hard. We’ve had our development team voice that we would like to do more female programming in different ways than we’ve seen before, but obviously we’re all kind of catering to what the audience wants,” said Laura Palumbo Johnson, co-owner of Magilla Entertainment. “But as we have these conversations and the collective mind-set shifts a bit, I think — and I hope — that those opportunities will open up and content will change more.”
In other words, even though #MeToo has become enough of a movement that “silence-breakers” were Time’s Person of the Year, if there’s a sense many viewers have little desire for programming about it, creators are going to stay away.
Jenny Daly, a former vice president of development at E! and founder of production company T Group, said she was curious to see how McGowan’s show fared; so far, she has seen few networks express interest in exploring similar subjects. After all, she said, many channels market to non-coastal viewers (or as she put it, people in “a Trump kind of environment”) who may not be as interested.
“I know when I’ve brought up other programming like that to speak to networks, [the reaction] has been ‘It won’t appeal to our middle America audience,'” Daly said.
Others agreed networks don’t want to alienate viewers by bringing up a controversial subject when it doesn’t naturally fit into its brand. Page theorized part of the problem might be #MeToo, in which people share stories of sexual harassment, isn’t an “equal opportunity movement” — while it has hit hard in the media and entertainment industries, it has not had as much of an impact in other places.
“People on the coasts are really engaged in this issue. I can’t go a day without having 17 conversations about it,” Page said, adding it might not be the same for people in the flyover (or “Trump based”) states. “It almost sounds like the networks who are programming to not the coasts are really going to shy away from this, because it’s not really — it hasn’t touched it there as much, maybe. I don’t know.”
William Morris Endeavor’s Maggie Pisacane, a partner in the alternative TV department, echoed that walking the line of topical programming vs. audience appeal will be a challenge for networks to handle. The conversation about sexual harassment isn’t dying down.
“I’ve seen a number of projects that tackle directly this issue of kind of like, what’s happening right now, what’s happening in the zeitgeist,” Pisacane said. However, she added, networks “want to kind of tap into the zeitgeist — but they also don’t want to be too on the nose.”
(This post has been updated.)