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June 19, 2018

Wonder Women

Opportunity and inclusivity define Women in Television Summit.

Libby Slate
  • Television Academy Foundation Executive Director Jodi Delaney and Foundation Chair Madeline Di Nonno

    Invision
  • Nina Tassler

    invision
  • Felicity Huffman

    Invision
  • Tanya Saracho

Sometimes, what seems to be a failure really isn't.

Rather, it's an opportunity to take a different path in life that can be personally and professionally rewarding.

For Nina Tassler, who rose to chairman of CBS Entertainment before leaving in 2015 to become an independent producer, her own life story makes this very point. Headlining the first session of the inaugural Women in Television Summit, she said her story is one of "pivoting, being nimble. And it's about embracing failure and looking at options that you may not have considered before."

That's because after college graduation, Tassler thought she'd take New York by storm as a stage actress. "But that didn't happen," she said. "What happened was an opportunity to work behind the scenes at a regional theater in Manhattan. I was learning to do everything involved with community theater. I was curious, I was engaged, and I realized, 'These are skills I'm going to need at some point in my life.'"

Indeed, when Tassler moved to L.A. at her husband's behest, she got an entry-level job at an agency through her college roommate, Geena Davis (another opportunity she hadn't considered), and later realized she enjoyed development. She subsequently landed a job at Lorimar Television with Leslie Moonves, then moved with him to CBS. She's now co-founder of PatMa Productions with Denise Di Novi.

Some 300 industry members, including some men, gathered May 21 at the Television Academy's Saban Media Center in North Hollywood for the summit, a daylong series of discussions presented by Women in Entertainment in partnership with the Television Academy Foundation.

Offerings focused on success stories, overcoming obstacles and inclusivity. Included were two sessions hosted by the foundation as part of its Power of TV initiative: Tassler's appearance and an afternoon conversation with Emmy-winning actress Felicity Huffman.

A foundation board member, Tassler was interviewed by board chair Madeline Di Nonno, CEO of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Her production company infrastructure is "lean and mean," Tassler said — small enough to allow for personal involvement in every aspect; she and Di Novi are setting up projects on various platforms.

Tassler pointed to an emerging production trend that she believes is beneficial for the industry: production companies that reflect their founders' personal goals and their definition of storytelling.

She and Di Novi are looking for female-centric projects, particularly true stories of women who have brought about social change. She wants to tell Latina stories as well, which she noted is a reflection of her own heritage. The duo is also hiring women writers and serving as mentors.

In her remarks, Tassler also called attention to the "connective tissue" that exists between storyteller and listeners, a theme noted as well by Huffman in a clip from her videotaped conversation for The Interviews, the foundation's oral history project. Storytelling, Huffman said, breaks down walls and brings about empathy and understanding.

Huffman won an Emmy for her role as harried housewife and mother Lynette Scavo in ABC's Desperate Housewives. And in the first season of ABC's anthology series from John Ridley, American Crime, she played Barb Hanlon, the mother of a man murdered in a home invasion who, Huffman said, "was at best a bigot, and at worst a racist."

Following the clip, Huffman told foundation executive director Jodi Delaney that she wasn't sure how to play Barb until her husband, William H. Macy, advised her, '"Everyone thinks their motives are noble. So you've got to give her something noble to do.' What I gave her was to take care of her son, even though her son was dead. What that meant was to find the person who killed him. And that is something everyone can endorse."

Huffman — who earned three Emmy nominations for American Crime — praised Ridley for using television to tell powerful, previously untold stories: "Everyone sees the explosion of a crime. What you don't see is, how does the family unravel afterwards? How does it affect a policeman… the fiancée or the wife… the whole community? John's done a great job of bringing a voice to the voiceless."

During Desperate Housewives, Huffman modeled Lynette on her experience with her own two daughters, who were two and three when she won the role and was struggling with the image of the perfect mother. "It's got to be okay if you go, 'Oh my God, you're driving me crazy, and what happened to me?' I wanted to make sure the costume did that, and the hair did that. I got to be the overwhelmed, guilty, terrible mom."

Looking ahead, Huffman said she plans to produce; she hopes to see more female writers and showrunners — and she'll continue to embrace the power of television.

"I have good friends — a same-sex couple — who adopted a girl sixteen or seventeen years ago," she related. "And one of the reasons the birth mother chose these two wonderful men is because she saw Will & Grace . That's social change through storytelling, and it's available to all of us."

Delaney echoed Huffman's thoughts after the event. "We were excited to bring the inaugural Women in Television Summit to the industry, the public and the next generation of television leaders as an extension of our Power of TV initiative," she said. "The gathering was an opportunity to showcase the power of our medium to promote change through daring storytelling and inclusivity, behind and in front of the camera."

Other summit sessions spotlighted industry disruptors; modern feminism; a new definition of ambition; the digital evolution; inclusion and unconscious bias; creating characters through costumes; and writer-playwright Tanya Saracho, creator of the Starz drama Vida.


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 7, 2018


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