Betsy Beers is a force to be reckoned with. As the executive producer for the hit TV shows Scandal, Grey's Anatomy, and How To Get Away With Murder, she and her powerhouse partner, Shonda Rhimes, are truly reinventing the entire landscape of female characters on television today. The following speech, which she presented at Marie Claire's "The New Guard" lunch, details how she became such a prominent figure in a male-dominated industry, the difficult path to getting her first hit show produced, and how television literally saved her life. And, of course, it shows her in all of the defiant, blunt, honest, hilarious and flawed glory that makes both her and the characters she develops so compelling and intensely relatable.
"Firstly, I was both thrilled and horrified that I was chosen to come and speak to you all. And I have to say, I am deeply intimidated. Yes, by the amazing women here today, but more importantly, by your shoes! I was warned about the shoes. This is a damned fashion/lifestyle magazine luncheon. Gorgeous shoes are a thing of wonder to me, like unicorns and Republicans who support a woman's right to choose. So later, I am hoping one of you will be willing to do an intervention on my footwear.
OK, as I think you guys know, I am the executive producer of three shows. So, what does that even mean? It means I am qualified to develop, sell, cast, place music, help edit, costume, approve sets, pick writers, fire people, yell at studio and network executives, apologize to studio and network executives and, of course, buy lunch. I also helped decide that Patrick Dempsey looked great unshaven and bravely suffered through an endless number of actor Josh Malina's practical jokes. I have gone into port-a-potties at award shows to unzip actresses out of their skin tight dresses so they can pee. And, I have bribed drivers when well known drunken actors throw up in their cabs. You want to know who, right? I cannot tell you. That is the other part of my job. Keeping secrets.
But, the one thing that I am unqualified to do is write speeches. That is what my genius producing partner Shonda Rhimes and the incredible How To Get Away With Murder creator Pete Nowalk do brilliantly. I guess what I am saying is, listen at your own risk! And one more warning - I swear like a trucker when I get excited. And well, this is fucking exciting!
This talk is titled, How TV Saved My Life—but more on that soon.
In talking to friends, my associates at work and my very patient husband (who you will recognize as the sole, brave man in the front), I thought it might be good to give you a sort of overview. On Scandal, we call our montage sequences, "skipping through time." So I will skip through some of the ways Shonda and I have learned to run things, that I think have led us to the amazing reality of being what I like to call, two chicks - three time slots!
I met Shonda Rhimes in 2002. I worked in film as a development executive finding projects and selling them, and became a movie producer over many years. In those days, everyone wanted to work in movies. Movies were cool. The world was fabulous and sexy! But, every movie I touched? BOMBED. I was like the Typhoid Mary of the film business. So I spent a good deal of time terrified that I didn't fit in and that I was bad at my job. But, I was too scared to look for something else.
And, I had a dirty secret. I watched TV. I was passionate about TV. It wasn't fashionable to work in TV then. It was considered a lower art, like pro wrestling. I spent my spare time not going to movies, but watching as much television as I could. It was my obsession. But, not my job. Then an amazing thing happened. I got the opportunity to start developing and pitching TV shows to networks. And one day, this movie writer walked in the door. She wanted to work in television and was looking for producers. We hit it off immediately. She was obsessed with pop culture and literature and loved songs from the eighties. And we both loved America's Next Top Model! We have been working together pretty much ever since.
Grey's Anatomy, the first pilot we had ever produced, came from a simple, emotional place. Shonda and I both wanted to see a show on television that reflected OUR lives. We were two strong competitive women with dark and twisty centers for whom work was of paramount importance, who had complicated love lives and messy relationships with a diverse group of friends who were as screwed up as we were. When we looked at the television landscape around us, we didn't see US in any network dramas or really, anywhere else.
Getting Grey's off the ground seemed at points, virtually impossible. Selling the show was hard - executives would wrinkle their noses and say, "Huh? A medical show with sex? Doctors who don't know what they're doing?" In reality, we didn't know what we were doing either. But, we were NOT going to let this thing die. We kept pulling tricks out of our asses to keep this amazing world we loved off life support. They asked, "how do you sell this?" We made up fake ad campaigns with poor Ellen Pompeo listening to her own heart with a stethoscope and a tag line "listen to your heart" and made it more user friendly by calling it "Sex and the Surgery." We were tireless and eager to please. We didn't realize we were doing anything new. But apparently we were, and there were people—yes, mainly dudes—who didn't understand it and were frightened by it. I remember before Grey's aired, Shonda and I were in a large meeting. It was a room full of men and one older guy high on the food chain decided to share - "I mean, this pilot! I don't see how anyone in America can sympathize or identify with this lead character! This woman, she goes out, gets drunk, has a ONE NIGHT STAND with a guy the NIGHT BEFORE SHE STARTS A NEW JOB AS A DOCTOR?? What kind of a professional woman would do that?"
Well, ME. As I am sure some of you healthy, happy people with vaginas might have done too. And I could no longer be grateful or just say yes, or hold my tongue or act like a geisha at these meetings. So, I proceeded to explain to him that indeed, I had actually done EXACTLY THAT, and described how I had gotten drunk, had taken home a very inappropriate dude and, as I remember it, actually arrived for my first day at my new job with a hangover and a spring in my step. I remember Shonda looking at me with pure joy, and the guy, well he couldn't call me a slutty slutster to my face, so the subject was dropped. At least, in front of us. Meredith and Cristina and the other characters continued to have sex in 'on call' rooms for years to come on the show.
The point is, we were two women who clearly had not gotten the memo on proper behavior. And quite often in this world, when women find themselves in that position, traditionally they believe they must choose between being a "good girl" or a "bad girl." But somehow, we chose to just ignore that rotten, old world decision by answering a much more compelling question: Are we creating women who are real? Are they human? Are they true to their feelings?
So with each show we have made since, be it Scandal or Private Practice or How To Get Away With Murder or the pilots we develop each season, it has to speak personally to us. Each one of the series Shonda created is a reflection, on some level of what we are feeling. Like the interns on Grey's, we were neophyte competitors in a cut throat market. Scandal? Being the woman in charge sometimes isn't all it's cracked up to be. And with Pete Nowalk's show, How To Get Away With Murder? In a very extreme situation, who can you really trust?
Early on, one of our ongoing conversations was how fast do you expand the brand? We learned an important lesson with Private Practice. The network, not surprisingly, wanted a spin off of Grey's pretty much as soon as they realized they had a hit on their hands. Shonda had a great idea to send the terrific Kate Walsh as Addison Montgomery to Los Angeles to start a new life. I think the network was hoping for Grey's Anatomy - SVU! But regardless, they jumped on it and made it clear that they wanted it ASAP. As a result, we rushed it into production without having a really clear idea as to what we wanted to say. And, initially, the show suffered for it. Luckily, when we got a second season, we took a beat to really examine why we wanted to make it in the first place - and the show about "the moral and ethical dilemmas that we all face" was born. Having learned from that experience, a few years later, we actually delayed making Scandal until Shonda felt like she had the space to create the world and the characters she really wanted to write. In all businesses, there is a pressure to strike while the iron is hot. But sometimes, a hot iron just isn't a good enough reason to strike.
Not surprisingly, diversity is crucial to our survival and success as a company - no shock there. The work gets better when there are people with different backgrounds and genders and sexual orientations at work, both onscreen and off screen. Hallelujah. It makes me angry that this is still an issue, and there seems to be a way too slow growing awareness that it pays creatively to hire someone besides anybody who is just like you. And the resistance continues, openly! I recently had a conversation with an agent who was complaining, saying how frustrated he is - it has actually gotten hard to get jobs for young, white males. HUH. ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?
Last week, I had a conversation with my associate at Shondaland, Alison Eakle (yup. a chick!). We were in a meeting talking about cable needs and she proceeded to list a number of different outlets, all of whom are looking for female centric shows - "a female Breaking Bad or dark comedy with women." As much as I was encouraged by the number of female centric ideas being bandied about, it feels like we are being treated like a trend or a quota to be filled. Women on television are not a fad. Or a trend. We are a reality and always have been. We are the main person at home wielding the clicker and the fact that there are more shows on now than ever with compelling female voices is simply, as it should be.
To that point, a question I am asked endlessly is "how on earth do you run three shows?" Well, let's just first address the fact that DICK FREAKING WOLF can have eight hundred different versions of Law And Order on the air and no one asks him that. But I rage-fully digress. The answer is, I don't do it alone. We have an amazing workplace family. That is very important to us, given the fact we spend more time with them than our actual flesh and blood. One of the reasons the shows continue to run and work for years is because we found great people who work in front of and behind the camera, some of whom have worked on all three shows. Shonda and I have a strict no assholes policy. We learned the hard way by hiring a few assholes early on. (No, I can't tell you who.) But, I can tell you, Kerry Washington REALLY is that nice. When SHE gets nominated for an award, she sends cupcakes to the crew to say CONGRATULATIONS to THEM. The Scandal cast REALLY love each other. The How To Get Away With Murder? crew? Amazing! A lot of those terrific folks have been terrific since they worked with us on Private Practice. It's an incredible feeling to walk on the Grey's set and see so many cast and crew members who have been with us since the very beginning. We try to encourage people staying at Shondaland by making it hard to leave - in a good way. Oh, and a tip? If you want to get pregnant? Come on over. There is something in the water at our company. And if you don't want to get pregnant, guard your womb!
So finally, the title of this talk is "How TV Saved My Life." What did I mean by that? It saved me because I found both what I was good at and the stories I wanted to tell and it welcomed my passion with sometimes not so open arms, but at least an open mind. I found an amazing creative partner who is vigilant about keeping her shows growing and a diverse workplace family who teach me something every day and welcomes my potty mouth and my inability to lie.
But, there is something else. TV really did save my life. My childhood wasn't exactly Father Knows Best. I had a volatile, unpredictable mother and a dead dad most of my youth. But this isn't a pity party - there was another parent in the room. The TV was frequently the most reliable one I had, and in the fraught and chaotic environment in which I was raised, it was often the most comforting. Cause there were my friends on shows and there was a SCHEDULE. Mary Richards always showed up on time at 9:30 on Saturday nights and Carol Burnett kept me company on Monday nights at 10 when no one noticed I was still up past my bedtime.
People have asked, "how does it feel to have a whole night of television?" I try to be cool and say we have done three shows before, blah blah. But the ten-year-old girl inside of me, the one who clung to the Thursday night line-up (Batman, The Flying Nun, Bewitched, and That Girl) back in 1968, is screaming fuck yeah! I have my own schedule! I have a night! And, I hope girls all over can count on our shows on Thursday to remind them that it is okay for them to be strong and complicated and they will find a reliable group of friends who will be there waiting for them. And that if we can have our own night, someday they can too. TV saved this 10-year-old, and it saves me every day.
And at least I know now, after How To Get Away With Murder on Thursday night, it is bedtime. Thank you."
Image via Getty
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