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Meet the woman behind Showtime’s Masters of Sex

Masters of Sex showrunner Michelle AshfordMasters of Sex showrunner Michelle Ashford
Masters of Sex showrunner Michelle AshfordCourtesy of Showtime.

The third season of Masters of Sex, Showtime’s hour-long drama based on the lives of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, pioneers of the science of human sexuality, premieres this Sunday July 12th.

The timing of the new season is particularly significant this year. On Tuesday, Showtime released its new “over-the-top” streaming service for cord-cutters. Called simply SHOWTIME, the internet-only service is $10.99 per month for those who stream through Apple and Roku. Subscribers to Sony’s PlayStation Vue and Hulu can also add it to their package for an additional fee. The Masters of Sex premiere is being offered free online this week (along with the premiere of fellow Sunday night drama Ray Donovan) as an enticement to sign up for the streaming app, which is available for a free 30-day trial.

While Showtime didn’t respond to requests for comment, it seems reasonable to assume that the cable network’s decision to pair the release of the app with the Masters of Sex premiere can be viewed as a vote of confidence in the show. (For comparison, HBO launched its streaming service, HBO Now, to coincide with the season 5 premiere of its hit Game of Thrones.)

Masters of Sex, which was created by showrunner Michelle Ashford, was nominated for Golden Globe and Writers Guild Awards for best series in 2014. With an averaged 3.5 million viewers a week across platforms, it’s currently Showtime’s fourth-most watched show (the top three are Homeland, Shameless and Ray Donovan).

Fortune talked to Ashford about what it takes to be “CEO” of a TV series, the challenges of capturing viewers’ attention in a fractured market and how she feels about being one of the few female showrunners in Hollywood.

Fortune: Showrunners are described as the CEOs of a TV series, does that ring true?

Ashford: You wouldn’t necessarily pick writers as CEOs of multi-million dollar corporations. But TV has become the one area in Hollywood where writers are most respected and in charge. So people who tend to be creative and introverted and strange, are asked to write, which is an artistic pursuit, and then asked to be in charge of all these other people. It is a completely oddball job, to be honest. I find it fascinating and fun. But you have to be comfortable wearing both hats.

What are the biggest challenges of running a show?

You probably have 300 people at various times who you are in charge of directing or guiding. You have to be really good at managing people, and quite often high-strung artistic temperaments. You need to be the grownup in the room— which can be challenging under pressure. It really challenges you to be your best self.…If you aren’t, the train will come off the tracks.

Female showrunners are still a minority. The Hollywood Reporter’s Top 50 Showrunners list included just 14 women in 2014 [including Ashford]. Do you feel any extra pressure to do well?

I think everyone who does this job feels an enormous amount of pressure to do the job well. Every talented person in Hollywood has flocked to TV so the bar is really high. This whole idea of being a “woman showrunner” is a weird thing to me – it’s so not how I approach it. I just see this un-doable job that somehow I have to do, and every day I just paddle as fast as I can to get through it. Thinking of the added pressure of doing it as a woman – I can’t even think of it that way.

How do you balance the business of running the show with the creative work?

The writer’s room is bubble where you talk about characters, the story, every possible aspect of the show. That’s a pure, creative environment. And when I write, I stay at home at my home office. I sit quietly with editors. And there are moments on the set where it is only focusing on the work. So you get these pockets of creative experience.

Do you have any goals for your premiere on Sunday?

TV has been turned upside down now. It used to be predictable: There were network shows where there were certain numbers expected and everyone could look at their report card and they would live or die on that. But today, even major networks have abysmal ratings, and what is considered a hit or not has been thrown out the window. If you lock into an audience, and you are critically respected and your numbers are okay, or your numbers are really good but critics don’t think your show is so great…there are variations on how to present a show now. And on cable, there isn’t the tendency to cancel shows they way they do on network TV.

We’re obviously trying to grow our show and have more viewers. For a long time people would come up to me and say ‘I just can’t find your show – it’s not on Netflix or Apple…’ Now people only view by saying – can I find it fast and where is it? And if it’s not convenient, they just won’t watch. So now that Showtime is selling over the top services, maybe that will grow our audience. But even if it doesn’t grow, I don’t think it means the life or death of the show. To be honest, I care more about how it is critically received because that’s become part of our audience.

Do you feel any pressure for the show to perform for Showtime’s new streaming service?

I don’t feel pressure. I am thrilled the timing worked out for us to benefit for it for this season. I’m curious to see how it changes who watches our show.