Top 50 Power Showrunners 2011

12:49 PM 10/12/2011

by THR Staff

THR's fourth annual list shines a spotlight on the 50 most influential -- and valuable -- creative chiefs writing, producing and redefining television.


For better or worse, 2011 will go down as the Year of the Showrunner. It all began with Chuck Lorre becoming a household name for all the wrong reasons. Then there was Mad Men's Matthew Weiner making waves during the showrunner's painful, prolonged negotiations with the network he put on the map. The summer saw film auteur Frank Darabont make a stormy exit from his AMC smash hit The Walking Dead and then be replaced by The Shield veteran Glen Mazzara. But the news wasn't all negative. Emmy night awarded comedy kings Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd more gold for Modern Family, and that Mad Men guy earned a redemptive trophy for his collection. Plus, the fall saw the return of such established veterans as Howard Gordon (Homeland), Michael Patrick King (2 Broke Girls) and Neal Baer (A Gifted Man), proving that reinvention is a showrunner's most powerful tool. Here, THR profiles the men and women who make TV's toughest gig look damn good.

METHODOLOGY: Selections for The Hollywood Reporter's fourth annual list of the top showrunners are based on the following criteria: 

1. Direct responsibility for the day-to-day creative output of a scripted TV show that has aired for at least one full season (unless he or she also had another show on the air). 
2. How prolific the showrunner is: Those with more shows on the air were more likely to be included. 
3. Nielsen ratings, especially relative to other shows on the same network. 
4. Emmy attention and critical praise. 
 Professionalism and reputation among studio and network executives.

Profiles written by Tim Appelo, Lesley Goldberg, Marisa Guthrie, Philiana Ng, Lacey Rose and Stacey Wilson


Top 50 Power Showrunners 2011: full list
  • Comedy
  • Drama
  • Salim and Mara Brock Akil

    The Game (BET)

    In May, the married couple signed a long-term overall deal with BET Networks to develop scripted projects through their Akil Productions shingle. The pact, the first of its kind at the Viacom-owned network family, came on the heels of a record-breaking season for half-hour comedy The Game -- the premiere pulled in nearly 8 million viewers -- which the Akils resurrected for BET more than a year after it was canceled by the CW. The couple is also readying a remake of the 1976 musical Sparkle starring Jordin Sparks, Cee Lo Green and Whitney Houston. Mara, 41, wrote the screenplay, and Salim, 47, is directing the Sony film in Detroit. Meanwhile, she's holding down the fort in Atlanta on production of the new season of Game, set to bow in January. The couple -- who have two sons, ages 7 and 2 -- have clearly figured out how to work together while maintaining harmony at home. "We have complementary strengths. I think we're magic together," says Mara. Of his wife, Salim says, "She has the ability to be detailed in a creative way, and I can see the big picture in a detailed way." Mara's first job was as a production assistant on The Sinbad Show, where she met producer Ralph Farquhar, who hired her as a writer's trainee on the short-lived Fox comedy South Central. She went on to write for The Jamie Foxx Show and Moesha before teaming with her husband on UPN's Girlfriends. Salim's big break came when he was hired to write on Showtime's Soul Food; he eventually worked his way up to showrunner. He credits his wife for inspiring him to leave his job at an outpatient clinic for schizophrenics and manic-depressives (he also worked at a mortuary) and focus on his writing. "She'd never read anything I'd written," he says. "When I finally showed her, she loved it and told me to quit my day job."

  • Carter Bays and Craig Thomas

    How I Met Your Mother (CBS)

    David Strick

    Their series recently scored its sixth Emmy (for editing), had a fall premiere that was up 32 percent compared to last year's -- a feat rarely enjoyed by a show in its seventh season -- and they just inked a deal for another single-camera comedy project, The Goodwin Games, with 20th Century Fox.

    But two other milestones have Carter Bays and Craig Thomas giddy. "How I Met Your Mother just hit 16 million Facebook followers," says Thomas. "That's literally living proof of how invested fans are." Bays goes one further. "We're also the No. 1 most-pirated sitcom in the world," he says, laughing. "We're very proud of that!"

    It's just after 10:30 a.m., and the writer-producers are enjoying a rare private moment away from the rest of the staff inside the smaller of their offices on the Fox lot. "We often wish we could just come in here and lock the doors," says Thomas. "But as showrunners, we're at the head of this table, all eyeballs on us, so we have to pretend to have all the answers. Then we walk down the hall, begin sobbing and open the scotch. I don't know how sole showrunners do it."

    The friends, both 36, reflect on how far they've come since meeting at Wesleyan University: their junior-year internships at MTV that led to impossibly cool first jobs writing for David Letterman; the apartment -- and cat -- they shared in Manhattan; their move west in 2002 to sell a script about a group of young friends living in New York. "It wasn't a conscious choice, structuring the show with this dad telling his kids about his life in New York," says Bays. "But it's become a time capsule of our youth." Adds Thomas: "We've both become fathers while doing the show. Boring, old, married people."

    This moment of reflection is broken when Bays is summoned next door to Writers Room B. This morning's task is to comb through "Field Trip," an episode set to air later in the fall in which Ted (Josh Radnor) takes his architecture class on a field trip through Manhattan. Bays mulls over one joke for 15 minutes that centers on Robin (Cobie Smulders) being in therapy. "I just feel like I've seen that kind of gag in sitcoms a million times," says Bays. "Let's think of something else."

    Meanwhile, Thomas is making a rare visit to the set of HIMYM; so rare that his appearance elicits snarky fake surprise from the cast and crew. "Wow, you're here. It's like the fancy exec coming down from his shiny office," jokes Smulders, poring over her iPhone. Alyson Hannigan plays along. "When you're here, we start to panic: 'Oh no, what did I do wrong!' " she says, laughing. Emmy-nominated director Pam Fryman gives Thomas a squeeze: "We missed you!"

    Moments later, the cast is in place inside the oft-used bar set. Rounded out by Radnor, Jason Segel (Marshall), Neil Patrick Harris (Barney) and Harris' Harold & Kumar buddy Kal Penn (on hand for an arc as Robin's boyfriend, Kevin), they rehearse a scene from "Mystery vs. History," an episode set to air after "Field Trip," even though the latter is still being written. "We adjusted the schedule so we could get Martin Short to play Marshall's boss. A crazy flip-flop but totally worth it," whispers Thomas, headphoned and watching a monitor. Bays then appears for a quick powwow with Thomas. He receives the same nice-of-you-to-grace-us-with-your-presence jabs. "Yes, it's almost like science fiction, having us here at the same time," says Bays. "Who knew we were both real?"

  • Jenny Bicks

    The Big C (Showtime)

    "I shouldn't be the girl people call to write an espionage thriller," jokes Bicks. And why would they? The New York native, who grew up seeing Woody Allen stroll the streets of Manhattan ("I felt surrounded by playwrights and filmmakers," she says), has carved a comfortable niche as the go-to writer for female-centered comedies with tinges of sadness. Her Emmy-winning stint on Sex and the City and her run as creator of ABC's Men in Trees poised Bicks for her biggest project -- showrunning and writing Showtime's cancer comedy (created by Darlene Hunt) The Big C, which earned star Laura Linney a lead comedy actress Emmy nomination. A cancer survivor herself, Bicks, 48, says she realized she had a knack for writing as early as elementary school, but it wasn't until after college that she got paid for it: She was working in advertising in Manhattan in the 1990s when a friend pointed Bicks to an ad for a syndicated radio network looking for comedy writers. Big C recently wrapped a critically acclaimed second season, and she will spend the hiatus before season three mining more personal territory in her newest project -- exploring New York relationships in the Lifetime dramedy pilot Modern Love.

  • Liz Brixius and Linda Wallem

    Nurse Jackie (Showtime)

    The saying goes, "Write what you know." For Brixius and Wallem, that meant channeling shared experience with drug addiction and recovery into their dramedy starring Emmy winner Edie Falco as a philandering, pill-popping nurse. Says Minnesota native Brixius, 48: "We went through years of addiction and recovery. We have enough distance and perspective that a lot of it is pretty funny to me." The former romantic partners have overseen the only current comedy on cable to score a lead actress Emmy nomination two years in a row, and the exposure has helped Jackie remain a critical hit, earning a total of 10 Emmy noms since its June 2009 debut. Wallem, 50, who grew up in Rockford, Ill., had bit parts as an actress in Sleepless in Seattle andSeinfeld (in a memorable 1994 episode, she played the waitress who refused to serve Elaine the "big salad") before landing as a writer on the CBS comedy Cybill from 1995 to 1998. She says her approach to showrunning is to "have fun, praise the people you work with and don't be an asshole. You set the tone. Get rid of toxic energy the moment it appears."

  • Louis C.K.

    Louie (FX)

    He writes. He directs. He edits. He produces. And he plays himself (well, a version of himself) on FX's groundbreaking original comedy. So it's no wonder that come Emmy night, Louis C.K. was exhausted. "I really enjoyed being a nominee," he said at the Governors Ball. "But I'm really glad it's over." You can't blame him. His one-man-band comedy event made history this year by earning FX's first lead comedy actor nomination (and a writing nom, too) and making Louis C.K. the only showrunner on this list to personally assume all major facets of the production cycle. Success for Louis C.K. has come after hard-fought rounds in the comedy ring, beginning as a staff writer for David Letterman in the early 1990s and including a failed sitcom on HBO (unfortunately titled Lucky Louie) and so-so success as a screenwriter for such films as his friend Chris Rock's I Think I Love My Wife. But he balks at inevitable comparisons to his HBO counterpart-in-angst, Larry David. "It may seem that way, but I don't ad-lib like Larry does," says the D.C. native, 44 -- his real surname is Szekely, of Hungarian origin -- of Louie's so-real-it-hurts verite style. "I actually shoot the show very cinematically and precisely."

  • Tina Fey and Robert Carlock

    30 Rock (NBC)

    When Fey left NBC's Saturday Night Live in 2006 to launch her own comedy, she reconnected with Carlock, who had been writing for Friends and its short-lived spinoff, Joey. Since then, the duo has created an indelible collection of madcap characters who have wormed their way into the zeitgeist by being petty, insecure and clueless. Both say the characters sprung from their experiences in writers rooms: Carlock's first gig was on The Dana Carvey Show, where he shared an office with Charlie Kaufman, Robert Smigel, Louis C.K., Jon Glaser, Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert. "It was the best writing staff in the history of sketch comedy," says Carlock, 39. "It was insane. I thought, 'Is it always like this?' It turns out it's not. [Carvey lasted six episodes.] Sometimes you can put it together again if you're as lucky as we are at 30 Rock." The NBC show has won a raft of Emmys, including three statuettes for outstanding comedy series from 2007 to 2009, and endeared itself to critics, if not the masses. It's something Fey jokes about derisively. "Some may argue that exploiting Gov. [Sarah] Palin and her family helped bring attention to my low-rated TV show," she wrote in her autobiography, Bossypants. "I am proud to say ... my TV show still enjoys very low ratings." Fey, 41, gave birth to her second child in August, and 30 Rock went into production Oct. 5 on its sixth season, which bows in January. "We had a good phone call with [NBC Entertainment chairman] Bob Greenblatt a couple months ago where he spoke very intelligently about wanting to grow 30 Rock," says Carlock.  "Everyone wants as many people to watch as possible. We write characters we really love a great deal."  

  • Greg Garcia

    Raising Hope (Fox)

    "It's madcap, it's weird and kind of 'off,' but it comes from a very sort of decent, guileless place," says Martha Plimpton. The Emmy-nominated lead actress is talking about Garcia's latest offering, Raising Hope, which centers on a young, put-upon dad coping with early fatherhood and a whacked-out family that includes another Emmy nominee in Cloris Leachman. Hope made headlines last winter when it was the first rookie series of the 2010-11 season to get a full 22-episode pickup. Thus far in its second season, viewers have stuck around, with the first two episodes averaging more than 6 million viewers. But Garcia, an alumnus of Maryland's Frostburg State University, didn't begin in television; he started his career in media as a board operator and on-air personality at Washington radio's The Tony Kornheiser Show. The 41-year-old says the full-season renewal offered needed recognition that Hope was clicking. "I'm happy that the show is getting another year," says the Arlington, Va., native, who also created and ran NBC's long-running comedy My Name Is Earl (he won an Emmy for writing the pilot) and co-created Yes, Dear, which aired for six seasons on CBS. "I've been trying to think of a funny quote for the last two hours for this interview, which makes me a little nervous about season two." He needn't be: Pop-culture action icons like Richard Dean Anderson and Lee Majors are lining up for guest appearances.

  • Dan Harmon

    Community (NBC)

    With a Twitter feed infested with nonstop pop-culture rants and cranky musings about the business, Harmon has cemented his name as one of Hollywood's most outspoken showrunners. And really, he can't help it. His passion for the medium was born in a lower-middle-class suburb of Milwaukee, where Harmon says TV was his "father, mother, older brother, pet and soul mate." Actually, it was Jack Klugman's sportswriter character on The Odd Couple that got Harmon obsessed with the idea of writing. "But I never thought about television as being something you 'wrote,' " he says. He credits his mother for giving him his first big break when she gave a young Harmon a refurbished electric typewriter for his birthday. His first foray was a short-lived stint as a Marquette University journalism major, though he dropped out after realizing he'd "never make it" and turned his focus to stand-up comedy. Harmon moved to Los Angeles in the late 1990s and met Ben Stiller through his writing partner, Rob Schrab, at ImageMovers. Together, Stiller, Schrab and Harmon penned 1999's Heat Vision and Jack, a failed pilot for Fox starring Jack Black and Owen Wilson. Now in his third season on Community, Harmon continues to work despite the fear of people "watching what I type" while mingling with like-minded people in the writers room and on Twitter. "Anywhere from here is undiscovered territory because I never imagined I'd have access to this many people," he says. "If I met them in a bar, they'd throw a drink in my face or tell me to take a shower."

  • Al Jean

    The Simpsons (Fox)

    Jean got into comedy as a "nerdy math major" at Harvard. Some Lampoon friends who turned down Hollywood writing jobs recommended Jean in their place, first on the feature Airplane 2 and then on The Simpsons, whose first half-hour episode broke all Fox ratings records in 1989 and which has since won 27 EmmysSimpsons will reach another milestone Feb. 19 when its 500th episode is set to air, and though the show was recently renewed for two more seasons, Jean, 50, says all he can do is live in the present. "Simpsons is the most scrutinized script of any show in town," he says. "I've helped the show stay on the air by constantly acting like it was the first season, never taking success for granted." His other weapon: the management skills he learned from ALF showrunner Bob Bendetson in the 1980s. Jean also thanks two "crummy" showrunners -- he won't name them -- for showing him what not to do. "You can't sit there and agonize," he says. "A bad decision is better than no decision."

  • Bill Lawrence

    Cougartown (ABC)

    David Strick

    Bill Lawrence stands in front of a large dry-erase board inside Cougar Town headquarters -- situated in Bungalow S at Culver Studios -- on which a future episode of season three is charted out like an oversize spreadsheet.

    Knowing their leader is being observed this morning, the writers are in top form."Hey, thanks for not yelling at us today, Bill," one shouts from the back of the room. MADtv alum Michael McDonald chimes in."Usually we break into groups based on race, but we won't do that today," he says, cracking up Lawrence as we walk outside to the set. "If a comedy writer ever complains about his lot in life," he says. "You have my permission to smash in his face."

    It's easy to envy Lawrence. The William & Mary graduate was co-running a hit series in New York -- ABC's Spin City -- at 26, under the tutelage of one of the genre's masters, Gary David Goldberg. "I had peroxide hair back then -- such an idiot -- but Gary literally sent me to showrunning camp," says Lawrence, 42. " 'This is how you block shows. This is how you talk to actors.' " Six years later, Lawrence had another hit in NBC's goofy single-camera comedyScrubs, a transition the Connecticut native says was tough because "I didn't delegate very well. But by the end I'd realized, just hire talented people and let them do their jobs -- what a concept."

    A decade later, Lawrence has settled into his most recent stint as the mayor of Cougar Town(which may or may not be getting a new name, depending on the mood of Lawrence's Twitter feed). Today, the set is just outside the writers room, with the Culver lot transformed into a suburban Florida mall replete with realistically tacky peach-accented architecture. Star and producer Courteney Cox sits at a makeshift cafe table with co-stars Josh Hopkins and Christa Miller -- who happens to be the boss' wife -- and their 5-year-old son, Henry, who's home sick from school and sitting on his mom's lap. The actors rehearse a scene while Lawrence stands and watches quietly from the wings. Ten minutes later, he offers a casual appraisal -- "Hey, that's funny, nice work" -- and then returns to the writers room to hash out some logistics with producer Randall Winston."I think we can shoot six pages at the beach, two in the parking lot," says Lawrence. "It won't be as expensive, which I like."

    By 11:40 a.m., Lawrence is inside his quiet private office reflecting on his workplace philosophy: "It's a strict no-asshole policy. The only way to lose your job is to be a jerk." His own shortcomings: "I take everything too personally and stick my nose in people's business." And, his favorite topic, the Emmys: "They are 99 percent a sham now that Steve Carell never won," he says. "I really don't care, though, which makes it definitive that I'll never win anything."

  • Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd

    Modern Family (ABC)

    Levitan grew up in Chicago on a steady diet of The Dick Van Dyke ShowM*A*S*H and Taxi. But it wasn't until he was working late one night at a Madison, Wis., news station that he realized he wanted to write comedy. "We had the three monitors playing three shows, and I remember thinking, 'Boy, I wonder if I could write one of those?' " says Levitan, 49. Looking to find out, he started penning spec scripts, first for Moonlighting and then for Sledge Hammer!,The Wonder Years and Cheers. He passed muster and landed a writing gig on Wings, where he met his future Modern Family writing partner, Lloyd, with whom Levitan also has collaborated on Frasier and Back to You. Originally from Connecticut, Lloyd got his big break years earlier when he met producers Paul Junger Witt and Tony Thomas on a pilot to which an inexperienced Lloyd contributed a single joke. Some six months later, Lloyd wrote a letter reminding them that it was he who had pitched that gag. "They did what I was hoping they'd do: realize it was a joke," says Lloyd. Two days later, Lloyd, 51, was invited to work on Witt and Thomas' new show, The Golden Girls, where he remained for several years. Decades later, Levitan and Lloyd are responsible for one of TV's most giant hits: In addition to the 14 million-plus tuning in to Family's third season, the series snapped up five more Emmys in September, including a repeat win for outstanding comedy series. Says Levitan of the duo's embarrassment of riches: "It's exhilarating. I wish it on everyone."

  • Paul Liberstein

    The Office (NBC)

    Since taking over showrunning duties from series creator Greg Daniels during The Office's sixth season, two-time Emmy winner Lieberstein has had his share of sleepless nights. "There's always something keeping me up," he admits. "That quality doesn't dip, that we're viable. Steve Carell leaving created a whole new set of challenges." As the series chugs along in season eight with new blood in James Spader, Jenna Fischer's real-life pregnancy and Ed Helms sitting in Carell's manager seat, Lieberstein, 44, has dealt with these curveballs while also acting on The Office -- he was hired first as a writer and producer on Office but was also cast as despised HR rep Toby -- but considers himself a writer first, having also worked on The Bernie Mac Showand The Drew Carey Show.

  • Team Lorre

    Chuck Lorre and Lee Aronsohn, Two and a Half Men; Bill Prady, The Big Bang Theory; Mark Roberts, Mike & Molly (CBS)

    Between Charlie Sheen's firing, Ashton Kutcher's hiring and Melissa McCarthy's Emmy win, Team Lorre hasn't been short on headlines. What's more, all three of its CBS comedies boast sky-high ratings, including a 29 million-viewer opening for revamped stalwart Two and a Half Men. But the men behind these shows have more to offer than punch lines and Nielsen points. Roberts, 50, who began his career in front of the camera (including three seasons on the 1990s comedy The Naked Truth), is still a working playwright. Prady, 51, who recalls setting his alarm to watch Johnny Carson as a child in Detroit before spending the bulk of his early career working on various Muppets projects, admits he would like to work on dramatic fare with shades of gray, like The Shield. Aronsohn, 58, who got his start writing for The Love Boat,Charles in Charge and Who's the Boss? before co-creating Men with Lorre, says he has "always had a yen to make nature documentaries. No jokes, no divas." Tying those three men together is Lorre, 58, who dropped out of college to be a songwriter before segueing to TV with writing gigs on Roseanne and his creations Grace Under Fire and Dharma & Greg. How has his showrunner style changed? "I've evolved from sporadic full-blown panic attacks to a constant hum of low-level anxiety," says Lorre.

  • Seth MacFarlane

    Family Guy (Fox)

    It's a steamy day in early September and the Family Guy writers and producers are huddled in the lobby of a nondescript third-floor office in Los Angeles. 20th Century Fox TV chairman Gary Newman checks his watch while his partner Dana Walden makes small talk with Fox's Kevin Reilly and Peter Rice. They're all waiting on the man of the hour: Seth MacFarlane, who's 20 minutes late.

    "I just called him," says one writer, shoulders shrugging at his boss' perpetual tardiness.

    "He's on Seth time," another one quips. Ten more minutes pass before MacFarlane appears, his mop of jet-black hair seemingly unbrushed and uniform polo shirt and jeans wrinkled. He rips a pair of iPhone buds out of his ears, takes a seat at the head of a conference room table and turns to page one of Family Guy's 200th episode script. Unlike the boisterous staff seated before him, MacFarlane seems uncomfortable with the fuss being made of the milestone. With others around the table still cheering, he holds up the 43-page script with a nod that suggests it's time to begin. For the next 15 minutes, MacFarlane transforms into his characters, ping-ponging between a martini-swilling dog and a matricidal baby. As they're whipped through a fictional time machine that has vomit flowing backward, MacFarlane's corporate bosses, now crammed into a row to his right, have let any earlier frustration with his delay give way to wide grins.

    How can they not? In an era of fractured viewership and hard-to-come-by hits, MacFarlane, 37, is at the white-hot center of a multibillion-dollar empire, one that continues to deliver younger viewers, hefty syndication revenue and the kind of merchandise studio heads drool over. Not to mention the practical piece: MacFarlane's characters never age. Last year alone, his programming generated nearly $200 million in ad revenue, according to Kantar Media.

    To read THR’s complete Seth MacFarlane cover story, click here.

  • Suzanne Martin

    Hot in Cleveland (TV Land)

    The showrunner of TV Land's first ever scripted series grew up in Boston and wanted to be a journalist because of what she'd seen on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. "All of those really well-written shows in the late 1970s were really formative," says Martin, who credits her second-grade teacher for pushing her to be a writer. "I wrote a story and she asked me to stay after class. She said, 'I never tell people what to do with their lives, but you should be a writer,' " says Martin, 49. "I was 7, so naturally I took it as a fact." In 1994, Martin's husband, Jeff, then a writer for David Letterman and The Simpsons, hooked her up with a writing gig on a comedy pilot called The Good Life. "I asked him to let me try it. I said, 'If I'm terrible, I'll know it and walk away, and it won't be an issue for our marriage,' " says Martin. "It turns out I wasn't terrible!" From there, she went on to work as a writer on ABC's Ellen and won a pair of Emmys as part of the writing staff on NBC's Frasier. These days, Martin admits to still "being in awe" walking around the Cleveland set, where she rubs elbows with star and Emmy nominee Betty White. Says Martin: "To be working with Betty, who was on Mary Tyler Moore, and then to have Mary guest-star last season … it's amazing to see life come full-circle."

  • Trey Parker and Matt Stone

    South Park (Comedy Central)

    University of Colorado pals Parker and Stone celebrated the Oct. 5 fall premiere of the second half of their 15th season by revealing the method of their madness in Arthur Bradford's doc about them, 6 Days to Air: The Making of South Park, which aired on Comedy Central Oct. 9. They tell how they spun their multimillion-dollar empire out of a single 1995 animated short, The Spirit of Christmas, that went viral, making them the first internet-spawned TV success. (Fred Armisen's new hit, Portlandia, took a similar internet-to-hip-network route.) Besides making Comedy Central viable in much the way Quentin Tarantino made the Weinsteins' studio viable, Parker, 42, and Stone, 40, also went on to make more than $134 million worth of movies, break Broadway records with their musical The Book of Mormon and sign a contract to keep South Park on the air through 2013, for a sum said to be greater than their previous $75 million deal.

  • Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton and Charlie Day

    It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX)

    How many actor-showrunners are willing to gain 50 pounds, "just to be funny"? Well, at least one, as Sunny creator McElhenney showed Sept. 15 in the seventh-season premiere of FX's flagship comedy. The stunt paid off: It was Sunny's highest-rated season premiere to date. Although as "out there" as the series has been (sample scene: sewing an oiled-up, nude Danny DeVito into a sofa), the actor-writer-producer trio have a rather serious approach to bringing to life the adventures of their depraved characters. "We always strive to air out any problems before things escalate," says Howerton, 35, who appeared on ER and in films like Must Love Dogs before landing Sunny. (His wife, Jill, gave birth to their first child in September.) Day, who recently appeared in the bawdy summer comedy feature Horrible Bosses, says wearing the actor hat actually helps. "Things don't translate off the page the way you want them to," says Day, 35, who's expecting his first child with wife Mary Elizabeth in December. "So it's nice to be able to change things as you go." Philly native McElhenney, 34, who's married to co-star Kaitlin Olson (they kick-started the Sunny baby boom in fall 2010 with the birth of son Axel), agrees that a showrunner should be willing to break the mold. "I would love to live in a country where showrunners took big risks and broadened viewers' horizons," he says. "And America had a balanced budget."

  • Trey Parker and Matt Stone

    South Park (Comedy Central)

    University of Colorado pals Parker and Stone celebrated the Oct. 5 fall premiere of the second half of their 15th season by revealing the method of their madness in Arthur Bradford's doc about them, 6 Days to Air: The Making of South Park, which aired on Comedy Central Oct. 9. They tell how they spun their multimillion-dollar empire out of a single 1995 animated short, The Spirit of Christmas, that went viral, making them the first internet-spawned TV success. (Fred Armisen's new hit, Portlandia, took a similar internet-to-hip-network route.) Besides making Comedy Central viable in much the way Quentin Tarantino made the Weinsteins' studio viable, Parker, 42, and Stone, 40, also went on to make more than $134 million worth of movies, break Broadway records with their musical The Book of Mormon and sign a contract to keep South Park on the air through 2013, for a sum said to be greater than their previous $75 million deal.

  • Tyler Perry

    House of Payne, Meet the Browns (TBS)

    Forbes recently named Perry, 42, the highest-paid man in entertainment, with $130 million earned from May 2010 to May 2011. House of Payne and Meet the Browns -- both of which received rare 90-episode commitments upon their respective launches in 2006 and 2009 -- soon will be joined by a third Perry comedy, For Better or Worse, based on his Why Did I Get Married? films. Despite his busy film career -- he has raked in more than $207 million just from the three-film Madea franchise alone -- Perry still makes time to be in showrunner mode in Atlanta, the headquarters for his operations, attending morning table reads, writing in the afternoon and dropping by the sets. Michael Wright, head of TBS, TNT and Turner Classic Movies programming, says Perry has helped "establish the network as a prime destination for African-American viewers" as Payne and Browns ranked among the top sitcoms with black adults in key demos in the first quarter of 2011.

  • Mike Schur

    Parks and Recreation (NBC)

    David Strick

    Mike Schur is having a revelation. "How have I never heard of this? A snow globe that goes on your lawn that you plug in and has snow blowing around?" He scours his iPad web browser for a visual.

    "Hey, maybe Andy can put one in his living room?" offers one art department guru for the dim-bulb character played by Chris Pratt. Schur, whose boyish face belies his graying temples, says: "Seriously, the game on Christmas has really changed. Where have I been?"

    And so goes a meeting in Pawnee headquarters as the crewmembers of NBC's Emmy-nominated comedy find themselves in a schedule as thick as Ron Swanson's mustache. Led by Schur, alumnus of The Office and Saturday Night Live, they are shooting episode nine, locking episode five, preparing for a table read for episode 10 (the Christmas-themed "Citizen Knope") and breaking story -- or hammering out the plot -- for episode 12. It's a workload that Schur, 35, manages with an eerie calm. He says it's a trick he picked up as a staff writer at SNL, where one "routinely has your ass handed to you."

    "My one rule is: don't panic," says Schur an hour later, now tucked inside a dark edit bay as a poster of basketball coach Bobby Knight oversees the room. He and his editor John Valerio have to shave nine seconds off the forthcoming Halloween episode. "I saw people panic at SNL, and it looked like a bad idea," says the Harvard grad, who points to his Office mentor, Greg Daniels, as his showrunner model. "He never raises his voice -- ever," he says, checking his e-mail. He laughs. "My wife and I share an account," says Schur, whose son is 3 and daughter is 15 months. "And last night, during a very high-stress work moment, I got this e-mail that said, 'Your order of six pairs of Green Lantern underwear has been shipped.'" He says the strain of late nights is "awful," but he's been bridging that gap a little better. "I drive my son to school and he's been requesting The Beatles," says Schur, beaming.

    At 2 p.m., the Parks cast is assembled for a table read of the Christmas episode. "I just edited the Halloween episode," Schur tells Rob Lowe. The actor asks, "Ooooh! How is it?" Schur replies: "Your costume is amazing." At 2:05, Schur leaves the room briefly and returns. "Would you find it off-putting if I always left and came back just to make another entrance?" Schur asks the room. The crowd erupts into a swell of chants: "Mike! Mike! Mike!"

    "OK, OK," Schur says, grinning. "Let's get to reading our second-ever Christmas episode, shall we?"

  • David Zuckerman

    Wilfred (FX)

    "I loved watching Dick Van Dyke play a TV writer who was so funny and charming -- and he got to go home to Mary Tyler Moore," Zuckerman recalls of his fictional inspiration for his real-life comedy-writer aspirations. The showrunner was brought in to help "nurture and develop" Seth MacFarlane's ideas, characters and voice for Family Guy. Years later, he was asked to repeat the magic with Jason Gann's short film-turned-Australian TV series for its stateside remake about an uneven fellow (Elijah Wood) who sees his neighbor's canine as a foul-mouthed, pot-smoking guy in a furry dog costume. "Both have really unique comedic voices," says Zuckerman of MacFarlane and Gann. With credits including The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and American Dad!, the onetime Lorimar and NBC exec still credits The Dick Van Dyke Show creator Carl Reiner for teaching him that comedy could be funny and entertaining while still being "about something." The same could be said for Wilfred, which was renewed after it became the network's highest-rated rookie comedy series.

  • Alan Ball

    True Blood (HBO)

    After the fourth season of the vampire hit maintained nearly 5 million viewers, Ball inked a multiyear deal with HBO that will see him stay on full time for the series' fifth season. "There will be an end for me at some point," Ball said in July during the Television Critics Association press tour, "though I don't have any desire to leave because I'm having more fun than I ever had in my life." The Georgia-born Emmy winner (for Six Feet Under) and Oscar winner (American Beauty) also has a dark comedy pitch set up through his Your Face Goes Here Entertainment banner at Paramount with Elan Mastai. As for how long True Blood could realistically run, Ball, 54, says, "I think if we did 13 seasons, we'd have to address why the vampires are aging."

  • Carol Mendelsohn, Ann Donahue and Pam Veasey

    Team CSI (CBS)

    The CSI franchise not only introduced regular Joes to the nuances of DNA and blood-spatter analysis, it pioneered a sea change in the modern police procedural. "Thirteen years ago, no one knew what a crime scene investigator was," says Donahue, 56, who helped launch the mothership series with Mendelsohn and creator Anthony Zuiker before segueing to CSI: Miami in 2002. "You'd be in an elevator and hear someone talk about 'epithelial tissue.' Everybody's conversant in the language now. I try to take it as flattery." More than a decade after the original series premiered, CSI and CSI: NY won their time periods last season in total viewers, and CSI: Miami managed to best its scripted competition. The three series also have been sold in more than 200 markets worldwide. The showrunners are reflective about how the franchise's dense scientific underpinnings made for a steep learning curve. "I did terrible in organic chemistry in college," says Donahue. Adds Mendelsohn, 60, "I never even took organic chemistry." And Veasey, 49, admits she was nervous stepping into the CSI universe after cutting her chops on shows like In Living Color. "I said to Ann, 'I don't know what epithelial means,' " says Veasey. "She said, 'Calm down, you'll get it.' "

  • Steven S. DeKnight

    Spartacus (Starz)

    The series' prequel installment, Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, pulled in record ratings for Starz last January, and the network recently locked DeKnight into an exclusive, two-year overall deal. But the success has been bittersweet. Actor Andy Whitfield, whose diagnosis in early 2010 of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma forced him to give up the role of Spartacus after the first season, died Sept. 11. DeKnight says there was "quite a bit of soul-searching" about recasting the part for season three, scheduled to start in January. (Another Australian actor, Liam McIntyre, won the role.) With months of reflection under his belt, DeKnight admits that early episodes of the series might have strayed into the gratuitous territory of graphic sex and operatic violence, but, hey, it was his first premium cable series. "The handcuffs were off, we went a little crazy," he says. "But I never approach anything with the idea that I want to 'shock' the audience." Maybe not, but DeKnight, 45, does cut a distinctive figure in Hollywood, with a shaved head and Maori tribal tattoos covering his arms and back. He had aspirations to appear onscreen, but three years into an undergraduate degree at the University of California, Santa Cruz, DeKnight realized he was just a "good enough" actor but "could be a much better writer." After a decade spent in writers rooms -- first on MTV's Undressed and then with Joss Whedon on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Dollhouse -- DeKnight was handed the opportunity at Starz to revive the swords-and-sandals epic.

  • Vince Gilligan

    Breaking Bad (AMC)

    Stephen King has called Breaking Bad "the best of the 21st century … and dark. Very dark." But the series creator, who grew up "a pretty good kid" in Farmville, Va., offered the biz a first writing effort that was decidedly light -- the 1998 Drew Barrymore starrer Home Fries, which won Gilligan the Virginia Screenwriting Competition. In 1995, The X-Files lured him from Virginia to L.A., a job Gilligan calls "a close second to Breaking Bad as far as my favorite jobs go." Despite a yearlong hiatus that Gilligan says "drove me crazy," the show's season-four premiere was its best-rated, beating even Mad Men's AMC record in several demos. He can expect more Emmys (stars Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul have won three and one, respectively) and a sizzling series finale slated presumably for 2012. The modest Gilligan, 44, says he's proud of the series' impact on the genre. "The mandate here has always been, take our hero and turn him into a bad guy," he says.

  • Brenda Hampton

    The Secret Life of the American Teenager (ABC Family)

    What's tougher than crafting the perfect script? Writing annual reports. "Because you can't make those up," says Hampton, whose earlier life was in the corporate world. Before creating the family drama 7th Heaven, which ran for 11 seasons, the University of Georgia graduate hopped around as a writer, with stints churning out tech copy for the U.S. Navy, scripting jokes for comedians including Roseanne Barr and acting as a corporate communications manager for NBC in New York. Her first TV writing job came on the 1989 comedy Sister Kate. Now three seasons into ABC Family's flagship series, Hampton, 60, has become the unofficial voice for the teenage set, but knows all too the demo's perils. "Teens are fickle, so you have to go for a broader audience," she says. Even with ratings down a bit this year, Secret Life has two things going for it that many shows don't: loyalty and efficiency. Days rarely go beyond the 12-hour mark "because the same people have been working together for so long," says Hampton. "They're the fastest crew in Hollywood."

  • Hart Hanson

    Bones, The Finder (Fox)

    With solid ratings performer Bones picked up for a seventh season -- after prolonged negotiations between Fox and its sibling studio 20th Television -- Hanson, 54, is working double duty this year. With the spinoff The Finder picked up to series and a recent four-episode addition to Bones, he is leaning more on longtime executive producer Stephen Nathan. "About 700 times a day I turn to Stephen and ask, 'Can you do this?' And 703 times a day he says yes." Hanson also had a partnership early on where TV was concerned: His earliest memory of the medium is of him holding his father's hand as they looked through a storefront window at a TV set broadcasting a cartoon in full color. The British Columbia-raised writer says "TV was always on" at home and offered an early indicator of his life's work. "One of my proudest moments was when my first show aired in Canada and it said. 'Written by Hart Hanson,' and my dad saw it," he says. "To this day, every time I see that credit on screen, I think of him."

  • Bruno Heller

    The Mentalist (CBS)

    Heller is that rare showrunner who's experienced the best of both worlds -- prestige and popularity -- first as showrunner for HBO's acclaimed period epic Rome and now for CBS' hit procedural The Mentalist. The Brit also is a card-carrying member of the intellectual elite: His sister is novelist Zoe Heller (Notes on a Scandal), his father was screenwriter Lukas Heller and his paternal grandfather was the legal philosopher Hermann Heller. Despite his heady pedigree, Heller is rather down-to-earth about his current artistic endeavors. "There's only so much you can say about a show like The Mentalist, which is designed to entertain people," says Heller, 51. "I did a cable series that urban sophisticates liked, and I very much didn't want to do that again. I wanted grandmum and grandson to be able to watch it sitting on the same couch, which is increasingly rare on TV." Heller's self-challenge has paid off: Now in its fourth season, Mentalist is seen by more than 13 million viewers a week.

  • Neil Jordan

    The Borgias (Showtime)

    The Oscar-winning Irishman (The Crying Game) is likely the only entrant on this list who'd never even heard the word "showrunner" before his current gig. "I hadn't a clue what it meant!" says Jordan. "Now I see it's all about maintaining a consistent tone and getting directors to see things the way you do." And determination, too. Jordan, 61, was hellbent for 11 years to tell the story of Rodrigo Borgia, "the Godfather in the Vatican." After DreamWorks commissioned the original script for a film, then didn't want it, he tried several times to reboot it with the likes of Colin Farrell, Christina Ricci, Scarlett Johansson, Viggo Mortensen and Ewan McGregor -- until about two years ago, when Stacey Snider had a conversation with Steven Spielberg and suggested making it into a TV series. Jordan's small-screen spin for Borgias' debut fetched the best ratings for any Showtime drama in seven years, beating even the best season of the network's other costumed hit, The Tudors, while also scoring two Emmys. The 2012 season looks to top the first on the scandal scale as Jordan promises his characters are going to get nasty. "They'll be downright evil," he says. "The viewer will be complicit in all sorts of bad, fun things."

  • Jason Katims

    Parenthood (NBC)

    Katims officially closed the book on Friday Night Lights with a touchdown last month, picking up an Emmy, his first, for writing the NBC/DirecTV drama's series finale and watching underdog Kyle Chandler pull off an upset in the drama actor race. The Brooklyn native says that while he loved the writing on such classic sitcoms as The Odd Couple, his career has drifted toward writing for critically praised (but ratings-challenged) dramas like ABC's My So-Called Life, FNL and NBC's Parenthood, which is enjoying a critically acclaimed third season, steady ratings and a recently announced two-episode extension. Katims, who has used his son's battle with autism as inspiration for one of Parenthood's most compelling story arcs, says he's finally reached a place of peace when it comes to fighting the ratings war. "The bottom line is: If not enough people watch the show, no matter how much critics and fans like it, it won't survive," he says. "We have to accept that's the business we've chosen." Katims, 50, who in the past year directed episodes of FNL and Parenthood, is also developing a hourlong NBC drama with Jason Ritter and staying optimistic about that buzzed-about FNL movie: "It's something we hope will happen."

  • Michelle King and Robert King

    The Good Wife (CBS)

    When Julianna Margulies won the lead drama actress Emmy last month, the award didn't just acknowledge the veteran actress' nailing of the complicated wife-mother-lawyer-lover character Alicia Florrick. It also was a signal to the drama's creators, Robert and Michelle King, that their show had achieved the kind of prestige for CBS more recently relegated to cable actresses like Kyra Sedgwick and Glenn Close. Robert goes one further: "It feels now like we've cheated death," he says. "We were supposed to do 13 episodes and sink into oblivion. Now we're on the 55th." Good Wife marks the couple's (the California natives met while working at the same shoe store) first stint overseeing a staff after years of so-so success in features -- you can thank Robert for penning 1995's much-razzed flick Cutthroat Island -- and off-and-on TV collaborations including their first short-lived stab at a legal drama, ABC's In Justice, starring Kyle MacLachlan. With all the ups and downs, it makes sense that their work philosophy centers on one theme. "Treat every episode as if it were your last," says Michelle, 49. "It's the only way the viewer won't get bored." Fans of Good Wife clearly aren't: Season three is averaging 11 million viewers for the network. So it makes sense that Robert, 51, is still basking in the glow of Margulies' Emmy triumph. "It was an indescribable happiness," he says. "She's responsible for so much of the show's success. It was like seeing a family member win."

  • Peter Lenkov

    Hawaii Five-0 (CBS)

    Winter lasted eight long months in the small town outside Montreal where the TV-obsessed Lenkov spent his youth. But the Emmy-nominated writer would still make the trek home from school at lunch just to watch The Flintstones -- and then, after school, catch a marathon of episodes of his favorite dramas Magnum, P.I. and Hawaii Five-0. In fact, it was the episode in which Magnum confronted and killed the person who'd held him as a POW that inspired Lenkov to start writing. "I'd never seen an episode like that," says Lenkov, 45. "I realized it was possible to take someone on an emotional journey in a short period of time." Limited writing opportunities in Montreal, where he studied political science at McGill and later at Concordia, led Lenkov to a screenwriting course at UCLA. That spawned a career as a film producer and comic-book writer -- his R.I.P.D. is being adapted for the big screen with Ryan Reynolds -- and, in a full-circle twist of fate, as the force behind CBS' Five-0 reboot, which in its second season is averaging nearly 12 million viewers. "My dad watched for 12 years straight," says Lenkov, whose other credits include CSI: NY and USA's La Femme Nikita. "Doing the new Hawaii was so striking emotionally because it'd been so important to him."

  • Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk

    Glee (Fox), American Horror Story (FX)

    As a child wrestling with undiagnosed dyslexia, Falchuk found himself drawn to television while other kids his age buried themselves in books. "I had a hard time reading, so I was always drawn to anything visual because it was my opportunity to connect with stuff," he says. "I spent way too much time watching TV." Falchuk remembers sneaking the black-and-white television from his kitchen into his bedroom to watch everything from Looney Tunes to televangelists and later getting hooked on such 1980s staples as Dallas, Cheers and Magnum, P.I. But a career in television was never considered by the Boston-bred Falchuk, 40, whose family was full of doctors, until a move to study at the American Film Institute broadened his future. He landed his first Hollywood job writing on the syndicated sci-fi show Earth: Final Conflict in 2001 and two years later scored a gig on Nip/Tuck, Murphy's plastic-surgery drama on FX, spawning one of the industry's most lucrative partnerships. For his part, Indianapolis native Murphy, 45, started as an entertainment journalist before segueing into TV with the short-lived WB series Popular. Today, the two co-run Glee and this month added FX's American Horror Story to their drama resume. Says Falchuk of balancing the demands of both shows: "We're lucky. Ryan has the stamina and the creative abilities of 10 people, so it's like there are 11 of us."

  • Shane Brennan and Gary Glasberg

    Team NCIS (CBS)

    NCIS and its spinoff NCIS: Los Angeles attract nearly 40 million viewers a week to CBS. If the franchise is the linchpin in CBS' procedural lineup, Brennan, who worked on NCIS with creator Don Bellisario for two years before creating NCIS: L.A., admits that giving the spinoff its own voice took a lot of heavy lifting. "There was a lot of pressure," he says. "It had to be a show that stood on its own. It couldn't ride the coattails of NCIS." Glasberg has been an executive producer on NCIS since 2009, and took over as showrunner this season. The series will hit its 200th episode in January. "With all these episodes behind you," says Glasberg, "you really have to be conscious of keeping things new and different." Brennan and Glasberg may navigate similar challenges, but they come from divergent backgrounds. Glasberg, 45, who is from Middletown, N.Y., in the Catskills, got an internship with film director Alan J. Pakula while he was an undergraduate at New York University, then got his start in TV writing animated children's series. Brennan, 54, began his writing career as a print and television journalist in his native Victoria, Australia. "You launch yourself into these things with a certain amount of ambition and hope, but you learn to have low expectations," says Brennan. "It's incredibly hard to break into showrunning, and then it's incredibly hard to be successful at it."

  • Matt Nix

    Burn Notice (USA)

    After graduating from UCLA as a political science major ("partially because it had a good theater program," he says), the L.A. native was close to becoming a lawyer before his father offered him a challenge. "I'll support you in becoming a lawyer, but only if you can find an attorney who actually likes what he's doing," recalls Nix, 40. (He tried and failed miserably at the task.) So going Hollywood wasn't a surprise to his supportive family. "I was lucky because my great-grandfather was a writer in the 1930s, " he says. "Screenwriting got them through the Depression." There was nothing glamorous about his first writing job, scripting an independent movie produced by an Irish production company. Fifteen years later, USA owes a great deal to Nix -- who had no showrunning experience before creating Burn Notice -- for kick-starting a slate that was last summer's most formidable lineup. Burn Notice continues to deliver, netting nearly 5 million viewers each week and helping USA to set a record in the third quarter as the only cable network to ever average more than 3.5 million viewers. The series also has such a loyal audience that the network aired a prequel telepic directed by its star Jeffrey Donovan and launched a digital interactive comic book that hit 100,000 page views the first day it was released. Says Nix, "The challenge in any show is always to change and stay exciting at the same time."

  • Jeff Pinker and J.H. Wyman

    Fringe (Fox)

    When Fringe moved from Thursdays to Fridays in the middle of its third season, viewership tumbled from 5.1 million to fewer than 4 million. This is why it was so meaningful -- and shocking, really -- that Fox renewed the cult favorite for a fourth season in March. It was a sign, say Pinkner and Wyman, that ratings are no longer the most valuable unit of measurement by network execs. Buzz can be all powerful. "We keep a lot of plot secrets because we find it's better that way," says Wyman. "If nobody knows what you're doing, then nobody can tell." Created by J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, Fringe took a creative gamble last season when it erased the existence of one main character and added a new series regular. But Pinkner, 45, a former producer on Abrams' Alias and Lost, and the Montreal-bred Wyman, 44, who was a writer on Canadian period series Wind at My Back and created Keen Eddie, are hardly ready to close up shop. "The only show we've done that said, 'Hey, this is going to be our end date and we're marching toward it,' was Lost," Pinkner says. "We hope it's a long time before that happens for Fringe."

  • Shonda Rhimes

    Creator, "Grey's Anatomy," "Private Practice," "Scandal"

    Rhimes has had a whirlwind year. While her freshman doctors-without-borders drama Off the Map fizzled, Rhimes had her Kerry Washington public relations political drama Scandal ordered to series at ABC (it will likely premiere early next year). "I feel like that was a big accomplishment, creating a new show that was entirely different from anything else that I'd done before," she says. "It was something that helped me grow as a writer."

    Meanwhile, Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice, in their eighth and fifth seasons, respectively, continue to be standout performers for ABC, with Rhimes, 41, noting that Practice's November intervention-themed episode was a powerful experience.

    PHOTOS: THR's 2011 Women in Entertainment Power 100

    The Chicago native, who was the first black female showrunner in primetime, notes that there's never been a better moment for women to make further strides in the business and is "too busy to care if somebody else has a problem with whether or not I have a vagina. I feel like that's part of the equation: not giving a crap."

    In line with that mentality, Rhimes and her Shondaland producing partner, Betsy Beers, went four-for-four this development season, selling projects outside of the female-driven fare they're best known for, including Wildwood, a teen drama set up at Fox. Three went to ABC: murder mystery The Circle, period hotel drama Gilded Lillys, which has Gossip Girl writer K.J. Steinberg attached, and an untitled drama.

    Beyond work, the unmarried mother to an adopted daughter devotes herself to working with Planned Parenthood and the Writers Guild Foundation. "But of all the issues that are important to me," Rhimes says, "it's promoting adoption in this country," a theme featured prominently in this season of Grey's. She's also taken up "weird" activities in her downtime like boxing and Pilates, something she says, laughing, she finds "horrific but necessary."

  • Michael Rauch and Andrew Lenchewski

    Royal Pains (USA)

    Rauch and Lenchewski credit the easygoing temperament of their Hamptons-set medical dramedy to the low turnover of its staff. "The biggest thing is preserving the writers room we started with," Lenchewski says. Unlike many showrunning pairs who divvy up aspects of the job, Rauch and Lenchewski, both from Manhattan, make all decisions in tandem -- whether it's about budget, scripts or casting. "Luckily, there's rarely ego, so it hasn't been a problem," says Rauch, 43, whose interest in the business sprouted when he was a kid watching second-run Paramount and RKO movies with his father. For Lenchewski, the early inspiration took a decidedly less prestigious form. "Saved by the Bell made me want to work in TV. I've taken a lot of shit for saying that," says Lenchewski, 35, who co-created Royal Pains with John P. Rogers. With the series averaging more than 5 million viewers in its third season, the showrunners are openly enjoying their hot streak. Jokes Lenchewski, "We have nowhere to go but down from here."

  • Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage

    Gossip Girl, Hart of Dixie (CW), Chuck (NBC)

    Since they first met as writers on Fox's The O.C. in 2003, Schwartz and Savage have made their Fake Empire shingle into one of the industry's most diverse. The pair have three hourlong dramas in varying phases: NBC spy dramedy Chuck (co-created with Chris Fedak), which Schwartz says has allowed him to "fulfill his James Bond obsession" and is in its final season on NBC; the CW's Gossip Girl (exec produced by Josh Safran), which recently kicked off its fifth season; and the rookie fish-out-of-water drama Hart of Dixie (created by Leila Gerstein). With the two established series bolstered by cult followings, Schwartz, 35, feels he's made good on at least one early career goal. "In high school, I couldn't get girls to go out with me because they were so obsessed with Jason Priestley and Luke Perry," he says. "That was powerful. I thought, 'Hopefully one day I will create a show that will make it impossible for somebody else to date in high school.' " Meanwhile, Savage, 42 and raised in Calgary, spent her youth highlighting all the shows in the Sunday program listings her family wanted to watch, even posting a schedule on the TV-room door. "It didn't occur to me until I was in Los Angeles that I could get a job making things for people to watch on television."

  • David Shore and Katie Jacobs

    House (Fox)

    Eight seasons in, Fox's medical procedural is undergoing a reboot. Beleaguered love-interest Lisa Edelstein departed last season, and Odette Annable and Charlyne Yi have joined the cast that's led by six-time Emmy nominee Hugh Laurie. Says Jacobs, 48: "You have to decide early on what captures your interest. If you wait for the audience to tell you they don't like it, it's too late to switch gears." Shore, 52, a veteran of such shows as Family Law and Law & Order, oversees the writers room while Jacobs heads up everything else ("post, casting, publicity, crew, production," she says), including stepping behind the camera as a director. "I knew I wanted to do a show with David, and we made a blind deal to do something. House satisfied that promise," says Jacobs. Shore admits to having an enviable problem, being so far into the series' narrative. "It means I have to come up with that many more stories!" he says. Against all the odds (namely Dancing With the Stars), House still averages about 10 million viewers.

  • Craig Silverstein

    Nikita (CW)

    Silverstein fell into TV like many have before him: by failing to make it in the movies. "But, to be fair, it was a feature spec script that got me my first television job," says Silverstein, who also co-created Fox's big-budget family adventure Terra Nova. In 2000, he landed as a staff writer on Syfy's (then the Sci Fi Channel) The Invisible Man. Silverstein, 36, credits David Levinson, now an executive producer on Nikita, with affording him the opportunity. His quick ascension prepared him for future projects (Standoff, Bones, K-Ville), and a bad pilot experience taught Silverstein to stand by his instincts. When he was approached to develop an update to the Nikita franchise for the CW, he had reservations. "I didn't want this to be Gossip Girl with a gun. She kills people, so I told the CW it had to be dark," he says. Luckily, the network execs agreed. Nikita is settling into its new Friday slot in season two: It's already averaging 2 million viewers and has made a Comic-Con idol out of star Maggie Q.

  • David Simon

    Treme (HBO)

    "I don't think of myself as an entertainer," says Simon, "which of course is a very dangerous thing in this industry." Simon, 51, is television's avant-garde master. With Simon's post-Katrina diary Treme, his impressive HBO resume also boasts The Corner, Generation Kill and The Wire, which is still finding new audiences via DVD sales and digital platforms more than three years after it wrapped. His work has earned critical raves and small, if devoted, audiences. But the freedom he's afforded at HBO has probably engendered a little jealousy from his colleagues in broadcast television. "At any moment, I expect the window to slam shut on my fingers and I'll have to go back to journalism," says Simon, who was a crime reporter at the Baltimore Sun when his non-fiction book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, about life in inner city Baltimore, became the inspiration for Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson's NBC series Homicide. Simon and Eric Overmyer are at work on the third season of Treme, set to bow this spring, and Simon is developing a miniseries for HBO about the Lincoln assassination with Fontana. "Working in cable changed things for me; it was the window I crawled through," he says. "Until they tell me to crawl back through it, it's good."

  • Veena Sud

    The Killing (AMC)

    When she started as an undergrad at Columbia University, the Toronto-born, Ohio-raised Sud set out to become the next great American writer, but admits, "I was 18 and didn't know shit." So she studied political science and women's studies, freelanced, studied film at NYU and eventually landed as a writer/executive producer on CBS' Cold Case. But it was her "worst" job -- directing on The Real World in 1992 -- that most impacted her craft. "I spent five months baby-sitting drunk, hysterical 20-year-olds in Cabo San Lucas in a hurricane," says Sud, 44. "But you could watch human nature unfold for a very long shift." After running Cold Case for two years, Sud embarked on The Killing, the daunting adaptation of the dark Danish series Forbrydelsen (The Crime) for AMC. Its April 3 bow was AMC's second-highest series debut (after The Walking Dead), and her Emmy-nominated star Mireille Enos as detective Sarah Linden became cable's most intriguing new face. Even haters of Sud's controversial red-herring finale are apt to tune in for the second season, set to begin in the spring.

  • Kurt Sutter

    Sons of Anarchy (FX)

    David Strick

    "Forgive me … I'm working on like 2 1/2 hours sleep," warns Sutter. The Sons of Anarchy creator is slumped in a stuffy edit room inside a trailer on the barbed-wire-appointed grounds of SOA's seedy headquarters in North Hollywood. In the throes of editing episode 11 of the biker-gang drama's fourth season, Sutter appears the opposite of the hardened persona who has used Twitter as a public receptacle for seemingly endless obscenity-laced rants about the Emmys and rival showrunners. He's soft-spoken and almost preppy (save for the sleeves of tribal tattoos), wearing a T-shirt, jeans and gray Converse sneakers.

    Sutter is understandably exhausted. He was up all night writing the season finale for what has become FX's biggest drama ever -- its premiere was the most-watched episode in the cable network's history -- an episode he's also prepping to direct. But there's another problem to be solved on this cloudy Tuesday afternoon. After a second viewing of the sprawling 11th episode -- in rough-cut form and laden with visual placeholders like "VFX: Bloody Head" -- Sutter looks worried. "I don't think I can get this down without gutting the whole thing," he tells his dutiful editor Lauren Pendergrass, taking notes on a legal pad. "I'm going to have to e-mail FX and ask if I can do a 90-minute episode again. As we get into the season, even lifting a line of dialogue undermines the narrative."

    One could easily imagine Sutter back when he was headed for a career in academia. After a New Jersey childhood that "wasn't happy," he studied communications at Rutgers and in 1997 was awarded an MFA fellowship in performance at Northern Illinois University. It was there, inspired by Henrik Ibsen and Eugene O'Neill, that he started writing plays and cultivating ideas for the screen while also teaching acting and directing. Sutter moved to L.A. and wrote specs and one-minute bumpers for Bravo before landing as a writer on FX's first original series, The Shield, where he stayed for seven seasons. He says his inspiration for SOA grew largely out of wanting to collaborate with his wife, Golden Globe-winning star Katey Sagal, whom he met via a coffee date set up by friends. "And I never looked back," he says.

    Today Sutter, 48, is one of FX's most iconic and outspoken creatives. He made headlines last summer with all that Twitter trash-talk about SOA and Sagal getting snubbed by the Emmys, which put him suddenly on everyone's radar (and even defending his behavior on NPR). He says the rants came from a satirical place, but admits it's tough not to get sucked into the hype. "I see a show like Mad Men get gobs of Emmys, as well it should," he says. "But what people don't realize is that it's almost more difficult to make my show look this shitty."

    Awards aside, the feedback that rings most powerful is that from his "f--ing committed" fan base. "I was at a party for [Hells Angels founder] Sonny Barger. These guys said: 'Your show is a f--ing soap opera. But it's our soap opera.' I thought, 'Yeah, that's what it's about.' "

  • Janet Tamaro

    Rizzoli & Isles (TNT)

    David Strick

    "Watch out -- she moves fast." So warns the show publicist for TNT's breakout summer hit Rizzoli & Isles as its showrunner, Janet Tamaro, exits the door of her office on the Paramount lot at a pace normally reserved for emergencies.

    It's probably a holdover from her life as an ABC News correspondent that gives Tamaro an ingrained sense of urgency. Or it could be that her drama series was tied with The Closer as this year's top basic-cable series, and the expectations have reached a fever pitch. More likely, it's 90 degrees and the former high school track star (she still manages to work out daily) is dressed for a fall day in her native Boston and needs some AC. "Suede jacket and jeans -- what was I thinking?" she wonders aloud.

    Around 1 p.m., we enter Stage 4 and are greeted by the show's stars, Angie Harmon (tomboy cop Jane Rizzoli) and Sasha Alexander (medical examiner Maura Isles). They are filming episodes 214 and 215 for the series' winter-season block, set to air this fall. "Hi baby!" coos Tamaro, embracing Alexander, wearing a slim red dress and between-the-scenes flats. The two discuss a stunt that will have Alexander diving to the ground. "Hmmm. I wonder if you should really be wearing a dress for this," says Tamaro, pensively. "I'm worried about your safety."

    By 1:20 p.m., we're tucked inside a nondescript room next to Stage 2. Today, Tamaro and her head of casting, Gary Zuckerbrod, are charged with filling the roles of "Whistler and His Daughter" -- parts that will appear later this year. A parade of middle-aged actors and twentysomething actresses file in and read one by one. By 1:45 p.m., it's been 25 minutes of some pretty good and not-so-good readings. "I liked the one who looked like a Barbie doll," she tells Zuckerbrod. "You didn't expect the intensity."

    Back inside Stage 2, a car-crash re-creation scene is being dissected; most urgently, what is the most appropriate type of skid marks? Tamaro hashes out what she feels is the most realistic approach with director Michael Zinberg and police adviser Russ Grant. "But if it went like this, the marks would need to go the opposite direction, right? Like, "Errrrrrr!" offers Tamaro, giving a demonstration while staring at a messy drawing of the scene. "I know I'm in trouble when we start making diagrams."

    Tamaro, 43, is open about the strain of overseeing a hit series. "TNT has been great so far, but I've realized there's no way to be a master of the universe," she says. "I've accepted that this is the gig, and I think all the showrunners in Hollywood should start a support group." Her main priorities for season three? "Having a life again" and making more time for her husband and two teenage daughters. "I'm also going to demand more and not be as concerned with people liking me," she says, laughing. "I wish there were more sole showrunners who were female. We've watched men be in charge for 1,000 years. I'm just going to pretend I'm a man and really take the wheel."

  • Matthew Weiner

    Mad Men (AMC)

    How did Weiner grow up to create TV's most literate show, one of only three in history to win four consecutive Emmys for best drama? Maybe because he got rotten grades. "I was a horrible student, literally 100th out of 120 people in my high school class," he says. "So TV was the first thing taken away." The L.A. native instead watched classic movies and pored over books in his free time, which led to higher test scores, entry into Wesleyan University, then USC Film School and writing jobs on Biography, Becker and The Sopranos, where he won two Emmys. "Even on Becker, the job that forced me to write Mad Men," says Weiner, "I still realized I was in major league baseball: Only 300 people in the country had this job. Part of the origin of Mad Men was my saying, 'I'm 35, I have all this stuff, I've achieved part of my dream, anybody's dream, and I'm still completely unsatisfied. And that was sort of the story of Don Draper." Though as charmed as Weiner's career has become with Mad Men, which returns in March, his humble years are always within a memory's reach. "My worst job was writing an interactive CD ROM in Orange County about Richard Nixon," he says. "The cubicle, the birthday cakes, the office gossip, the 45-minute commute … it was misery."

  • D.B. Weiss and David Benioff

    Game of Thrones (HBO)

    Weiss and Benioff were terrified that their bizarre, dragon-infested adaptation of George R.R. Martin's fantasy novel would be a cult show with a tiny audience. After early career promise in film (Benioff, 41, wrote Spike Lee's The 25th Hour and Troy; Weiss, 40, wrote the script for the game-turned-film project Halo), the longtime friends dragged their wives to Belfast, kickstarting a years-long process to make a show many thought too confusingly weird to survive. But Thrones beat Entourage and True Blood's first-season numbers, earned 13 Emmy noms -- and a win for supporting actor Peter Dinklage -- and became HBO's fifth-most-watched original series, just behind Sex and the City. "The sophistication of the TV audience has grown," says Weiss. "If you really pay attention, you'll follow it."

  • John Wells

    Shameless (Showtime)

    Despite 20 years in the industry, six Emmys for producing ER and The West Wing, forays into features and a tenure as WGA president, there are moments that surprise the seasoned writer-producer, now overseeing Showtime's politically incorrect Shameless. "We were in a read-through last week and at the end of it, Bill [Macy] pulled out a ukulele and had written a Christmas song for us to use to promote the show," says Wells, laughing. Though Shameless' first season attracted only a fraction of the audience that broadcast networks consider a success -- roughly 1 million viewers -- Wells, 55, believes having more options on television is creatively exhilarating. "There are shows on the air with audiences that are 10 percent the size of what was once considered a failure," explains Wells. "If you look at what we think of as 'successful' now, like Mad Men, there would have been no place for that show 20 years ago." As Shameless readies its return this winter, Wells has a slew of projects in development and remains a producer of TNT's underdog drama Southland. His focus, however, is on growing the fledgling Showtime drama. "You use up a lot of your best ideas in season one," he says. "So the concern now is making the best possible use of this amazing cast."

  • Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec

    The Vampire Diaries (CW)

    The CW has doubled-down on Williamson on Thursday nights, pairing his witchy freshman soap The Secret Circle with The Vampire Diaries, which in its third season has become one of the network's biggest scripted hits. The series inhabit their own universes -- though each boasts rabid online fan bases -- forcing Williamson, 46, to test his showrunner mettle. "I've never really understood it," he admits. "There's no set of rules on how to run a show or make TV." The creator of the Scream film franchise and Dawson's Creek jokes that his parents "pushed him out" of the rural North Carolina town he grew up in to encourage his Hollywood aspirations. Now with a serial-killer drama in development at Fox, he must lean increasingly on Diaries' co-showrunner Plec, 39, whom he dubs his unofficial "life partner." Jokes Plec: "Kevin and I have a highly functional dysfunctional system."

  • Terence Winter

    Boardwalk Empire (HBO)

    Schooled in the mafia omertà on the streets of the Brooklyn neighborhood of Marine Park, Winter once worked in a delicatessen owned by Gambino crime boss Paul Castellano. "If you kept your eyes open and your mouth shut, you saw a lot of stuff," he says. But his early education as a writer came in front of the television, where he spent countless hours watching The Honeymooners and The Munsters. "That's how I learned to tell a story. I actually paid attention to it. It's a perfectly valid way to learn about this stuff." So when in 1998 his agent sent him a pilot for an HBO series called The Sopranos, it was destiny. "I knew that world. And I was a huge fan of crime writing," he says. "I called my agent and said, 'You've got to get me on this show. I can write the shit out of this thing.' " Winter, 51, joined The Sopranos in its second season and is responsible for some of its most iconic episodes ("Long Term Parking" and "Members Only," among others). These days, Winter is mining an earlier incarnation of the organized crime underbelly in the Prohibition-era Boardwalk Empire, an Emmy nominee now in its second season, and where he works with numerous former Sopranos colleagues, including its Emmy-nominated star Steve Buscemi and director Tim Van Patten. The show has become the pay cable network's principal drama series given its auspices (its Emmy-winning pilot director Martin Scorsese is also an executive producer) and its status as an heir apparent to The Sopranos. "No pressure there," laughs Winter, who lives with his wife and kids in Manhattan. "It's flattering that anyone even talks about this series in the same breath."

  • Graham Yost

    Justified (FX)

    Michael Becker/FOX

    Yost was surrounded by TV growing up in Toronto, with his dad hosting a popular series about movies for 25 years. However, he ultimately broke into writing on his own, working for Soap Opera Digest and Hey Dude, Nickelodeon's first scripted show, and then on Full House -- but quit "four days before they fired me ...they hated me." One day later, his feature script for Speed sold to Paramount. Yost's action films, which also include Hard Rain and Broken Arrow, had grossed a half-billion dollars when Tom Hanks gave him TV cred by hiring him as a writer on Band of Brothers and as a writer/director/executive producer of The Pacific. Yost used that clout to make Justified, one of the best Elmore Leonard adaptations since Get Shorty. It was the second-most-watched debut in FX history (after The Shield), second-season ratings were up 16 percent, and it also scored four Emmy noms and a win for Margo Martindale. Yost, 52, defines his approach in 10 simple words: "Treat characters with dignity and have a sense of humor."

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