Showrunners enjoy bigger profile
Blood, sweat and fears in post-WGA strike industryWhen writers went on strike in late 2007, TV showrunners like Shonda Rhimes became the faces of the conflict. Waving pickets in solidarity with her staffs, the creator and executive producer of ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" and "Private Practice" began speaking to the press and representing her shows in a way she hadn't been asked to do before.
Then the strike ended, and -- at first -- her front-and-center role seemed over.
"Business as usual," Rhimes says.
That may be true from one perspective: Studios still largely see showrunners as another form of employee. But the clout on display during the strike evidences a recent subtle shift in television. Once anonymous workmen leading their writing staffs, showrunners increasingly have become CEOs of their creative product, showered with accolades when the shows do well but forced to deal with challenges like budget crunches and the industry-wide concerns over falling ratings and the slowing ad market.
Tim Kring, creator and showrunner of NBC's "Heroes," says he acts as a "brand manager and spokesman" for his show.
"It's such a nice phrase, and nobody knows what the hell it means," says David Wild, author of "The Showrunners: A Season Inside the Billion-Dollar, Death-Defying, Madcap World of Television's Real Stars." "They're the quarterback and the head coach, the person calling the shots. Usually it's a writer who is the creative and general force behind any show. But there are nonwriting showrunners. The irony is there's a built-in conflict: If you're coming up from the ranks of writing, you celebrate creativity unbound, and it seems the real showrunners are the ones who have that creative spirit -- but with organizational skills."
Lately, while showrunners still serve as liaisons between the series production staff, the studio and network distributors, they've started becoming creators of multimedia extensions, trying to figure out how a TV program can also work as 3-minute webisodes or an online game, or inventing special features for the inevitable DVD set.
"Shows need to exist on multiple platforms in order to survive," Kring says. "You have to have a face on the Internet and various platforms, iTunes or Hulu. We have publishing and merchandising and comic books and online content. It's a much bigger playing field than just quietly putting your show on the air each week."
With their profiles raised, the showrunner is now beholden to various shareholders, giving media interviews and taking meetings with underlings in addition to the usual writing-producing tasks.
And like a CEO, a showrunner's series management role has become a matter of delegation, Kring notes.
"There are so many decisions that have to be made in any given half-hour that one person just can't do it all," he says. "So there's a lot of, 'Well, you go do this, and you go do that, and I'll do this and then we'll meet in the hallway and we'll decide what to do next.' It's very much akin to being at war -- you're just a group of generals trying to march forward and not get killed."
Showrunners are split as to whether their heightened role has resulted in an increased amount of power, however.
"House" (Fox) creator David Shore says that broadcast networks have grown to respect writer-producers, taking a cue from HBO's relatively hands-off development style that resulted in shows like "The Sopranos" having a more cinematic tone.
"We probably have more power than we used to; the HBO model has trickled down," he says. "It varies from show to show -- we bitch and moan, but they ultimately do let you do what you want, and that's wonderful. There is less minute-detail management."
Yet veteran showrunner Steven Bochco says that writer-producers used to have more leeway.
"'Showrunner' is almost an oxymoron -- I don't know how many showrunners generally run their shows anymore," Bochco says. "When I did 'Hill Street Blues,' they didn't tell me how to run my shows, and I didn't tell them how to run their network. But the degree of micromanaging has increased exponentially, and anxiety has increased exponentially, combined with the lack of experience of a great many showrunners. It's created an upside-down world where the showrunner isn't running a show -- they're taking notes on everything from scripts to hair."
Bochco touches on a schism seen among showrunners, as a new generation of writer-producers begins to break into the venerated world of multiseries agreements.
With successful series like "Grey's Anatomy," Fox's "Family Guy" and "House," and NBC's "The Office" yielding spinoff interest from networks, more showrunners are getting a shot at becoming the next David E. Kelley -- writer-producers with multiple projects on the air. But as their showrunning duties have evolved, adding another series to an executive's already diverse workload risks further distancing the creative brainchild from the day-to-day development process.
On top of everything else, networks have been quietly tightening budgets, a problem because audience standards remain high. Viewers look for near-theatrical-quality episodes each week, while networks continue to seek ways to feature inexpensive content.
"Managing to make a show on budget is really a challenge, so you have to be so careful," says "Law & Order: SVU" (NBC) showrunner Neal Baer. "And yet the audience is used to seeing a show in a certain way, so it's hard to economize -- but one must. You still want to put on the screen whatever's on the page, even if it's a show with tigers and hyenas."
Between audiences' increasing demands and networks' decreasing resources, it really is a jungle out there for showrunners.
Matthew Weiner (AMC's "Mad Men") says the key to managing a limited budget is to have a producer (in his case, Scott Hornbacher) who knows how to make the right cuts.
"He's the only person who can explain to me how I can cut money out of the show," says the
creator-showrunner, who won an outstanding drama series Emmy in September. "We shoot the show in seven days, and at first the scripts were longer, the scenes were longer; and then I cut the scripts down, but then there were more scenes, so it actually ended up taking longer to shoot."
Still, if there's one way things have changed post-strike, it's that even the most successful writers now have recently tasted unemployment.
"There's a sense of gratitude that colors everything because everything can get taken away from you," says Chuck Lorre, co-creator and showrunner for CBS' "Two and a Half Men" and "The Big Bang Theory." "But now it's back to putting on the very best show and never forgetting that the relationship with the audience is fragile."