Showrunners: The green room
Managing a television series for the first time can be a grueling, up-all-night indoctrination into TV's most exclusive clubShowrunners don't get much greener than Matt Nix. Before being handed the reins of USA Network's "Burn Notice" in 2007, he had never even set foot in a writers' room. When he convened his scribes for the first time, Nix walked up to the whiteboard and started writing down ideas.
At least, until one of his hires told him that was an assistant's job.
"The (network and the studio) are giving you the keys to the Porsche, and in that first year you're proving yourself," Nix recalls. "And you do that knowing that if you so much as bump another car when you parallel park, the keys will be out of your hand and you'll be back to riding the bus."
While TV series continue to be dominated by "name" showrunners with years spent in the trenches, increasingly networks -- particularly on the cable side -- are rolling the dice with first-time creator-showrunners. The two most-nominated series at this month's Emmys, AMC's "Mad Men" and NBC's "30 Rock," are run by newbies Matthew Weiner and Tina Fey, respectively. Sure, Weiner had deep roots at HBO's "The Sopranos" and Fey ruled NBC's "Saturday Night Live," but they also hadn't run series before.
And they're not alone. This year's drama series Emmy category features a majority of first-time showrunners, including Weiner; Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer (HBO's "Big Love"); Glenn Kessler, Todd Kessler and Daniel Zelman (FX's "Damages"); and Damon Lindelof (who co-runs ABC's "Lost" with veteran Carlton Cuse).
Letting the newcomers loose in the showrunners booth is a calculated risk by studio and network executives that can pay big dividends -- but often requires on-the-job training.
"All bromides are true: Being thrown to the wolves, always wear clean underwear, sink or swim -- that was our first year," Olsen says about his and Scheffer's rookie season of "Big Love."
Cuse goes even further: "It's trial by fire, which means you're placed on the third floor of a burning skyscraper and you have to get yourself 80 stories up to the roof and then somehow back down to the ground," he says.
First-time showrunners became more prominent in recent years as networks have moved away from classic procedurals and toward character-driven shows built around a creator's distinct voice. But procedural dramas remain pro showrunning territory: Both the "CSI" (CBS) and "Law & Order" (NBC) franchises are run by veterans, for example.
Many young writers landing their first series order -- regardless of genre -- tend to be paired with experienced showrunners. Josh Schwartz, who ran his first series ("The O.C.") at age 26, was teamed with Robert De Laurentiis.
"I didn't know anything about showrunning," Schwartz recalls. "The only part I ever thought about was writing, and in the beginning that was my primary focus and (De Laurentiis) had the showrunner abilities."
Some, like Lindelof, actively seek a partnership. Having worked on the Cuse-run "Nash Bridges," he knew he wanted to "get behind that closed door" where "all the moves were happening." He got his chance with "Lost," when co-creator J.J. Abrams left after the pilot to head into feature films.
"I said, 'Who's going to be behind that door with me?' Even though I know how this show runs, it's very unwieldy. We're shooting it 3,500 miles away (in Hawaii), the storytelling is different than a franchise model, we have no sets," Lindelof says. "So I was calling Carlton and crying every night and begged him to come aboard and partner with me. And thank God for everybody he said, 'Yes.' "
Not all showrunning mentorships, however, are successful. "Entourage" (HBO) creator-showrunner Doug Ellin was assigned a showrunner in his first year "but that didn't work out," he says. Instead, he found a "stabilizing" mentor in director Larry Charles.
"For any first-time person, you need someone around you who knows how to do it," Ellin says.
"Everybody Loves Raymond" creator Phil Rosenthal stood his ground when CBS tried to hand over the series to a more experienced showrunner, threatening to quit unless he had autonomy.
"I wasn't going to work for someone else on my own show," he says. "A lot of it was based on my own family, and nobody was going to know my family better than me."
CBS blinked, and Rosenthal flew solo -- a setup that worked well. But with most broadcast series stretching to create 22 (or more) episodes per production cycle, and with tens of millions of dollars on the line, many network executives continue to balk at putting series solely in the hands of first-timers.
Instead, several of this year's crop of new series are going the pairs route, including: creator Liz Heldens with Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts (NBC's "Mercy"), Jon Steinberg with Brad Kern (Fox's "Human Target") and Scott Peters with Jeffrey Bell (ABC's "V").
It wasn't always like that.
" 'Moonlighting' was done almost completely by instinct," "Medium" showrunner Glenn Gordon Caron says of his 1980s dramedy. "We made up the rules as we went along, and you felt that rebellious, almost gleeful feeling of, 'We're going to reinvent the way people do things.'
"A lot of that was stupidity and a lot was youthful exuberance and I think it helped," he adds. "That rebellious spirit isn't tolerated in the same way now, because the system isn't as forgiving now."
Nix feels like he beat the system with "Burn Notice." He came to TV from a slow-moving career in features. Manager Mikkel Bondesen pitched him to Fox Television Studios, which liked his take on a spy drama. But several networks passed before USA bit.
Without a clue as to how to write a TV script, Nix says he "wrote the pilot as a short feature, without act outs."
Following a lengthy development process, "Burn Notice" was picked up to pilot -- and studio brass suggested Nix sign up for the WGA showrunner program. He shot the pilot in Miami, then came to Los Angeles for the birth of his son -- and an interview for the program. Nix was taking classes in showrunning while also running post on his pilot.
Impressed by his managerial skills on the pilot, the network and studio stepped away from pairing him with an experienced runner and instead just had him hire a senior writer.
"At a certain point, it's actually better if the creator is the showrunner," Nix says. "There is a lot less opportunity for creating political tension."
The learning process has taught him where the rules can be bent a little. Early on, Nix consistently brought his scripts in by the first day of preproduction, per DGA rules. If he hit a snag, he just stayed up all night writing.
Then a director smiled and told him no one actually honored that rule -- scripts often trickle in as late as the sixth day of preproduction.
"I followed the rule more closely because I hadn't seen anybody break it," Nix says.
Randee Dawn contributed to this report.