Veteran Showrunners Cash In as "Skittish" Networks Seek Insurance for Untested Creators

As a crush of fresh (and green) voices turns to television, execs are scrambling to find proven writer-producers to keep big-ticket investments on track.
Illustration by: Cami

Apple had every intention of entering the original programming business with a bang. And doing so with the one-two punch of stars Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon — at a jaw-dropping price tag of about $50 million — all but guaranteed they would.

But four months after purchasing the flashy project — a morning-show drama that draws loosely from Brian Stelter's 2013 book, Top of the Morning — the guy they'd tapped to run it, Jay Carson, had yet to deliver so much as a script. To those who knew better, it was hardly surprising: The onetime Bill Clinton communications director had never written a credited episode of TV before, much less run his own show. A script would ultimately come in, but by then executives at the tech giant were already said to be panicking.

On April 3, Carson was out, replaced by Kerry Ehrin, who possessed the very thing Apple was after: experience. In fact, Ehrin parlayed her six seasons running the A&E drama Bates Motel into the company's first overall deal, which sources have pegged at about $10 million. And she's only one example. In a "peak TV" marketplace that's trying to support a frenzied pace and some 520 TV shows, veterans are finding themselves in increasingly high demand. At the high end, folks like Ryan Murphy, Greg Berlanti and Shonda Rhimes have been able to turn their showrunning success into never-before-seen, nine-figure pacts. But even writer-producers with second-tier credits, like Major Crimes' James Duff (now Star Trek: Discovery) are being paid handsomely to right ships that have left the dock.

"Showrunners don't just fall out of the sky, they're grown," says CBS TV Studios president David Stapf, who's watched his share of series go off the rails without an experienced body at the helm. "There are so many shows now that the talent pool is thinner and people are getting opportunities maybe before they should be."

To be sure, having experience doesn't ensure a strong showrunner — but it does make for a safer bet when multimillion-dollar productions are on the line. The position requires a writer-producer to wear multiple hats, serving as both a creative overlord and a budget-minded CEO.

"You need someone to steer the ship in all waters — the ocean, lake, river or stream — whatever part of the show you're working on," says Neal Baer, who recently became the fifth showrunner in three seasons on the ABC turned Netflix Kiefer Sutherland drama Designated Survivor. To hear him tell it, his decades of experience helped him recruit former colleagues with whom he shares a shorthand. The latter allowed production to hit the ground running and fostered a singular voice for a show that has lacked one.

In other cases, seasoned showrunners are being brought in at the onset to help guide the fast-expanding, similarly in-demand batch of fresh voices, including Atlanta's Donald Glover (Paul Simms, also providing support on FX's What We Do in the Shadows with Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi) or Dear White People's Justin Simien (Yvette Lee Bowser). The guy behind the guy, as some dub these types, rarely gets much credit publicly but is paid generously to make sure episodes come in on time and on budget. And in success, those rewards can be even richer. Once Dear White People broke out, for instance, Bowser scored an overall deal with the series' studio, Lionsgate TV, said to be worth seven figures.

Then there's the streamers' aggressive push into local-language programming, which has also demanded veteran guidance. Netflix, in particular, is looking to proven U.S. showrunners to be the established voices in its writers rooms abroad. Per sources, they're asked to come in and help break stories in English before the scripts are translated. "It's legit money," says one agent, noting that these shows don't have preset budgets and, in the case of those considered top local priorities, Netflix will aggressively pursue U.S. showrunners — and compensate them accordingly.

Back stateside, scripts that come in with proven showrunners are getting a leg up. They're seen as less risky and, in certain cases, can be key to luring top talent. In fact, per Glen Mazzara, who once ran The Walking Dead, plenty of execs are "skittish" about committing to projects without a showrunner attached — a notable change from just a few years ago. "It used to be, 'We'll find the showrunner later,' but that's not the case anymore," he says. "You want someone to get through the development process, handle the budget and draw talent at a time when prices are going up."

This story first appeared in the Sept. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.