America's Top 40: Most influential showrunners


RELATED: How we choose them

Carol Mendelsohn, "CSI" (CBS)
Ann Donahue, "CSI: Miami" (CBS)
Pam Veasey, "CSI: New York" (CBS)

Those looking for gender parity in television need look no further than the massively popular "CSI" franchise, which has three shows all being run by women (though Mendelsohn does co-run with Naren Shankar). They began as writers (Mendelsohn on "Hardcastle and McCormick," Donahue on "21 Jump Street," Veasey on "Gimme a Break"), and today they stay involved with their scripts while also logging time editing, casting and producing. Stories are all vetted by Jerry Bruckheimer Television to ensure the shows share sensibilities, but not plots. "There are only seven ways to kill someone, and you don't want two shows using carbon monoxide poisoning the same week," Veasey says. But otherwise, each runner sticks to her own turf. Notes Donahue, "We all know what we're doing, so we tend to talk just for the heck of it."

Rene Balcer, "Law & Order" (NBC)
Neal Baer, "Law & Order: SVU" (NBC)

Keeping the "L&O" franchise chugging along takes four separate showrunners. (USA Network's "Criminal Intent" splits duties between Walon Green and Robert Nathan.) But all agree that the biggest priority is "protecting the writers," Baer says, "so they feel they can take chances." They mostly eschew the writers room, though Nathan says he likes beating out a story in a group: "It's silly to waste the intelligence of the people we have," he says. In general the "L&O" runners -- all of whom (except Baer) have held other positions in the franchise -- employ various permutations of solitary writing. Balcer doesn't give notes -- "Instead, I just do the rewrite. And I don't jump credit" -- while Green tries to "get the writers to do as much as they can on their own." Baer, meanwhile, has incorporated his medical background into his showrunning, making the rounds to check up on his scribes' progress. He gives notes in purple ink and approval with smiley faces. Now, that's comforting.

Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse
"Lost" (ABC)

Cuse hired young writer Lindelof during the final season of his "Nash Bridges," a show Lindelof now jokes he helped "run into the ground." Six years later, Lindelof remembered Cuse when he was looking for someone to bring order to the first season of "Lost." The partnership now starts daily over breakfast. Both believe in writing as a collaborative effort, a process Lindelof equates to "taking something from the blue-sky phase to the assembly line." Their chemistry has led to one of TV's most ambitious shows, and they "agree so much of the time, it's scary," Cuse says. But no relationship is perfect -- Cuse roots for the Red Sox; Lindelof likes the Yankees.

Carter Bays and Craig Thomas
"How I Met Your Mother" (CBS)

Their acerbic comedy survived for three and a half underrated seasons with a cult following but little critical or commercial success. Then something strange happened after the WGA strike ended: While most series suffered steep declines, "Mother," boosted by Britney Spears' guest appearances, shot up in the ratings. The momentum continues with a string of series highs and rich syndication deals -- major vindication for creators Bays and Thomas. As two of the youngest showrunners working on their first series (Bays and Thomas are both 33), they already have made their mark by pioneering the multicamera hybrid format, which has been adopted by all networks and studios. Shot in a studio without live audience, "Mother" combines the efficiency of a multicamera sitcom with the quick pace of a single-camera comedy.

Seth MacFarlane
"Family Guy," "American Dad," "The Cleveland Show" (Fox)

MacFarlane is a one-man animation factory, co-showrunning two current and one forthcoming Fox half-hours packed with his love-it-or-leave-it sense of humor. Plus he recently launched the Google-distributed "Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy," which racked up 14 million views in its first three weeks this fall. The Rhode Island School of Design graduate squeezes in procrastination time by playing Wii tennis, which he calls "the best part of my job." But it's the variety of duties that keeps him interested -- and busier than ever. "My assistants have gotten my phone voice down pat so I don't have to talk to my mother."

Greg Berlanti
"Eli Stone," "Brothers & Sisters," "Dirty Sexy Money" (ABC)

Berlanti rises at 6 a.m. so he can pack in four hours of writing before the phone rings -- and he needs every minute. In addition to co-running "Eli Stone" (with Marc Guggenheim), which returned Oct. 14 for its second season, he exec produces ABC's "Dirty Sexy Money" and "Brothers & Sisters," and is co-writing the Warner Bros. tentpole "Green Lantern." Not bad for a guy who's just 36. "I'm not cut from the same cloth as Aaron Sorkin or David Kelley," says Berlanti, who also created the WB's "Everwood and "Jack & Bobby." "I can't hammer out a script in 48 hours, so I lean on the writers for a lot of that."

Shonda Rhimes
"Grey's Anatomy," "Private Practice" (ABC)

Her only medical background may have been as a candy striper, but Rhimes has put a new spin on hospital-based melodrama that resonates with critics and viewers alike. Her "Grey's" is still a top-rated drama in its fifth season; and while the WGA strike limited "Private Practice" to just nine episodes in its debut season, ABC has already picked up the show for a full 22 this year. "The first season of 'Private' wasn't twice the amount of work compared to just working on 'Grey's,'" she admits. "It was five times the amount of work." Still, she insists she's having fun and she won't relinquish her duties anytime soon. "No aspect of the job troubles me," she says.

Josh Schwartz
"Gossip Girl" (The CW), "Chuck" (NBC)

First Schwartz defied the odds and had a TV pilot picked up at age 22 ("Brookfield"). Then -- with "The O.C." -- he became the youngest person (26) in network history to create and run a series. Last year, "Chuck" and "Gossip Girl" hit the airwaves on two separate networks, and both were modest hits. This season "Girl's" ratings are sizzling, though "Chuck's" have been cooling down. Schwartz, the son of Rhode Island toy inventors, says only half-jokingly that writing, exec producing and showrunning both programs is a good outlet for his ADD: "The biggest challenge for me is focus since I'm easily distracted, but it allows me to do a lot of things at once," he says. "It's doing one thing that's the challenge."

Chuck Lorre
"Two and a Half Men," "The Big Bang Theory" (CBS)

Someone forgot to tell Lorre that the sitcom is dead. The former musician now runs two hit multicam half-hours for CBS -- ratings stalwart "Two and a Half Men" (with co-creator Lee Aronsohn) and newcomer "The Big Bang Theory" (with co-creator Bill Prady). Both series have held their own in the ratings this season as most shows have sunk. "On the dark days, doing a second series seems like the worst idea in the world," says the New York native, who went from writing show theme songs to creating "Grace Under Fire" and "Cybill" and co-creating "Dharma & Greg." "But then every once in a while you get it right, and it's so thrilling."

Shawn Ryan
"The Shield" (FX), "The Unit" (CBS)

The job of showrunner never sleeps -- which means that for a multitasker like Ryan, neither does he. Late at night, he is likely to be found on the telephone, offering instruction to his writers on "The Unit," now in its fourth season -- or typing detailed notes to staffers on "Shield" (whose final season's premiere drew a steady 2.1 million viewers). That punishing schedule is doubled when both series have occasionally been in production simultaneously. He's not keen on delegating but knows it's part of the job. "I'm fortunate to have worked with two extraordinary writing staffs," he says. "Our writers room is very productive." Nevertheless, he's still often up until sunrise shaping material. "I need sleep," he insists. "I just don't get it."

Joss Whedon
"Dollhouse" (Fox)

Whedon believes in the power of the writers room so much that after filming three episodes of his forthcoming midseason drama "Dollhouse," he shut down production because he hadn't spent enough time there. "I use the room for (script structure) and then I send people off on their lonesomes to write," he says. Whedon prefers that approach for himself, too; he'll head to a restaurant with his Pilot Razor Points and listen to movie soundtracks while composing scripts by hand. He is a showrunning vet (at one point he was in control of "Angel," "Firefly" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"), but Whedon says that doesn't make him experienced. "The thing about showrunning is you never learn anything," he admits. "The biggest part is to surround yourself with smart people and then take credit for it."

Tim Kring
"Heroes" (NBC)

Showrunning is not a task that sits easily on Kring's shoulders. "You go from being someone who gets paid to be reclusive to suddenly being a manager of people," he explains. Though Kring has TV experience dating back to the first incarnation of "Knight Rider," NBC's "Crossing Jordan" was his first shot at running his own show. "You learn very quickly about motivating people and delegating," he says. "The tone of the workplace comes very much from you." "Heroes'" third season has been down in the ratings compared with last year, but Kring says he remains focused solely on the work. "(Showrunning) doesn't come naturally to me," he says. "I'm still someone who needs to go into my office for a couple of hours every day and be that solitary person again."

Ron Moore and David Eick
"Battlestar Galactica," "Caprica" (Sci Fi)

When Studios USA first approached TV exec-turned-producer Eick in 2001 about shepherding a four-hour miniseries remake of "Galactica" for Sci Fi, he swayed longtime "Star Trek" writer Moore to come aboard as creator. Moore recast the campy 1970s series as a dark, post-9/11 morality tale that became a cult TV sensation. In addition to the final season of "Galactica," Moore and Eick are overseeing its prequel, "Caprica." Additionally, Eick also is working on scripts for the midseason NBC drama "The Philanthropist," which he's running. "Ron and I will be talking about 'Caprica,' and I'm in the role of objective, nonwriting executive producer; then an hour later, I'll be discussing an episode of 'The Philanthropist,' and I'm the guy trying to protect every word," Eick says. In both roles they insist the needs are the same: "Honest partners who will tell you when to dig in and fight and when you're digging in for the wrong reasons," Eick says.

Alan Ball
"True Blood" (HBO)

How often does a TV writer-producer win an Oscar before an Emmy? Ball cut his teeth on the sitcoms "Grace Under Fire" and "Cybill" before creating his first series, the ABC comedy "Oh, Grow Up," which premiered a week before his first feature, "American Beauty," hit theaters. "Grow Up" was quickly canceled, but "Beauty" won five Oscars, including best original screenplay for Ball. Still, he went back to TV, creating HBO's "Six Feet Under" and winning an Emmy for directing the pilot. This fall's follow-up, the vampire drama "True Blood," has already been picked up by HBO for a second season.

Glenn Gordon Caron
"Medium" (NBC)

Before "dramedy" was a word, there was "Moonlighting," Caron's detective show that launched Bruce Willis and scored 16 Emmy nominations in its first year. Caron went on to create CBS' critically praised drama "Now and Again" and now heads "Medium," which has become a solid utility player for NBC and earned star Patricia Arquette an Emmy. Caron is the rare showrunner who also directs the pilots of his series to set the tone, just one of his idiosyncrasies. "I don't bible my shows; I let them grow organically," he says. "Part of it is that I'm easily bored and resist anything that smells like a formula."

Ryan Murphy
"Nip/Tuck" (FX), "Glee" (Fox)

If "Nip/Tuck's" production offices resemble the entrance of a fancy hotel, that's by design. "I love how it makes me feel when I walk in (here) every day," says Murphy, an Emmy nominee whose obsession with creating ambiance and visual texture translates to the screen. He'll be in those offices for a while -- FX has ordered the series' final episodes, but they won't finish airing until 2011. For Murphy, showrunning comes down to the finest of details -- including clothes and vases. "I want my finger in every pie," says the former journalist, adding that he does trust his staff implicitly. "But there isn't a day I don't work. I'm one of those amazingly lucky people whose job and dreams intertwine."

James Duff
"The Closer" (TNT)

Ratings don't worry Duff, which is easy for him to say given he runs the most watched original serier />3. Nielsen ratings of the current show(s)
4. Critical praise and/or Emmy Awards won
5. Track record and proven ability to deliver high quality and high ratings
NOTE: Not included are nonwriting showrunners or show creators and uber-producers -- such as Dick Wolf ("Law & Order"), Anthony Zuiker ("CSI"), J.J. Abrams ("Lost," "Fringe") and John Wells ("ER") -- who oversee franchises, but are not the daily showrunners.