Emmy Roundtable: Showrunners

How do TV's busiest showrunners keep their jobs and their sanity?

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The showrunner is the workhorse of the television business, acting as the head writer, producer, casting director, editor, sound mixer, studio liaison, network communicator, hand-holder and surrogate parent. The Hollywood Reporter's Ray Richmond and Matthew Belloni recently gathered six of the best in the business -- Alan Ball (HBO's "True Blood"); Greg Daniels (NBC's "The Office," "Parks and Recreation"); Katie Jacobs (Fox's "House"); Jenji Kohan (Showtime's "Weeds"); Shonda Rhimes (ABC's "Grey's Anatomy," "Private Practice"); and Matthew Weiner (AMC's "Mad Men") -- to explain how they wear so many different hats.

The Hollywood Reporter: What do you tell people who aren't in the business when they ask what your job is?

Matthew Weiner: I tell them I'm a writer -- the head writer, sometimes. And I tell them that I basically have a job where I get to oversee the writing and control all aspects of physical production, from casting to editing to sound mixing. And while any show requires hundreds and hundreds of people to put it together, I see myself as the guiding taste on the show.

Jenji Kohan: We are the big casting agents for our show. We cast our writers' room. We cast our crew. We cast our department heads. There's a skill there for understanding who will be good at their jobs.

THR: So you're basically saying it's the perfect job for a control freak.

All: Oh yeah. Absolutely.

Weiner: When people ask me, "What do you think of this?" I enjoy giving the answer -- and then changing my mind.

THR: Greg and Shonda, you're now running two shows simultaneously. How much more creative energy goes into a series at the beginning compared to one that's been on for awhile?

Greg Daniels: At the start, a show is way more in play. So something that might get a good laugh in the second episode could grow later into a huge part of things. For example, on "The Office," we did a joke early on about how Dwight (Rainn Wilson) had a 60-acre beet farm. That wound up getting woven into several episodes.

THR: At what point do you think a show's path is pretty much set?

Weiner: If they let a show get to Episode 5 before they take it away from us, I think by then it has found what it is, the way it's going to be every week. When I was working on "The Sopranos," Episode 5 was the "College" episode, the one where you realize, "Wow, Tony isn't just a kingpin, he actually kills people." In "Mad Men," it was the episode where Don Draper's (Jon Hamm) mysterious brother comes back to see him. When I want to give a show that I'm watching a chance, I make sure I get through the fifth installment.

THR: Is there a period, especially at the beginning of a show, where you have to teach yourself to become an effective manager?

Shonda Rhimes: Well, for "Grey's" it's a lot easier now (because) most of the writers have been with the show almost from the beginning; it's a well-oiled machine. The scripts hardly ever need to be rewritten anymore. "Private Practice" is newer, and like any new show there's a lot of rewriting and blood coming from your fingertips. It's a lot more exhausting.

THR: There are a lot of people out there who think they know what's best for your characters. Does that ever influence you?

Rhimes: No. Every once in awhile, we'll get a letter from the network suggesting something. But I always ignore that stuff. If it gets to the point where you aren't writing your own show, you might as well pack up and go home.

Alan Ball: There are times when I find out that people have posted audition sides (online), and it's freaked me out a little bit. It's left me thinking I should maybe craft audition sides that are totally misleading. What it tells me is how rabid the fans of this vampire genre are. It's the first time I've ever worked on any sort of genre show, so it's quite an eye-opener. But anything that can spoil our element of surprise is greatly upsetting to me.

Daniels: (That) seems to be a thing we all deal with to some degree. You have to work really closely with your promo department to make sure nobody's blowing anything big.

Weiner: I'm fighting that all the time. I'm always having to explain to people that the mystery of the show is its commercial appeal, its commercial value. The thing is, people don't want to know what's going to happen. I just don't understand why, as a television viewer, there would be pleasure in telling people things that spoil the viewing experience for them.

Ball: It's about them wanting to be a part of the show.

Rhimes: Yes, if you're a part of the fan community and you can figure out what's going to happen, or you know what happens somehow, it's a big deal and makes you stand out from the crowd.

Weiner: I take my cue from "The Sopranos." Anybody who spoils ...

Kohan: They kill you. (Laughter)

Weiner: Yes, and anybody who spoils it or has a relationship with the spoiler will be excommunicated from participating in anything connected with the show. You will not get information. You will not be able to visit the set. I mean, there's nothing we can do about the speculation online. But that can get kind of funny. My show takes place 47 years ago, and there are people wondering what's going to happen with the Cuban Missile Crisis.

THR: Besides the audience, to whom do you have to answer? What kind of battles do you fight with your networks?

Kohan: We've only received two notes in terms of content throughout the run of "Weeds." We weren't allowed to lube up a dildo onscreen. We could show the dildo. We could show the lube. We could show the lubed dildo. But we couldn't show how it got lubed. The second note was that we couldn't kill a cat willfully.

Ball: We killed a cat. We beheaded it. I'm lucky because at HBO, anything we might do has already been done worse on "Tell Me You Love Me." And the violence has already been worse on so many shows.

Weiner: There is a standards department at AMC, but its other original drama, "Breaking Bad," is held to a very different standard than we are. I have a show where there's no swearing, no nudity and no violence. But on "Breaking Bad," they're shooting people in the face, cooking meth and swearing, and somehow it's not as offensive because the implied sexuality we deal with is very touchy. So it's a strange sort of sliding scale.

Katie Jacobs: Our battles are more internal about striving for excellence and keeping it fresh through 24 hours of television every year. We don't get a whole lot of network and studio notes. But (co-showrunner) David (Shore) and I give each other pages of single-spaced notes. The real common enemy is the immense volume of work.

THR: Shonda and Katie, which aspect of your shows do you find more difficult to sustain, the emotional drama or the medical cases?

Rhimes: The drama, absolutely. What's great about medicine is, there's always something being discovered. There's always a new surgery. They put two donor hands on someone the other day.

Kohan: But did one of the hands belong to a serial killer? (Laughter)

Rhimes: The bounds of medicine are always pushed open. So to me, keeping the drama at a high level is the consistent challenge. On "Grey's," we're in Season 5 and headed toward Season 6, which is a turning point for any show. You'll either sink or swim in terms of moving it to the next phase. So it's about keeping the drama alive and interesting.

Jacobs: The medicine, while it's exciting, tends to bore me. The drama and mystery elements of our show are most crucial, and what we work on the most.

THR: That's a universal question: how do you keep your shows feeling both new and consistent year after year?

Kohan: We feel the need to always be reinventing it. We found that our writers were beginning to get restless. They told me they were sick of Agrestic (the fictitious town where "Weeds" is based). So we burned it down. And it truly invigorated everyone. It's important to us to make every season its own unique creation.

Rhimes: We start every season by figuring out what the finale for that season is. The exact last moment of the season. And we've pretty much stuck to it every year so far. That last moment tells me everything about how our season will play out.

Jacobs: That's very cool. But we don't do it that way. For us, it's about seeing what kind of stuff grows out of the choices we've made along the way. Hopefully, we'll decide on an ending that's propulsive in some way to the following season.

Ball: The first four seasons of "Six Feet Under" started with us figuring out how the last episode would play out. It changed all four times. By the middle of the season, it was like, "The show doesn't want to go there. It wants to go someplace else." Part of my job as a showrunner is to realize that, OK, if the show wants to go here, I ought to let it.

THR: How do you make the tough decisions about what to cut out of the show each week?

Weiner: My secret, and I'm sure this is true of a lot of showrunners, is there's always someone on your show who can tell from reading your script what will be in the show and what won't. And if you can really listen to and trust them, you'll save yourself a lot of heartache. That person on "Mad Men" is Scott Hornbacher.

Daniels: What will happen to me is, there will be an editor who does a shortened version of the episode. I'll yell, "What are you doing? You're cutting the best stuff!" Then by the end of the process, I'll look at what they did and invariably it will be close to what the editor originally had.

THR: What kind of compromises are you making to the new advertising and marketing realities of TV?

Jacobs: It's a delicate issue that needs to be monitored carefully. I remember when Fox made a deal with iTunes (to tell) viewers how they could buy the show's music. We like to let our audience discover things, not kind of force-feed them.

Weiner: It's a very touchy relationship we have with advertisers and it always has been. You can cite all kinds of incidents historically where advertisers kill TV shows. Being a show about the ad business, ("Mad Men") could use products kind of ironically. I just don't want anyone telling me how a product should be represented. It can very easily pull you out of the story if you allow it.

Daniels: I think I'd rather get notes from the networks than the ad agency reps. The business model of 30-second commercials being sold works fine for me. The agencies tend to only be interested in pleasing the corporate client and have no long-term interest in the show.

Kohan: My instinct is to bite the hand, so it's probably good I'm on a noncommercial network. We have certain people who want to target our show, and we work with them sometimes. But a lot of them try to get permission to use things, and it won't be granted because we deal with drugs.

Rhimes: Product integration is something we haven't really even begun to think about that much. And it's hard on our show. Everyone's in scrubs and in surgery all the time. They're rarely at home. Do I care what kind of toothbrush Meredith is holding? She's never going to talk about how much she loves Colgate.