This story first appeared in the June 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Nobody gets fired by accident — especially the creator of a television show. That’s because when you’re the showrunner of a network TV series, what you actually are is the CEO of a $60 million company, someone who creates a new product from scratch every eight days. As CEO, you make all creative and business decisions. You manage a crew of 200, write or rewrite every episode and have the luxury (and burden) of final cut. It is, in every sense of the word, your show.
So to replace a showrunner is no small thing. That said, it turns out to be surprisingly easy. You just make a couple of phone calls.
There’s a story Lorne Michaels tells at the end of Bill Carter‘s book The War for Late Night about quitting Saturday Night Live. Lorne said that in his exit interview, a certain high-level executive at NBC said (I’m paraphrasing), “We paid you to deliver a certain number of episodes for a certain budget in a certain number of days. Nowhere in your contract does it say the show has to be good. If you believe it has to be good, then that’s on you. You can’t get mad at us for getting in your way.” Quality, in other words, is not the point. Money and ratings are the point.
Dan Harmon found this out the hard way on May 18. Sony Television (and, by not standing up for him, NBC) fired Harmon as the CEO of Community. They wanted a product for a certain price in a certain number of days. He wanted it to be good.
Now the rumors are that Harmon was “difficult,” both to work with and to work for. I have no real information about this one way or another, but even if it’s true, Dan’s personality was a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. Because — and here’s the dirty secret of television — there are plenty of showrunners who are difficult. Some are even truly Machiavellian, hated and feared by all. But as long as their shows are hits, no one would ever think about replacing them.
Community, as we know, was not a hit. From their actions, though, Sony and NBC made it clear that they hope to get a couple more seasons out of the show so they can push it into the black via syndication. They apparently are willing to do this at the expense of the series itself. But again, remember, neither the studio nor the network cares about making a “good” show, in a fan sense. They need it to be “good” in a ratings sense. A money sense. Which it wasn’t.
It takes a certain temperament to be a TV showrunner — a kind of humble megalomania. You have to like being in charge, but you also have to accept that you work for two major corporations. And ultimately it is they, not you, who decide whether you or your show lives or dies.
So if you’re going to be difficult, you damn well better be successful.
The author is a television writer-producer who has run a broadcast network series.