Monday, May 12, 2014

My rant on the lack of showrunners

A recent article on Deadline Hollywood bemoaned the fact that as networks were putting their fall schedules together they were discovering that there is a real shortage of qualified showrunners to attach to these shows. Well, duh! And whose fault is that?

There are plenty of excellent showrunners out there. But networks don’t hire them to write pilots anymore. In their quest to find hot new young voices they push to the curb experienced writers who can not only write and produce a pilot but the series as well should it get ordered.

Showrunners who are currently in demand (a) are gravitating towards cable where they have more creative license, and (b) would prefer to do their own stuff not someone else’s. Can you blame them?

Oh, and (c), if you do showrun a young writer’s project and it becomes successful, you’re often squeezed out.  How many forced marriages do you know that are successful?

The best television shows are the ones that have the most distinctive voices. MAD MEN would not be as good if Matt Weiner had to take a backseat to the former showrunner of CSI: MIAMI. It just makes sense that when you bring on a hired-gun he’s going to have different sensibilities than the creator, and if you’re buying the creator’s vision, you’re distorting it.

It just seems odd to me that networks have developed pilots for a year and just now, at the eleventh hour, are starting to concern themselves with who will run the show. Imagine a baseball franchise waiting until opening day, after the team has taken the field to decide who’s going to manage the team.

Why is a showrunner so important? Well, he’s in charge of a multi-million dollar production budget. He's the creative voice of the show.  He hires the crew, he hires the writing staff, he hires the directors, he fires crew or staff members who aren't working out, he assigns the scripts (which takes an enormous amount of preparation and organization), he's in charge of rewriting, he does the casting, he supervises the editing, the post-production, determines the music, determines the tone of the show, deals with the network, deals with the studio, juggles the budget, and is the go-to guy when there’s any problem in any department. If an actor is unhappy he goes to the showrunner. If there are production problems, the showrunner must solve them.

He must deal with delays, mid-course creative corrections, the press, the network promo department, unions, and most of all – time management. Network shows get cranked out like an assembly line. Think Lucy and the chocolate factory. Unless you’re trained for the crush of pressure that churning out a new episode every week entails you can be easily overwhelmed. And when there are shutdowns, huge sums of money are lost. A one-day delay might equal the cost of your house.

You have to be part accountant, part psychiatrist, part creative genius, part plate spinner, part crazy.

This is not an easy job.

So you can clearly see why networks are not entrusting these shows to inexperienced newbies. In their rush to give pilot scripts to hot actors who have never written, or screenwriters, or friends of hot actors who have never written, they’re putting a low priority on that little thing called producing a weekly television series.

If the pilot scripts all came back fresh and exciting and new then I would say, “Fine, this is the new way to go.” It’s worth the high wire act for the originality it produces. But they’re not. They’re just as uneven as every other year.  Most of these pilots are dead.  I think networks are fooling themselves into thinking they must bet on youth in order to attract the young demographic. What they need is the most capable people and those decisions should be made in August, not May. But that requires long range planning. Hey, maybe they should get a showrunner to run network development too.

23 comments:

Brian said...

Great article. Why is there a comic about Syria in posted with it?

Johnny Walker said...

Wow. So does this mean that there's development going on somewhere in Hollywood where new and original is valued...? Sounds wonderful, in theory, but "new and original" appears to have been redefined as "young and inexperienced". Doh.

Johnny Walker said...

Ha! Good point about the Syrian political cartoon, Brian. I'm guessing Ken just picked an image that showed a guy in a suit under pressure -- not specifically Bashar al-Assad!

Brian O. said...

I read the Deadline post and instantly wondered when Ken would respond.
Does a training ground exist anymore to develop creatives into potentially competent showrunners? Seems like so much anymore is set up for failure but the irony is failure isn't allowed.

Steven Jarrett said...

I have a lot of respect for showrunners. What they manage, as you've listed it, is astounding. All that and they have to produce FUNNY. What jumps out is that the title "showrunner" is not very strong. Maybe with a better title, they'll get the respect they deserve. Sure "runner" means someone who runs things, but a runner is also a beginning assistant. "Show" doesn't inspire thoughts of "multi-million dollar operation with hundreds of employees."
If "Show" stays, how about "Show CEO." Incorporating "Impresario" may not be exactly right, but it's closer.
Reward yourselves, showrunners, with a better title.

Dana King said...

I know it's not Friday, but this post brings a quesiotn to mind: why is so much dumped on the showrunner? Movies seem to spread the work around a lot more. How much does a showrunner delegate, and might spreading some of this work around a little more be a good idea?

Anonymous said...

I think the same thing whenever I see that title.
it sounds like a gofer or PA, hardly the #1 person in charge of everything.

Aniko Tevvit said...

How about "Show God"? Because from my understanding, that's what the person is, more or less....

Brian Pollack said...

The term show runner is a misnomer. As a former one, I always felt that the real show runners in the end were either the studio, the network, the star, the star's manager, etc. Never the creator or executive producer. In my experience there was always someone else running the show runner.

john axelson said...

Brian.... as a former show runner i have always thought the same. i was more of the baseball manager ilk - hired to be fired. actually i'm still running shows but i've had to figure out my own "work around" so i can do my own projects without all of the boloney that goes with networks and managers. live entertainment is a better place to be now days for guys like me.

McAlvie said...

I find it amusing that the networks think hot new stuff is required to entertain the younger demographic. The younger demographic are not staying home and watching tv. If the hot new shows are to be believed, the younger demographic are bar and bed hopping, not staying home to watch tv. And if they are watching tv, it's Mad Men or Game of Thrones.

Scooter Schechtman said...

"Showrunner" kind of leaves a bad taste in my mouth because of showrunner David Mirkin's overbearing tone on dvd commentary tracks of certain seasons of The Simpsons. But that's just my personal take, and he might have been great at that job. Those seasons he was on were fantastic.

Anonymous said...

"He’s in charge... He hires the crew, he hires the writing staff, he hires the directors, he fires crew... he's in charge of rewriting, he does the casting, he supervises the editing... go-to guy... He must deal with delays"

So is there any such thing as a female showrunner?

-Mary

Matt said...

Is it possible to have a "newbie" showrunner who will be the creative fore of the story, script and actors and than hire assistants who handle the budget and the techincal details?

Ken Levine said...

There is DEFINITELY women showrunners. I meant in the general term. But Shonda Rhimes, Diane English, Claudia Lonow, Jenny Bicks, Liz Merriwether -- and a bunch more super talent women are also holding down that role.

Anonymous said...

Showrunners themselves are partly to blame for this phenomenon. The trend to staff their rooms with their friends and/or a plethora of producer level writers who spend their free time negotiating their own development deals rather than learning how to run a show adds to this lack. Why not invest in a full-bodied staff that includes a writer at each level and give staff responsibilities. When the same handful of showrunners who are responsible for 50% of network TV staff their rooms with 4 EPs or Co-Eps to any 1 lower-mid level writer, the studios/networks can't take all the blame.

James said...

I take it a lot of the allure of " hot new young voices" is that be being young and inexperienced, a) they work cheaper, b) they'll cut deals because they'll trade money and ideals in order to get established, c) they have no clout so they have no leverage in disagreements.

Jeff Baldwin said...

Oh i want to go bar and bed hopping!!!

Anonymous said...

Anonymous Said:

"Showrunners themselves are partly to blame for this phenomenon. The trend to staff their rooms with their friends and/or a plethora of producer level writers"

That's a major problem right there. They hire their friends, instead of basing it on merit.
I guess they feel guilty about jumping ahead and leaving their drinking buddies behind. Then they rationalize the low ratings by claiming they're a "unique" show.
Quit hiring your damned unemployed friends!

Johnny Walker said...

It makes sense to work with people you know, trust and get along with. Surely nobody would hire a friend they honestly believed was incapable?

Anonymous said...

Johnny Walker:

"It makes sense to work with people you know, trust and get along with. Surely nobody would hire a friend they honestly believed was incapable?"

Surely, they do. They're not cast as leads or featured, but bones are thrown to friends in smaller roles that they can't mess up too much.

But the issue is, why not cast the most talented and qualified, rather than your friends because you "trust" them?

You're trying to make a great movie, not signing up pledges for a fraternity.

I'm just stating why I think comedies have gotten more mediocre. The best comedies come from a healthy amount of creative friction. Talented or not, that doesn't happen when you cast all your friends all the time.

If you don't believe me, rent "this is 40."

Amy said...

The shows that get it right in the young demo tend to be run by people in their 50s and 60s.

chudleycannonfodder said...

Hey Ken, I really like this piece and think it makes great points, but there's one point that's bothering me. When you go on about what a showrunner does, you keep using "he." Using "he" reinforces the idea that only men can be showrunners and that sucks. There are female showrunners out there and there should be more being hired, but saying "he" instead of "they" or even "she" reinforces the stereotype and makes it harder for people to break through.