Sunday, April 09, 2006

How to be a good showrunner

The WGA recently held a seminar on “How to be a Good Showrunner”. (Okay, only .00001% of the membership will get the opportunity to be a showrunner but it’s our dues put to good use. ) The answer: stay within budget, even if the budget is smaller than Napoleon Dynamite’s clothing allowance. You may think “shouldn’t the course be more about how best to realize your creative vision?” That would be NO. Because if you can’t keep the budget down you’re fired (even if you’re Aaron Sorkin) and then there is no creative vision. Networks only give you creative freedom if you’re a runaway hit or they feel they can trust you to not give away the store. Abuse either of those and you’re back to getting memos questioning why the actors playing Klingons can’t bring their own wardrobe from home.

People ask me what’s it like to be a showrunner. I tell them “did you see the end of BONNIE & CLYDE?” It is a constant barrage of problems coming at you from all directions. It can be overwhelming…which is why I’d take the show runner from any well run series and replace Bush with him immediately.

Showrunners are responsible for the writing, casting, hiring, post production, promotion, dealing with network, censors, studio, non-writing pod producers, and the other 90% of time dealing with the actors.

You need to be a psychiatrist, an accountant, a CEO, a personnel manager, a Drill Sergeant, a Jewish mother, and work well under heavy medication. Once you’ve satisfied those requirements then you can add talent…but that’s optional.

To first time show runners I would say this:

Don’t pay for seminars when you can get this information on my blog for free. You have already taken the first step in the right direction.

Hire the best possible support staff. Leave your ego at the door. Joe Torre is a great manager but it sure helped having Don Zimmer as his bench coach for years. Surround yourself with experienced people. You don’t have time to make rookie mistakes.

Be willing to delegate authority…unless it’s to Dick Cheney. You can’t do it all. You can’t be in four places at the same time. As Garry Marshall once said, “What good is all the money when you’re in Cedars?”

Be organized. You can’t plan far enough in advance. When you look at most TV show budgets, the overages come from indecision, midstream changes, scrambling last second to meet deadlines (double and triple overtime time), and confusion. Again, see: our government.

Be a cheerleader. With tight budgets you’re asking everybody to work harder, give more, eat less craft services. That only comes with good morale and that starts with you. Know everyone’s name and that includes the actors.

And this next point I can’t stress enough: DON’T TAKE CREDIT FOR EVERYTHING. Nothing will kill morale faster and nothing is more untrue than that. You’ll realize it bigtime when your staff has fled and you really DO have to do everything. Can you say “implode” boys and girls?

Finally, learn the fine art of bending over. You’re going to have to compromise. Pick your battles, prioritize what in the budget you really need and what is a luxury. On CHEERS one year we thought of a great gag that would require levitating Norm. The cost turned out more than the license fee of three episodes combined. We did a beer joke instead. And think in terms of the whole season not just one episode. If you’re using a lot of outside sets or special effects one week, plan on doing little or none the next. A few weeks ago on 24 there was toxic gas released at CTU (R.I.P. Edgar). What it meant was they were pretty much able to do two entire episodes on an existing set while not blowing up even one refinery. Much easier to ask for a helicopter the following week when they’ve done that.

This is ultimately what I learned. At the beginning of the season the network and studio is wary of every showrunner. Be fiscally responsible right from the get-go. Because other shows won’t. And soon the suits and bean counters will leave you alone because the three page tag in this week’s STILL STANDING takes place at the opening ceremonies of the Olympics.

Just remember, creative freedom comes not at a high price but a low one.

One other thing I would say to first time show runners – I’m available to do punch up one night a week.


Grubber said...

One other thing I would say to first time show runners – I’m available to do punch up one night a week.

The question is, the script or staff who eat too much at lunch? :)

Funny as always Ken!

Beth Ciotta said...

Okay. Two things I don't want to be when I grow up. A director and a show runner. Gads! ;)

Whaledawg said...

You do realize you said Aaron Sorkin doens't have a creative vision, don't you?

Phil said...

Thanks for that Ken, very insightful. i don't think most people have half the idea of the logistial nightmare army-at-constant-war conflicts that are generated by tv shows, and the job of the people on top who have to keep all the shit contained and running on time.

Anonymous said...

The one thing I can never seem to get is numbers!

Ken, throw out some dollaz for common tv positions.

I need some incentive to finish my Scrubs spec!

And how much is a residual check from when a show like Friends airs in syndication?

Julie Goes to Hollywood said...

Okay Ken, next time I'm a showrunner I'll try not to take credit for everything. I hate when I'm a showrunner and I do that.

Tenspeed & Brownshoe said...


No, he didn't. Ken said that if you don't keep the budget down then you will be fired--EVEN IF YOU'RE AARON SORKIN. And if you're fired then there can't be any creative vision.

Wait a this Rob Lowe?

Whaledawg said...

Tenspeed and/or Brownshoe:

He added the parenthesis after my gentle teasing. Admittedly what he originally wrote was correct unless you're some jerk looking to misread it as an insult, but hey stick to your strong points I always say.


I thought Aaron Sorkin got fired for clashing with the network concerning both of his shows and doing a metric ton of coke. Has tabloid journalism misinformed me?

By Ken Levine said...

No, Sorkin was fired because scripts were coming in last minute causing constant scrambling and inflated costs. Even show runners who have produced Emmy winning series must practice fiscal responsibility.

And for the record, I never thought WEST WING was nearly as good after he left.

Mary Stella said...

My experience with television is limited to shows/production companies who want to do stories about dolphins. Only one shoot so far has included craft services and a caterer. That craft services woman cooked and served all day long. Espresso shots, fruit trays and breakfast sandwiches through hummus and cheese platters, more fruit, and panninis mid-morning to mango smoothies before the lunch break and a similar amount of selections all afternoon.

People in television appear to eat all of the time. How do they keep in shape?? Except for the showrunners, of course. From what you've described, they don't have time to eat.

Very entertaining, interesting post.

Kelly J. Crawford said...

At this point, I'll take every scrap of advice I can get on how to be a great showrunner. I'm in serious negotiations with a major prodco to produce a TV series I've had in development for the past few years -- and I have virtually zero experience both as a screenwriter and producer. So, when I sell this series and get the creator/co-executive producer credit I will effectively become the showrunner of a 50 million dollar production with a cast & crew of 200 working under me...

Oh, God. I need a drink.


Sounds to me as if the roles of line producer and production manager have been melded. Hey. It's TV.
Wudya gunna d'uh?

Anonymous said...

I am right there with Kelly. I too have little experience, every bit of advice helps. Ken, your advice has been the best so far.

Anonymous said...

Ken, What are the chances of a major network letting someone first time writer now creator and producer becoming a show runner.

RoxieDust said...

Ken, Let's have punch!