Friday, August 31, 2012

Friday Questions

A recent post on show runners elicited a number of follow up questions.   So this week's Friday Questions shall attempt to address them.

Bill starts us off:

If the showrunner is so important--really the most important position on a show at a given time--why is "showrunner" not an "official" credit?

First off, it doesn’t have “Producer” in the title. In addition to the prestige and additional money, only producers can qualify for Best Show Emmys.  Screw titles.  We want the hardware! 

It used to be the Executive Producer was the 5 Star General of TV credits, but now there are so many who share that title. Staffs are larger, writers move up the food chain. And don’t forget the pod producers who attach themselves to your show and basically give notes and go home. They’re of course entitled to the same credit as the guy who works eighty hours a week.

So until a Producer credit above Executive Producer can be concocted (and all of these titles are concoctions) then show runner will just remain an under-the-radar title. Personally, I like “All Exalted He/She Who Must Be Obeyed Producer.”

As a reader pointed out, a good clue is who created the show. In most cases the show’s creator is also the show runner. But not always.  There are cases when a young writer creates a series but the network won’t order it unless a proven show runner is attached.  Or the creator is fired but still maintains a credit even though he's no longer on the show at all. 

And you have instances where the creator steps away from the day-to-day show running but still retains his title. Confused yet? Anyway, this leads into the next question.

It’s from Mike:

When people that used to run the show but have since left the series come back to pen the series' final episode or something, do they have more of a showrunner's-type say in the final product than just an average staff writer would? Like for the final Cheers and Seinfeld episodes, the Charles Bros. and Larry David, respectively, came back for the final episodes even though they were no longer calling the shots. Would they have had more of a showrunner's-type role in that situation, do you suppose?

Yes. Whenever the creator comes back he sits in the Captain Kirk chair. In the case of CHEERS, Glen & Les Charles returned for the final half of the final season. Beyond the last episode (which they wrote themselves) they wanted to make sure that the six or seven episodes leading up to it were completely on track. It was an honor that Glen & Les asked my partner David and I to write one of the last episodes. (It was the final Bar Wars episode, if you’re curious.)

And finally, from Dave:

Ken, I've seen you answer that "what does the showrunner do" question over and over. My question is, is there anything the showrunner DOESN'T do? And are there any duties that a showrunner really SHOULDN'T do, but sometimes they do anyway for whatever reason?

Show runners do not do any actual negotiating with agents. That’s business affairs’ department.

Certain jobs are protected by unions. Show runners can’t just operate cameras or move boom mikes (unless they’re in the appropriate unions).

I always wondered about this: Jimmy Burrows (pictured left) was a show runner of CHEERS and also the director. I don’t know if directors are allowed to operate cameras. In the days of 35 mm film cameras the cameras were on a wheeled mount. It would take three people to man the camera. During a scene Jimmy would decide he’d want a camera to move over a few feet so he’d kick the mount and proprell it to the desired spot. Does that constitute operating a camera?

Show runners will tend to meddle in departments they shouldn’t if (a) they like those departments (like post production) or (b) they just micro-manage everything.

As for me, I recognize that my technical abilities are on a par with a monkey’s so when it comes to post production and set design I leave that to the experts. I may make a suggestion now and then but if I’ve hired the best people, it’s best to just get out of their way.

I also don’t hire myself to be an actor. First off, I’m not that good. And secondly, I’m taking a job away from a real actor. So I avoid that too.

What’s your question?


Paul Duca said...

My question is...have you been to recently? They posted a poll question--"Which CHEERS character did you have a crush on?"

Mike said...

Hey, thanks Ken for answering my question. I didn't know the Charles bros. returned for the final half of the last season! That helps explain why season 11, in my opinion, is just a great last season altogether for the show. I like seasons 9 and 10, but season 11 was just an improvement in quality -- and brought back some great characters too. (I loved the return of Nick and Loretta for Saraphina's wedding, which I think you co-wrote too, actually.)

The involvement of the Charles Bros. also explains why things established in the episodes leading up to the finale (Woody getting elected, the Don and Rebecca situation) were integrated so well into the final script.

By the way, that final Bar Wars episode is great, and I love seeing Harry the Hat return!

John said...

Ken - I know when Katey Sagal lost her child due to miscarriage, the pregnancy plot line they had created for "Married With Children" to deal with the situation was dropped as if it never existed. And then of course, Segal was part of the cast of "8 Simple Rules" when John Ritter died suddenly, changing the entire concept of the show.

Has any show you've worked on ever have an outside situation where a scheduled storyline had to be scrubbed or heavily modified because of unforeseen real-life events?

Arden Sansom said...


I recently re-watched the first episode of Cheer's last season; Rebecca accidentally burns down the bar.

What were the logistics of the burning? Did they burn a replica set?

Anyways,really enjoy your blog!

Jim S said...


You mentioned that a network might demand an old pro hook up with a novice who created a show. Do you think that is wise, or is it just suits justifying their jobs. Do young guns resent that or are they grateful for the help?

Jim S

Sara said...

Hi Ken,

My question: when a show is being created, do the writers usually develop backstories for the characters right away or is it something that develops progressively as they get a better sense of the show's direction? I was just watching the season one finale of Cheers and I started wondering if Sam's strained relationship with his father and brother was something that was planned from the beginning or just something that the writers came up with when they were working on that episode. Are there things that the writers and creators "know" about the characters' pasts that are never necessarily revealed in the show, but factor into how the characters behave? How much do writers think about the characters' pasts, both on and off the show, when writing episodes?

Dana Gabbard said...

Sara, sometimes shows have what are known as bibles that contain the basics of the series such as background of the characters. Of course sometimes continuity flubs aren't caught. Cheers had several. Also sometimes an idea doesn't work and is dropped (like the older brother on Happy Days who vanished after the 1st season).

These were very important back when freelancers did more of the writing. Maybe not such much nowadays with shows staff written.

Dan said...


I've seen you say on here that a comedy show should let the actors find their own way to play the role, essentially adapt it to their personality. I notice that this happened on Community for instance, in my opinion to its detriment. correct me if I'm wrong but this concept is anathema in the world of drama, so why should it be acceptable in comedy?

thomas tucker said...

Here's myquestion: did you ever meet or work with Johnny Carson?

byrd said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
byrd said...

I might have seen a scripted show or two that used "executive supervising producer" or "supervising executive producer" in the credits.

With that in mind, why not concoct credits built around those? Maybe even some "senior" or "coordinating" executive producer credits?

kermit said...

Hey, Ken, seriously: If I'm a writer who's written for broadcast and print but has no background in show business, and I've written an original script(not a spec)that I think is pretty good...where do I go from here? Is there someone who can look it over and tell me if it's good, or not, or where it might need a nip and tuck? Would an agent ever read anything cold-mailed to him/her, or would the agent send it back unopened?

Eddie D. said...

Question... I was in the doctor's office yesterday and they were running back to back Andy Griffith shows... with the whistling intro and outgo. Since the intro to the next show would immediately follow the previous one the whistlings where right next to each other. I noticed that the intro whistling was pitched several notes higher than the outgo. I couldn't figure out why this would be... Do you have any idea??? Thx.

Ronny Bergman said...

Mr.Levine,a Friday question of sorts:what is your take on the book "Shipwrecked:a peoples' story of the Seattle Mariners" by Jon Wells? Reading it I saw every team I've ever rooted for,in any sport,right on the page;wrong call,wrong person,wrong time..

Johnny Walker said...

It does seem bizarre that the medium where "the writer is king" doesn't recognise the largest creative force. I'm very interested on who's running shows on various seasons, but it's very hard to figure out sometimes. Movie directors get "A Film by...", show runners should get a "A Television Episode by..."

Marty Fufkin said...

Friday question:

If you have an actress on your show who wants to get a nose job or other cosmetic procedures, would you advise against it or just let her do as she wishes?

I've been watching a popular CBC show where the two female leads have obviously had a lot of work done. Every time they're on screen, I'm constantly distracted by their pinched faces and fake noses. Not to mention the severely limited range of emotions they're capable of expressing. I suppose they think they look younger, but to me they look like 45-year-old Robert Palmer girls.

Would these women have even be cast if they looked "real"? Do actresses have to do this to themselves to maintain careers in television?

Marty Fufkin said...

I meant, CBS show.