If you’re just starting to learn about TV production and you come across the word “showrunner,” you may think that the showrunner is the title of the unpaid intern who makes the early morning run to Starbucks for a mocha latte.
As you learn more, you start to get the sense that the showrunner is an extremely important person in the production of a TV show. But you’ve never seen the showrunner listed on the credits, so you’re not sure exactly who they are and what they do.
The title actually says it all: the showrunner runs the show.
They are the top writer/producers of a series, and they are responsible for supervising and overseeing the writing staff, cast, and in some cases, the crew. They are also responsible for all of the creative elements of the series. It’s their show, and they don’t have to answer to anyone except the studio or production company that hired them.
So, if they are so important, why haven’t you ever see the credits for a showrunner on screen?
You don’t see this because the formal title for the showrunner is executive producer. If you ever watch the “making of” portions of a show’s DVDs, you will realize that the executive producer is often the creator of the show, and may even write some of the episodes. In fact, some executive producers, such as Aaron Sorkin (West Wing & Network News), write most of the episodes. Whether they write or not, the executive producer determines the course of the series and supervises all the creative aspects of the show. On shows with more complex characters and storylines, such as Grey’s Anatomy, Lost, NCIS and Homeland, there is more than one executive producer, and they take turns running the show.
If this job sounds pretty good to you, you may wonder how you get to be a showrunner. In most cases, a showrunner is a person with many years of experience working in TV who started out as either a freelance writer or as an entry level staff writer for a series. If they successfully write a few episodes of a series, they work their way up to story editor, and then executive story editor. Over several years, as they work their way up in the writing department, they begin supervising other writers and have the title of producer, then supervising producer. The more they move up in the writing department, the more involved they become in the physical production of the show. So basically, a showrunner either creates a new series, or is hired to run a series created by a writer that doesn’t have the necessary experience to run a show on their own.
So if you are ever lucky enough to get an internship or entry level position on a show, you will know what a showrunner is; and you will also know that, at least for now, it will probably be your job to take his or her order before making your early morning run to Starbucks.
Crafty TV Writing —by Alex Epstein
The Script Selling Game—by Kathie Fong Yoneda