Monday, July 17, 2017

Showrunning is Hard According to Showrunners

On the streaming service TubiTV I watched a documentary from 2013 or so called Showrunners about the people who manage TV shows, usually the creator and/or executive producer.  They talked to guys like JJ Abrams and Joss Whedon and lesser known names behind shows like Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Boardwalk Empire, The Shield, House of Lies, Leverage, Spartacus, Rizzoli & Isles, and Men of a Certain Age.  Most of those shows are on cable, with many on pay channels, where there's a little bit of a different dynamic as you don't have network executives interfering so much because there's less commercial pressure given you don't have to sell ads.

The gist of the movie:  it's really, really hard to create a show and then to maintain it.  That's why showrunners often burn out after a few seasons.  According to the documentary there are very, very few showrunners who are over 55 because it just takes such a toll.

You might wonder why that is, well, it's because the showrunner is usually a writer, producer, and director who has to oversee every aspect of the operation.  It starts with a script but then there's dealing with the network, the actors, and the crew, putting out all the various fires along the way.  It's basically a 24/7 job for nearly the entire year as just when you're wrapping one season it's time to start planning another.

According to the documentary the writing is what comes first.  There's usually a "writer's room" where they go through various ideas and then work on a script.  While most scripts are credited to only one or two people, the showrunner is usually intimately involved along with other writers and producers to fine-tune the whole thing.

Then you've got to hire a director and actors and get the sets and props and all that other stuff ready.  During all of this the network will probably try to butt in, though more with a pilot than future episodes.  And then there's the filming, where any number of things can go wrong.  Finally there's promoting the show.  I guess it makes sense why so many series cut down to 10 episodes or even less; it gives the showrunner a chance to breathe.

Writing a novel is in some ways like being the showrunner.  You've got to obviously come up with the concept and then write the thing.  Then there's the editing and the promotion.  If you're a self-published author then all of this stuff you're doing on your own.  Or you could have a publisher that butts in like the network executives.

Like when showrunners have to deal with network execs, a novelist dealing with a publisher has to decide what's worth fighting for and what isn't.  Some changes are so minor that they're easy to make.  Others might be so massive that you have to stand your ground and risk cancellation--or being fired for TV showrunners.

Though I didn't necessarily know a lot about TV in 2002 I wrote a novel that covers a lot of this stuff in The Leading Men.  The showrunner of a superhero series called The Scarlet Knight (originally and then I changed it later I think) is an older guy named Gus who is looking to go out on top with one last big hit.  His parts of the book focus on dealing with all the stuff they talk about in the documentary:  network interference, shooting difficulties, temperamental actors, and the public all while juggling his family too.  So hey, I knew what I was talking about!  That didn't stop a UK reviewer from saying she HATED the prologue so much she couldn't read the rest of the book.  I haven't the faintest idea what would be so upsetting in the first 10 pages or so.

Anyway, the funny thing in 2017 is that most of the shows they talk about have either been cancelled or voluntarily left the airwaves.  All the ones I mentioned in the beginning except I think House of Lies and Rizzoli & Isles are gone now.  Men of a Certain Age got cancelled during the shooting of the documentary, so that allowed them to get kind of a before-and-after look.  Needless to say it's not all that fun when your show is axed, especially after the first episode of the second season.  Ouch.  Though some have already gone on to new things, like the showrunner of Spartacus was the showrunner for the first season of Daredevil on Netflix, but I guess because it's so hard he quit after one season.

Speaking of, though streaming shows were still relatively in their infancy in 2013 it would have been nice if they'd talked to someone from a Netflix or Hulu series of the time.  They did talk to someone from a show called Husbands on CW Seed, so that's kind of close.  I'm sure streaming shows are as much work as their counterparts on HBO or Showtime, but I'm sure there are different metrics for success and all that; it would have been nice to know how they compare and contrast.

The showrunner I wished they'd talked to was Seth MacFarlane.  Animated shows are still a lot of work, especially when you're doing multiple characters on at the time 3 series.  Have to wonder if he just doesn't sleep for weeks.  I suppose he was too busy with all those shows and movies and stuff to talk to a documentary crew, right?  Makes sense.  JJ Abrams is involved with multiple shows and movies but he doesn't really "run" any of the TV shows so that gives him time for the movies like The Force Awakens and to executive produce other movies.  That's kinda having your cake and eating it too because you get some creative control and a nice paycheck without all the work.  We should all be so lucky. 

Anyway, next time you're watching TV, take a look at the Created By credit and think of all the work that he/she put into it.


  1. I should watch this thing on Showrunners. It sounds like it's right up my alley.

  2. I'd like to see that documentary. Behind the scenes stuff is always interesting.



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