Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show

“Being a showrunner is utterly consuming. You’re editing and writing and doing a hundred different things at once. It’s draining; it’s awful. I miss it terribly.”
Joss Whedon

For those of us who love television, and especially for those of us who write about it, there are many aspects of the medium we have explored. We have discussed why shows rise and fall; we have discussed the actors who play the roles we tune in to watch every week; we have discussed plot lines and tried to guess where the stories are going. The seminal change in how we discuss television, however, is that we now know who is producing the shows and we follow shows based on where those people we respect and admire turn up.

For example, if J.J. Abrams or Joss Whedon is connected to a project, many of us will tune in to watch even if the content is something we may not have been attracted to in the first place. Personally, I will watch anything Aaron Sorkin puts his name to.

It is this rise of the executive producer, or showrunner, that is the thrust of a new documentary. Des Doyle, the filmmaker, has managed to corral just about everyone in television that is known as a showrunner and gets them to talk about the job. They open up about the highs and lows of the job as well as their successes and failures.

There are some very good sections of the film. The various producers talk about the difference between cable and network and the difference between a procedural and a serialized drama. Both sides of the argument are presented and Doyle is careful to give competing points of view the same amount of time to make their point.

The best example of differing opinions is Robert and Michelle King talking about how impossible it would be to run more than one show at a time. Cut to Joss Whedon talking about running three in one year and how he made it work. This was when knowing a bit about television made the irony of what Whedon was saying so clear. He couldn’t do it, couldn't keep the plates spinning as he described it. Buffy's final season was not its strongest; Firefly failed; Angel never recovered.

In addition to the show runners themselves, Doyle rounds out his piece with network executives and a couple of actors. For someone who believes that most network executives are soulless number crunchers, there is a segment that made me sit up and take notice. The head of TNT discusses how awful it is to have to make the call to the showrunner when a show is cancelled. Network executives may be number crunchers, but perhaps at least of a few of them have souls.

My frustration with this documentary is that, while it provided some entertaining stories and some fangirl joy, it failed to delve much below the surface of the job. It touches briefly on the idea of how the internet and the larger conventions, especially SDCC, have changed the role of the executive producer. But, I would have liked to know more. How has the rise of the celebrity producer impacted the job and, more importantly, the way these people write?

The other great debate in television right now is the lack of women and people of color running shows. Doyle does not shy away from the topic and gets some very interesting insight from both a woman (Janet Tamaro) and a black showrunner (Ali Leroi). Again, there is not a lot of new information, but listening to these two talk about their additional challenges is eye opening.

If you are interested in television, I recommend this documentary. It is not perfect, but it is entertaining and enlightening. While the film has had a limited release, it is available to rent or buy on iTunes.

ChrisB has learned that she does not want to be a showrunner at any price.

1 comment:

Juliette said...

Sounds really interesting. I'd love to see something comparing the UK and US approaches, as they're so different (UK shows are convinced it's physically impossible to make more than 13 episodes a year, and it took the AV Club's Downton Abbey reviews YEARS to be persuaded that the show is all written by one person!)