What Does the Modern Day Showrunner Really Do?

We here at TVWriter™ are constantly being asked that question. In fact, it’s 3rd on the list of TV writing things newbies who corner us at bars and stoplights (don’t ask) want to know, right after, “How do I get an agent?” and “What do you mean you won’t read my script?” Now, the most insidery of insider showbiz publications supplies us with the 3rd Most Important TV Writer Question in the Universe. Yay!

Ooh, it's Matt Weiner running his show. What's its name again?
Ooh, it’s Matt Weiner running his show. What’s its name again?

by Bryan Lowry

The late Aaron Spelling was modest and courtly to a fault. So when asked about his storied career at the TV Critics Assn. tour years ago, he gave most of the credit to the actors, writers and artisans with whom he’d worked.

When a rather naive reporter wondered what he contributed if that were true, Spelling spoke at length about approving and overseeing every aspect of production down to the smallest details, then added, “Other than that, I don’t do anything.”

Despite the 56,000-sq.-ft., 123-room mansion producing helped him furnish, Spelling was never referred to as a “showrunner” — since by all accounts the term didn’t exist through most of his career. Indeed, it’s not precisely clear when the designation began to be widely used, with most pegging its coining to the late 1980s or early ’90s, as writers exerted greater influence over the medium.

Still, the modern generation of TV auteurs — those associated with writing or rewriting every episode of high-class dramas in particular — has helped burnish the image of the showrunner, without necessarily shedding light on the true scope or evolving nature of the undertaking.

Whatever the doubts about its origins, “showrunner” joined the lexicon as a response to the more promiscuous granting of “executive producer” credits, as managers, big-name actors and (in the case of reality shows) network executives increasingly began to claim the title. With a half-dozen or more people sometimes sharing that designation, sorting out who was ultimately in charge became an issue.

What’s changed, mostly for the better, is the more intricate nature of TV storytelling, and the recognition that keeping a show on track creatively often required placing the whole enterprise in the hands of the people guiding its vision.

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