Thursday, 8 May 2014

Hollywood Babble On & On #1145: Shocking Showrunner Shortage

The networks and cable channels are putting together their new shows for the upcoming TV season and there's a scramble for the shrinking supply of show runners.

"What's a showrunner?" you ask furrowing your brow in a feeble attempt to understand.

Don't worry, I'll explain.

A showrunner is a chimeric creature that can be found in writer's rooms and production offices all over the world of television, it's part writer, part producer, and survives by consuming a steady stream of caffeine, greasy foods, and the tears of younger writers.

That make it any clearer?

Okay, I'll go into a bit more detail.

A showrunner, who usually has the title of Executive Producer, is the person in charge of getting the show written and getting it made. A sort of Chief Creative and Executive Officer for the show.

The showrunner is firstly a writer, and their duties begin in the writer's room. The writer's room is a long room with a long conference table that smells like coffee, junk food, and yeti sweat.

In this room the showrunner and the writers flesh out their ideas for characters and the season in general, pitch their ideas for episodes, then the episode ideas that are accepted are broken down into "acts" and "scenes" and writing assignments are handed out.

The showrunner then makes sure that the scripts are finished on time, handles or oversees rewrites, and then oversees the shooting of the episodes.

The shooting of the episodes involves budgeting, scheduling, hiring, casting, and the hundreds of other little jobs that need to be done when putting together a professional grade television show.

Now the showrunner will have deputies to assist with a lot of their duties, but when it comes to important decisions the buck, and the blame, stops at the showrunner's heavily laden desk.

So why is there currently a shortage of showrunners?

Four reasons.

1. APPRENTICESHIP: Showrunner is not a job that can be taught in school. It is a job that has to be learned through experience. To become a showrunner you must begin at the very bottom, working on different shows and under different showrunners, and hopefully you will learn the best writing and management techniques from them for when the time comes for you to run your own show. But they can't get people to come in to learn after the...

2. STAFF WRITERS SLASHING: About 10 years ago the studios slashed the number of "staff writers" that could be hired for each writer's rooms. 

Staff Writers are literally 1 step above assistant and are the lowest figures in the writer's room totem pole, but unlike assistants actually have a very slim chance at possibly writing, or at least contributing to an episode. The position is usually not paid for by the show, but by the studio, and has a small weekly pittance to keep them fed and sheltered as opposed to being paid by the episode. The purpose of the job was to foster talent by getting their foot in the door at an age when they can learn the business from the bottom and work their way up.

When those posts were slashed the few remaining staff writer jobs were used to fulfill diversity hiring rules, or passed on to friends of friends, or giving a boost to an assistant. Otherwise it turned down the faucet that kept the pool of talent full, something that's essential when it's being drained by…

3. CABLE TV: If a cable channel wants to find an audience it must do more than run cheap reruns and reality shows. It must produce its own dramas and comedies and they really have to bring their "A-Game" if they're going to be seen above the herd. All those shows on all those channels all require showrunners. It used to be that you'd just pass those duties on to the creator of the show, but there's a bit of a complication these days that I call the…

4. FEATURE FILM TO TV MIGRATION: A lot of  people who, ten years ago, would have spent their careers completely in feature films are now getting into television. 

If you're a feature person who creates a premise, writes and/or directs a pilot and that show sells and has a good run, you not only get a credit, but a paycheque for as long as that show is being watched by someone somewhere in almost any fashion.

That's a pretty sweet deal, and offers a level of creative freedom and financial security you're not going to get in feature films.

But there's a catch.

Most of the feature film people don't want to give up their feature film careers to become full time showrunners of a TV series. They need experienced and skilled TV people to do that job for them.

So, what can Hollywood do to solve this problem?

First bring back more staff writers, start training and apprentice programs for promising young people to learn the ins and outs of show running, and stop treating everything like a closed shop where you have to be almost born into the industry to get a job.

Then you might be able to start filling the empty slots. It'll take time, and until the market balances itself out Hollywood will have to pay through the nose for the top tier people, but it's their own fault.

1 comment:

  1. Rainforest Giant12/5/14 3:30 pm

    Would you say this is an example of why shows like 'Supernatural' go off the rails eventually? Also, the new Supernatural spinoff. So bad my wife and I quit watching half way through. We like Supernatural but the last three seasons have been excruciating.

    A show with a strong showrunner as you call them can follow a vision, move a plot forward and organize the chaos. Without it a show fares about as well as child without a parent.