Presenting a New [itvt] Column: "Run of Show"
- Column Will Focus on the Role of the Creator in Today's Multiplatform TV Landscape
[itvt] is pleased to present a new column, "Run of Show," authored by Lisa Crawford. The column is based on original research on television creators that Crawford conducted for "The Showrunner Project," her graduate thesis at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. The thesis set out to understand the rise of the celebrity showrunner in today's entertainment industry, and to develop concrete recommendations for marketing television content in the age of the creator.
This column will begin with a three-part serialization of those findings, and will be followed by a series on the role of the creator in today's multiplatform TV landscape.
Crawford is a former political staffer, PR advisor, and commentator in her native Canada. She holds an Honors B.A. from the University of Toronto and a Master of Communication Management degree from the University of Southern California. Presently, Lisa is Director of Marketing for online video technology firm Paladin Software, maker of enterprise solutions for multichannel networks and next-generation media companies.
Part I: A Brief History of the Celebrity Showrunner
By Lisa Crawford
Odds are excellent that sometime in the last couple of years, you’ve heard one or more of the following statements:
We live in the “golden age” of television.
Television is the “new novel.”
We live in the “age of the auteur,” and that auteur is a television showrunner.
The individuals making these pronouncements are authorities: authors Brett Martin and Alan Sepinwall have written extensively on the great era of television that brought us The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, with Sepinwall crediting the auteur showrunner above all else. To Los Angeles Times TV critic Mary McNamara, that showrunner is a sort of novelist.
It’s not just the commentators and critics. Today’s TV content fans don’t just care about star actors, but about star storytellers. As Lost co-showrunner Carlton Cuse once said about that show’s viewers, “They wanted some kind of connection with the two guys who were telling the story.”
Accordingly, showrunners have taken on increasingly greater roles in the promotion and marketing of their work. Many have also cultivated social media-driven public personas.
Shonda Rhimes, probably the best-known living example of a celebrity showrunner, is a powerhouse media darling who singlehandedly owns Thursday nights on ABC.
The celebrity showrunner is indeed a thing: an admired, in some cases truly famous, creator now on par with the noted novelists of old. The Showrunner Project represents an attempt to determine how that phenomenon occurred and what it means for those who write, produce, distribute, and generally make a living around television content.
The central question of the Project was: Can understanding the celebrity showrunner role (or, more broadly, the creator as brand) help us to produce better, and to market smarter?
The short answer is yes. The explanation will take some time (three blogs’ worth, actually). We’ll start at the very beginning.
A Brief History of the (Celebrity) Showrunner
Back when television was a youngster, the showrunner didn’t exist. Now if you’re a showrunner, you get a profile in Buzzfeed and your competition isn’t on a TV channel but a YouTube one instead.
In the early days, the television writer was a journeyman peddling a trade of sorts. Longtime writer, showrunner, and co-founder of the Writers Guild of America’s Showrunner Training Program, Jeff Melvoin, puts it this way: “It was very much like a lot of post-World War II America. Very industrialized, and you worked for the studio or the network, and you did whatever was put in front of you.” The managerial structure of a television program was usually a non-writing producer and story editor who managed the process, with the writing done by freelance scribes. To Melvoin, the process had all the romance of a General Motors plant.
For the most part, the general public didn’t know who created or guided a TV program. Industry conditions didn’t support that degree of creative ownership until Grant Tinker effectively created the writers’ room: while running MTM Enterprises with his producing partner (and wife) Mary Tyler Moore, he pioneered a model of television development and production that emphasized the primacy of the writer. It was a practice Tinker would later continue as president of NBC. TV historians now credit him with laying the groundwork for a succession of executives, including Brandon Tartikoff and Warren Littlefield, to champion the contribution of creative talent to the success of television as a business.
“Once [Tinker’s] boutique idea got out, that the writer was most important, the writer had back end, the writer had ownership in it, and was given autonomy…that was the watershed in terms of actual division of responsibility. It was led by the idea that the writer is at the head of these things.” --Jeff Melvoin
It was an unheralded organizational move that would ultimately grant television creators what media scholars call authorship--recognition or endorsement of creative ownership. With time and new modes of publicity would come greater celebrity and attention.
So who was the first celebrity showrunner, anyway?
Ask this question of five people in the entertainment industry, and you’ll get six answers. Later in this series, we’ll discuss the results of audience research on showrunner name recognition, how it compares with industry attitudes, and what impact name showrunners have on audience engagement. Based on interviews with current showrunners and TV executives, the top candidates are:
- Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone)
- Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek)
- Norman Lear (All in the Family, Maude)
- Aaron Spelling (Charlie’s Angels, Dynasty, Beverly Hills 90210)
- Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues, LA Law, NYPD Blue)
- David E. Kelley (The Practice, Ally McBeal)
- Chris Carter (The X-Files)
Rod Serling and Gene Roddenberry hail from the pre-writers’ room days, and the rest are from the top series of the 1970s, 1980s, and even 1990s. If the showrunner as a concept didn’t fully materialize until after The Twilight Zone and the original Star Trek, whither Serling and Roddenberry? There are those who believe that name showrunners or name writers have existed from the beginning. It’s important to note that Roddenberry and Serling were genre, specifically science fiction, creators. They constructed entire worlds and captured the imagination of many viewers. To some, genre showrunners have always attracted a more engaged fan base and thus, celebrity too.
According to Serling’s biographer, Joel Engel: “Through the monstrous power of television, Rod Serling had become the most famous writer in America, if not the world (the show played in well over thirty countries) when [The Twilight Zone] ended its original programming in 1964.” In fact, fan mail sent to Serling without an address arrived sans incident.
The name showrunners on the list above were nominated for clear reasons: Lear created controversial and groundbreaking programs. Aaron Spelling was known for prime time soap operas and for answering every piece of fan mail he ever received (or so he claimed). David E. Kelley was both prolific and original. Chris Carter, like the very first examples mentioned, was (and is to this day) a sci-fi genre figure.
For the purposes of The Showrunner Project, though, we are interested in the celebrity showrunner from the mid-1990s on: the head of a writers’ room, one who is profiled by journalists, publicly discussed by fans, and who serves as a latter-day content brand.
A Star Showrunner is Born
The showrunner of the digital age emerged sometime between 1995 and the early 2000s. Grant Tinker’s confidence in creatives had paid off in so many ways. Just as film theory states that the director is sole author of a picture, so had the showrunner become the top figure in television. And increasingly, everyone knew it.
In 2010, the Los Angeles Times named its first official “celebrity showrunner”: Sons of Anarchy executive producer Kurt Sutter. Other commentators had singled out talents like Sopranos creator David Chase, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Joss Whedon, and The West Wing’s Aaron Sorkin. But way back in 1995, the New York Times had started it by nominating ER showrunner John Wells. “The man who keeps ER’s heart beating,” the publication dubbed Wells. The showrunner has power like no other, noted the Times, and is “the true auteur of series television.”
What made this new crop of name showrunners different from early recognition of Rod Serling, Norman Lear, and their compatriots?
These modern showrunners were brand names publicized by their networks, showcased by entertainment (and mainstream) media, and sometimes even themselves through the Internet and social media. TV creator importance was bolstered by the surging trend of the superfan. The conditions were new, and it was the perfect storm: the showrunner became a 21st-century celebrity just as the most significant onslaught of content in television history reached the viewing public.
Today’s showrunner hasn’t looked back.
Part II - Superfans & Social Media, the Role of Genre, and the Showrunner as Brand Manager
Part III - Showrunner Typology, Audience Research Results, and the Celebrity Showrunner: What Is It Good For?