Run of Show: Creating the Celebrity Showrunner--Platforms, Social Media, and Superfans

[itvt] is pleased to present the second installment of "Run of Show," a new, occasional [itvt] column 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.

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, she is Director of Marketing for online video technology firm Paladin Software, maker of enterprise solutions for multichannel networks and next-generation media companies. 

(Note: We've just announced that TVOT SF 2017 will take place June 28th-29th in the Presidio of San Francisco. Purchase your tickets at the Super-Early-Bird rate here: http://tvotsf2017.eventbrite.com


Creating the Celebrity Showrunner: Platforms, Social Media, and Superfans

Now it's a thing. It might even be a bit in the popular zeitgeist, in the normal-people zeitgeist. If people in Kansas City and in Calgary know what it is, then it might be something.

So says Hart Hanson, longtime (former) showrunner of the epically long-running Fox series Bones, about the celebrity status of showrunners today. 

As Bones wraps its final season, it seems appropriate to consult Hanson--an OG among showrunners on Twitter--about his experience with the social media revolution underlying modern showrunner celebrity.

Later we'll get into data from The Showrunner Project's research foray into the awareness levels of people in Kansas City and Calgary.

In Des Doyle's excellent documentary, Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show, Lost's Damon Lindelof says, "I think the Internet had to exist in order to...create the story of the showrunner."

With the Internet came the platforms that linked fans and creators, and blessed showrunners with an aura of creative infallibility. Journalists and commentators consulted by The Showrunner Project insist that, as the post-1990s celebrity showrunner has evolved, TV writer-producers have taken on a cultural status akin to public figures. They have what media scholar Derek Kompare calls "personae." Their superfans hang on to their every word, looking for insights into a show's world or clues for upcoming spoilers. 

Based on analysis of the showrunner's evolving role and changes in technology over the past 15+ years, these are the factors that built up the showrunner in the digital age:

  • Attributors/Intermediaries 
  • Online Platforms--Blogs, Trades, and Podcasts
  • Social Media and Superfans

Let's unpack this a little.

Attributors/Intermediaries

Ever read a review by Emily Nussbaum, a blog by Alan Sepinwall, or Brett Martin's long-form ode to the Difficult Men of 2000s cable prestige television? Then you've been under the influence of an "attributor" (to Derek Kompare) or an "intermediary" (to fan engagement expert Ivan Askwith). These arbiters of culture have helped to bestow author status on TV creators through attention, analysis, and praise. Going as far as the language of the divine, the words "god" and "holy" have been thrown around. The New Yorker's Nussbaum describes the phenomenon as it happened:

Whole communities formed online, virtual universes as fascinated with the shows' creators as they were with the shows themselves. There was worship in the air….Unlike the anodyne "executive producer," [showrunner] was a title with a brassy, circusy feel: It suggested someone who was in charge, not behind the scenes but out in public, like a ringmaster.

Online Platforms--Blogs, Trades, and Podcasts

Blogs and their precursors played a huge role in bringing the showrunner to the fans. Hollywood Reporter editor Aaron Couch suggests there has been a symbiotic relationship between high-quality TV blogs, popular fan sites, and the entertainment trades. The trades adopted increased showrunner coverage in a bottom-up model driven by a new type of fandom, by fans who would reward stories about TV creators with clicks.

Third-party coverage isn't the only culprit. Showrunners' own promotional activities contributed too. According to Derek Kompare, creator podcasts like those of Lost's Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof and Battlestar Galactica's Ronald D. Moore set up showrunners as "the ultimate sources of [their show's] narrative universe."

Is it any wonder that fan engagement expert Ivan Askwith, known for running the successful crowdfunding campaigns for Veronica Mars and Reading Rainbow, believes showrunning has become "a performative act"? 

This brings us to the showrunner fame factor to end them all: social media.

Social Media and Superfans

Back to Hart Hanson and the phenomenon of showrunners on Twitter.

Hanson joined Twitter early on when a Bones guest star, the renowned British actor Stephen Fry, insisted that it was a groundbreaking new way to promote creative work. Now, Hanson has 119,000+ followers. He's also on Instagram. 

Of course, in his social media engagement Hanson was joined by the likes of Shonda Rhimes (Grey's Anatomy, Scandal), Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Crime Story), Julie Plec (The Vampire Diaries), Michael Schur (Parks and Recreation, The Good Place), Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy), Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner (Girls), and so many more. More recently, a trend has emerged for writers' rooms to have their own collective Twitter accounts.

Hanson's experience interacting with fans on Twitter ranged from the positive (engaging with Bones admirers), to the professionally useful (gauging fan reaction to story arcs), to the negative (the ever-present trolls). 

Along the way, Hanson made key observations of fan engagement on Twitter: First: "Social media was really made for…the superfan…it means more to them to engage," and second, some fans believe their views on the direction of a given show should be considered. 

That last one took Hanson aback a little. But the phenomenon he observed on Twitter made it clear that the new paradigm of fandom is "communities and not audiences." Social media interaction makes fans "feel involved, whether they are or not. And [this] is important for the sense of community."

What changed fans from passive observers into interested parties? If you ask Ivan Askwith, who created a theory of fan motivation while studying at MIT, it was the "mainstreaming of fandom." Fan comes from fanatic, at one time a pejorative term. But now it's ok to be a superfan--even better, it's cool. You can be a superfan or an anti-fan (a term used by scholar Henry Jenkins, it means one who devotes substantial effort to disliking a property). 

It's reasonable for fans to think they deserve engagement from showrunners, according to Askwith. People want a connection with their storytellers. More to the point, Askwith believes that to be successful in the TV business, showrunners must take up a response to this social need. 

The Showrunner Project set out to test these beliefs among audiences. A survey of 160 television viewers in the US and Canada (the aforementioned Kansas City and Calgary, not to mention New York and Vancouver) revealed that of this sample:

  • 49% accurately identified the role of a showrunner. Only 8% went so far as to define the showrunner as the "author" of a show. The balance of respondents weren't sure
  • 81% did not follow showrunners on social media
  • 12% said certain shows made them want to know more about the showrunner
  • Fewer than 10 individual respondents had actually reached out to a showrunner, through social media or correspondence

Clearly engagement among respondents was lower than expected, but consider this: the small percentages are likely consistent with the degree of superfandom among the general public. It's also possible that this particular sample had a low representation of superfans.

As for the prediction that superfans want to weigh in on show outcomes, these TV viewers didn't go that far. At least, they wouldn't admit it. The truly participatory fans expect interaction and engagement, but not necessarily more:

  • "I think the showrunner of my favorite show has an obligation to engage with fans"--This statement produced a mean response of 3.16, in the direction of strong agreement, out of a possible 5.00.
  • "As a fan, I think that my favorite show's writers should listen to my input about the show"--This statement elicited a lower mean response of 2.38, toward strong disagreement.

We know for sure that expectations of showrunners have changed. In many cases, this has been a net positive: Showrunner Project interviewee Jane Fleming, of the short-lived but beloved ABC reality/scripted hybrid The Quest, described her "social media relationships" with fans as an overwhelmingly good experience.

So what is the celebrity showrunner good for? In the next installment of Run of Show, we'll examine what happens when a showrunner becomes a brand (and brand manager), run through a typology of showrunners, and explore how fan awareness of showrunners presents a huge opportunity for television marketing.

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Author's note: I am indebted to the work of Derek Kompare, Ivan Askwith, Brett Martin, Des Doyle, Alan Sepinwall, and the team of Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green for their contributions to the body of work on showrunners and on fandom. Very special thanks to Hart Hanson, Ivan Askwith, Jane Fleming and Mark Ordesky, and Aaron Couch for providing insight through personal interviews.

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