Run of Show: Peak Showrunner: What Is It Good For?

ITVT is pleased to present the third installment of "Run of Show," an 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.

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Peak Showrunner: What Is It Good For?

On showrunners as lifestyle brands, a typology of showrunners, and whether Populist and Visionary showrunners have the same power to sway audiences.


Peak TV” is a delightful term popularized by FX president John Landgraf to describe the incredible proliferation of premium content across traditional TV and over-the-top services, a trend he follows assiduously and reports on at Television Critics’ Association events. The FX Research team produced a handy infographic counting 455 scripted original series in 2016. We’re not all the way through 2017 yet, and the numbers are still climbing.

To borrow Landgraf’s turn of phrase, we are now in the era of Peak Showrunner. We’re seeing an undeniable shift among a select group of showrunners: they’re not mere creative figures, but are becoming tastemakers and cultural critics. A case in point: earlier this month, Shonda Rhimes launched her lifestyle site Shondaland. This development and others like it raised a few questions here at Run of Show, notably:

  • What kind of showrunner do you have to be to accomplish this?
  • What else can celebrity showrunners do with the individual brands they’ve established?
  • How do audiences really respond to well-known showrunners? Are all celebrity showrunners created equal in the minds of viewers?

Showrunners as Fallible Celebrities and...Lifestyle Brands?

Among the original wave of celebrity showrunners is beloved Battlestar Galactica revivalist and current Outlander EP Ron Moore, known as a fan engagement-driven showrunner whose podcasts and social media outreach helped him build a brand for not only quality television but also a sincere and accessible persona (with a little scotch thrown in for good measure). 

(Ron Moore joined us at June’s TV of Tomorrow Show in conversation with colleagues Bill Fordes (Law & Order, Man in the High Castle) and John Cabrera (H+, August One). We covered everything from science fiction as an ideal form in storytelling, to the oeuvre of Philip K. Dick, to the role of production design in world-building. You can listen to the podcast version here.)

But increasingly the dominant celebrities of the showrunner community are more than writer-producers of television, more even than sci fi masterminds. They are embracing other opportunities: personal brands that lead into lifestyle guru-dom or some combination of political and cultural activism. To boot, a few are experiencing the downsides of fame: tabloid-style coverage of personal lives.

Shonda Rhimes made international news recently when she was poached by Netflix away from ABC, around the same time that she was profiled by Fast Company as the purveyor of a new, female-centric “media brand” that will reach beyond television content, the aforementioned Shondaland. She’s on the record that she wants to bring back “role-model culture,” and advised Fast Company that her aim is “building community and encouraging action.”

Shonda Rhimes on FastCompany Magazine

Similarly, Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner, co-showrunners of the recently-departed Girls, established the feminist Lenny Letter email newsletter for their fan base (“In Feminism. Style. Politics. Friendship and More”). Not just the newsletter: the Lenny ideas brand has spawned both a publishing imprint through Penguin Random House, and the Lenny IRL tour of the U.S. with a group of female artists (though the tour had to be cancelled when Dunham experienced a recurrence of chronic illness). 

A more overtly political example is former House of Cards showrunner Beau Willimon, himself an erstwhile staffer for Senate and presidential campaigns. Willimon responded to the 2016 U.S. presidential election by forming the Action Group Network, a cluster of small, single-issue grassroots community organizations. At first blush the initiative’s members seemed primarily drawn in by Willimon through his own contacts and the power of social platforms, particularly Twitter. Not to be side-tracked by politics, Willimon’s latest creative endeavor was ordered straight to series by Hulu.

To crowdfunding expert and media observer Ivan Askwith, acting as a curator or tastemaker represents the apex of how showrunner celebrity can be harnessed to make an impact. When he and I first discussed high-profile TV creators two years ago, he envisioned certain top showrunners helming curation projects to publicly endorse and thus help find audiences for great new content. You’ll recall that back in the day, Buffy the Vampire Slayer showrunner Joss Whedon used his credibility to help save the marvellous but ever-struggling Veronica Mars by praising it online. In the same way that human brand Walt Disney blessed the Wonderful World of Disney by serving as its host, Askwith suggested, the same could be done by a Shonda Rhimes, a Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul), or other showrunner of stature.

And here we are. But we’re not talking Disney-style story anthologies.

As for the darker side: Joss Whedon (who has branched out into directing blockbuster films following his heyday as a showrunner) recently experienced a rapid takedown--literally that of the long-standing fan site Whedonesque--when his former wife revealed details of his personal life that made his die-hard fan base question his feminist credentials.

This is celebrity, in all its glory and ugliness. But knowing how some are harnessing or being affected by showrunner fame doesn’t fully answer this question: what is the celebrity showrunner actually good for?

A short answer: anything that requires a brand.

For starters, marketing. Look no further than the billboards advertising HBO’s new drama The Deuce as coming from “Executive Producers David Simon and George Pelecanos of The Wire.” As of this writing, LA city buses are skinned with ads for The Orville “from creator Seth MacFarlane.” Just a few examples of how marketing teams now borrow from a showrunner’s previous successes to draw viewers to a new show.

Says Fox Network marketing VP Alex Hughes:

[In film] When you say ‘from Michael Bay,’ that means something about what you’re going to expect. With TV that’s been the case: from Jerry Bruckheimer, from Dick Wolf, from Aaron Spelling, you know what that brand’s going to give you. There’s value in that--television has used [this] throughout its history.

As Hughes points out, marketers of television content need not start from scratch if they can reference a creator with a strong identity. These showrunners can also assist with “amplification” of official content marketing for a show by mixing it with their personal brand and broadening distribution, notes Hughes.

But how effective is invoking the name of a showrunner for a new program? Will viewers try out the new show? I’ll share audience data on that in a moment. 

In the meantime, a partial answer is that it depends on the type of showrunner and the type of fan.

Showrunner Typology: The Visionary, the Populist, and the Master of Myth

The Showrunner Project divided TV creator brands into three categories, a typology of sorts: The Visionary, the Populist, and the Master of Myth. The criteria were each showrunner’s personal brand, the type of content they’re recognized for, the nature of their presence on social media and degree of coverage in traditional media. Of course, there can be overlap between the categories and they can change from one series to another. In the era of Lost, Damon Lindelof would have been a Master of Myth. Today, having just completed The Leftovers, he’s a Visionary.

A few examples of each type:

The Visionary: David Chase (The Sopranos), Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul), David Simon (The Wire, The Deuce), Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Newsroom), David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, Big Little Lies), Larry David (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm), Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), Jill Soloway (Transparent), Noah Hawley (Fargo), Charlie Brooker (Black Mirror).

In a nutshell, Visionaries are high-culture icons of prestige television. Visionaries are cloaked with the prestige mantle for content with an unusual degree of difficulty that usually airs on a well-regarded cable network or streaming service. Their content is the first of its kind and made its debut to praise, controversy, or both. Visionaries are often mysterious or private - some avoid attention, and social media in particular - but that’s not accurate across the board. 

The Populist: Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal), Aaron Spelling (Charlie’s Angels, Beverly Hills 90210), Tina Fey (30 Rock, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy, The Orville), Ryan Murphy (Nip/Tuck, Glee, American Horror Story), Stephen J. Cannell (The A-Team, The Rockford Files), Norman Lear (All in the Family, One Day at a Time).

New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik once wrote that Shonda Rhimes creates “smart, pulpy shows that emote like pop ballads, look like America and run like hell.” In that vein, Populists produce content that makes people cheer. They are among the best-known to the general public (rather than to niche audiences alone), their content is widely available (likely on a major traditional network), and they receive extensive media coverage to help grow their significant audiences.

The Master of Myth: Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek), Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone), Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica), Carlton Cuse (Lost, The Strain), David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (Game of Thrones), David Lynch (Twin Peaks), The Duffer Brothers (Stranger Things), Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy (Westworld), Bryan Fuller (American Gods, Pushing Daisies).

Masters of Myth produce genre, science fiction and/or fantasy, or complex mystery content. Among the media commentators and experts consulted for this project, the overwhelming view was that myth-makers are in a category all their own. Media scholar Derek Kompare singles out the “cult television” showrunner as having special importance to niche audiences as a storyteller, to the point of being an “auteur.” Blessed with highly engaged superfans and treated with reverence for holding the secrets of the world they built, they are often the best at engaging with their audience through social media and other means. 

In the Beginning, Showrunners Created the High-Culture Cable Network

What else is the celebrity showrunner good for? Making their home networks look good by sharing the glow of a strong and prestigious showrunner brand.

Visionary showrunners were the drivers of what commentators like Alan Sepinwall and Brett Martin call the Golden Age of television, during the early aughts. Not only were those showrunners revered as exceptional writers, they helped reciprocally heighten the brand and cultural status of the network carrying their show: some broadcasters strategically favored programs that “fuel[ed] the rhetoric of quality that circulates in media coverage of networks such as HBO, Showtime, AMC, and FX,” noted observer Alisa Perren. 

To this day the major streaming services, notably Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, have taken up the same strategy with their original content. And ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey admitted to Fast Company that for her network, the Shonda Rhimes universe has “helped us define our brand.” It’s a cycle of brands building the equity of other brands.

After all, where would HBO be without David Chase or David Simon, or AMC without Vince Gilligan or Matt Weiner? Commentators Brett Martin and Alan Sepinwall documented the moody Golden Age and its writing stars in their respective books on the period, with Martin coyly naming his for the spellbinding anti-heroes of prestige television (and perhaps their creators, too): the Difficult Men

Though both books are excellent, the framing is very specific and geared to Visionary showrunners only. LA Times critic Mary McNamara, who once cited Breaking Bad in a column as an example of television as “the new novel,” later noted at a conference that the Difficult Men showrunners and their protagonists were put on a pedestal the same way literary writers like Steinbeck and Hemingway and their (usually male) creations were blessed with critical endorsement and cultural reverence. In reflecting on a milestone anniversary for HBO’s Sex and the City, New Yorker columnist Emily Nussbaum’s manifesto would credit Darren Star, Michael Patrick King, and source material author Candace Bushnell with paving the way through HBO’s original star anti-heroine: Carrie Bradshaw. 

Nussbaum theorized that SATC was denied the appropriate degree of respect due to “an unexamined hierarchy: the assumption that anything stylized (or formulaic, or pleasurable, or funny, or feminine, or explicit about sex rather than about violence, or made collaboratively) must be inferior.”

Though this line of argument touches on differences in how male and female creators and protagonists are portrayed, it is as much a conversation about perceptions of Populist versus Visionary content and showrunners. 

If more populist content sometimes gets short shrift, what about more populist showrunners? Here’s what The Showrunner Project learned:

Populists Rule

An important piece of the puzzle, in determining what exactly celebrity showrunner status is good for, is audience perception and behavior. Who are the most famous showrunners to people beyond the “beltway” of Los Angeles? Do viewers who are not Emmy voters respond to marketing campaigns with the tag line “from the creator of”?

The Showrunner Project set out to answer these questions through an online survey of 160 U.S. and Canadian television viewers. The makeup of the respondents was nearly 60% millennials between 18-34, and a further 30% aged 35-44. The majority (68%) were women.

The good news for marketers of TV content is that these particular respondents expressed willingness to track a showrunner’s career from a beloved show to a new one. When asked “If I am a fan of one show and the creator of that show launches a new one, I would check out that show,” the response was overwhelmingly affirmative: 4.08 out of a range of possible values between 1.00 and 5.00.

In addition, when reporting on their own behavior, 31% stated they had “definitely” followed a known showrunner to a new program. 20% had “probably” done so, and only 26% said no. Those numbers are a pretty good bet for marketers.

As for who’s the most famous showrunner of them all?

Given the emphasis on the Visionary type coming off the era of Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Mad Men, and so on, the expectation was that the creators of prestige cable properties would be the most famous. The survey asked for each viewer’s awareness of better-known showrunners old and new, from Gene Roddenberry to Ryan Murphy. 

The result was a victory for Populist showrunners. Shonda Rhimes came out on top, registering a 3.67 on the same scale of 5.00. But she wasn’t closely followed by David Chase or Jill Soloway or the showrunners that get attention from Hollywood watchers or TV commentators. Aaron Spelling was ranked a close second, in defiance of the fact that he passed away in 2006 and hasn’t had a new show on TV in years. Aaron Sorkin, Norman Lear, and Joss Whedon rounded out the top five in descending order. 

Like Spelling, showrunners whose heyday was in the past but whose programs and role in the history of television are legendary (Lear and Gene Roddenberry, for example) still did well, with the Golden Age cable showrunners lagging behind them. Sopranos creator David Chase, universally admired among television critics and commentators (and hard-core Sopranos fans), had surprisingly low name recognition. 

Partial explanations for these results may lie in the makeup of the particular sample (possibly lacking in superfans, or superfans of certain types of content), and the age-old tension between visionary and populist categories (known to media scholars as the difference between so-called “high culture” and “low culture”). It should also be noted that before the fragmentation of Peak TV, there were far fewer showrunners for the media and fans to focus on. (In David Chase’s case, he never courted publicity beyond what was thrust upon him by the controversy of the fade to black over the strains of Journey.)

On the Utility of Populists, and What It All Means

What does it all mean? 

At the conclusion of the Showrunner Project, I had the opportunity to interview Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul creator Vince Gilligan. Gilligan is modest, eschews notions of the showrunner as auteur, and emphatically credits his team with the success of the shows he created (N.B.: Better Call Saul was co-created with Peter Gould). I asked for Gilligan's take on the survey results reflecting the dominance of Populists, even those from previous eras of TV content. He responded with a thoughtful piece of utilitarian philosophy, as we discussed the nostalgia we all feel toward the best-known popular showrunners and their output: “You could argue that [content made by Populists] has more of a value…if you please more human beings, are you not more valuable? If you make more people happy.”

The overall size of an audience and the amount of mainstream fame a showrunner experiences are certainly major factors. Even as Breaking Bad is considered one of the best television series in history (see TV: The Book, from Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz), Gilligan isn’t the best-known showrunner. There will always be a difference between the perspective of the chattering classes of TV and that of the audience at large, and there is room for both. Emily Nussbaum’s defence of traditionally non-prestigious types of content - and its creators - stands.

So what is Peak Showrunner good for, other than telling amazing stories and bringing joy to people’s lives? 

In the era of celebrity showrunners, their brands can be used effectively for marketing new and existing shows, boosting the reputation and fortunes of a network, raising awareness of cultural movements and political causes, and just about anything else that requires some degree of influence in today’s society. We’ve come a long way from the days of unknown freelance television writers toiling away for studios.

That said, it’s unlikely we’ve seen the full extent of what showrunners can do with their names and their brands. In an age when celebrity is one of the greatest commodities of all, expect to see more showrunners (those who have ambitions beyond content production, that is) seizing the platform they’ve been given to make an impact. As it evolves, the celebrity showrunner remains a phenomenon worth watching.