TV

What’s A Showrunner? Let Joss Whedon Explain

Read an exclusive excerpt from the new book 'Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show.'

“Showrunner.”

You’ve probably heard the word before, and given the context can even guess what it means. But unless you’re entrenched in the television industry, it’s a word that’s spread to the mainstream without a lot of understanding of what it is, exactly, a Showrunner does.

Luckily, there’s a new documentary aptly titled “Showrunners” which takes a look at the rise of the job position in prominence, including in depth interviews with some of the biggest names around: Joss Whedon (“Buffy The Vampire Slayer”); Damon Lindelof (“Lost”); Ronald D. Moore (“Battlestar Galactica”); and many, many more.

To accompany the documentary, Titan Books is releasing a companion volume that also works nearly as an oral history, letting showrunners explain what they do in their own words. And though the book doesn’t hit stores until September 2, MTV News is bringing you an exclusive look at a chapter from the book about what a network and studio expect from a Showrunner…

And as a bonus, an in depth talk with “The Avengers” director Joss Whedon about how, through publicly perceived “clashes” with studios on “Firefly” and other shows, he became an “unexpected rebel.”

Titan Books

What a Network and a Studio Expect from a Showrunner

When looking at the chain of command in television, the showrunner is responsible for overseeing the cast, producers, directors, and everyone in the crew (or those below the line). While it may seem like the pinnacle position, the showrunner is actually beholden to the network, which licenses and broadcasts their show, and the studio, who helps finance the production of the series. Those two entities represent the purse strings, and the bosses of a showrunner. The showrunner’s function is not only creative, but also serves to ensure that the financial backer’s investment has the potential to recoup their money and eventually become profitable when the series is eligible for syndication or foreign-market sales. Because of that, most showrunners understand that adopting a maverick attitude against their financial overlords isn’t the smartest way of handling creative conflicts.

Instead, most showrunners have figured out their individual ways of making their bosses happy without selling out creatively to every whim of often jittery studio and network executives. It’s a high-wire act that often needs a lot of adjustments as the seasons proceed, which these showrunners explain.

JOHN ROGERS, Showrunner: Leverage , The Librarians
We go to a bunch of people and ask them to give us a couple million bucks a week to tell our little pretend stories. The idea that they should do that with no strings attached is madness. It’s other people’s money. There are stockholders out there somewhere. I don’t know who would invest in television now—that’s a horrible idea—but in theory, that’s other people’s money we’re playing with. We should involve them in the process and be open to the idea that you get some feedback. Don’t try to drive us, but tell us what road you want us on, and we’ll do the best we can.

CHRIS DOWNEY, Showrunner: Leverage
Ultimately, it’s a business where there is a number. There’s a number at which you survive and there’s a number at which you don’t survive. You get feedback; it’s called ratings. Beyond what critics say about the show or what feedback you get on the websites, you look at the ratings and you see whether or not you’re succeeding or failing. We respect that aspect of the business. We understand that the network has to maintain a certain number of eyeballs on their show or else you’re gone.

HART HANSON, Showrunner: Bones, The Finder, Backstrom
The license fee is the amount of money that the network pays the studio for the show, and they get to broadcast it for that license fee. Then the studio turns around, and sells the show around the world and sells it into syndication to another network or cable. The studio has a whole bunch of ways of making money in secondary markets. [With Bones] Fox, the network, is the primary client. It behooves Fox, the network, to have the studio pay tons of money for the show, because it looks fantastic. It behooves 20th Century Fox TV to keep their budget down so that they’re making as much profit as they can simply from the license fee so that all the other sales are gravy. Those are different agendas, and I have to contend with that. Every showrunner has to contend with the studio and the network. They very often fight through the show, not here. There is some cross-pollination with executives. The studio executive and the network executive can meet and have a coffee and hash things out, but it happens less than you would think.

SHAWN RYAN, Showrunner: The Shield, The Unit
As a showrunner, I always view things like a bank. You can deposit into a bank and you can withdraw from a bank. And at the beginning of my shows, I would always spend time depositing. Meaning, I would prove to the network that a) I knew what I was doing, then b), ask them to give me notes, but I’m going to react to them in smart ways, and if I disagree, I’m going to tell you why and you’re going to be proud of the final product. Once you establish that relationship, you get an incredible amount of leeway.

You know, while I was doing The Shield, I also did The Unit for CBS with David Mamet. There wasn’t a single story we wanted to do that we weren’t allowed to do on that show, but it comes from building trust. You can withdraw things that you want so long as you made deposits along the way with these people. And so it really comes down to the fact that they have a lot of things to worry about at the studios and networks. Therefore, my plan is always to, as quickly as possible, become the least problematic show for them, because they only have so many hours in the day. And they’re going to focus where they think their biggest problems are. So if my show is the least of their problems, then they’re off giving notes and trying to save some other show, and that’s when I’m allowed to do what I want.

DEAN DEVLIN, Executive Producer: Leverage
In Hollywood, a lot of people get paid money to have opinions, and they feel that if they don’t express that opinion they’re not earning their money. So very often you have a lot of input that’s not necessarily constructive. At TNT, the dialog is much more like two entities trying to do something together as opposed to “we’re your boss and we want you to do this because our market research says so.” They really approach it in a very old-fashioned way that I don’t see even at the studios right now. Back in the day it used to be that a studio would gamble on a filmmaker and if the movie did well, they all felt great and got raises. If the movie tanked, they all got fired. Nowadays it’s much more manipulated. It’s more calculated. The experience of working with TNT has been like a throwback. They give us an enormous amount of freedom and when they have notes it’s because they care deeply about something. And even then, you can have an adult conversation. It’s such an unusual experience that I’m drawn back to it over and over again.

JOHN ROGERS
We don’t ever tell people the scripts will be great. We assure them that they will like our work and we will work hard. It’s interesting. [Chris and I] both worked for guys, and with guys, like this where they consider the sales job to continue past the pilot and all the way through the first season or even the second season, selling to the network again and again and again about how great the show is. I think we’re both of the opinion that, “Here is the script, here’s the work, here’s the show. You like it, great. If you don’t, then we should go work for people who like our stuff and you should just go find people whose stuff you like.”

DAVID SHORE, Showrunner: House
You know what? I’d like to sit here and go, “Dammit, every time we try and do something different, [Fox] stands in our way and we run roughshod over them.” They’ve actually been very good. Whenever we’ve done a departure episode, with a couple of exceptions, they’ve been extraordinarily supportive. They’ve welcomed it. Even in season one when we did the first departure episode, which was “Three Stories,” they were excited about it right out of the gate, and we spent a little extra money on it.

HART HANSON
I’m not positive that the writers of shows should be the showrunners. I’m not 100 percent there. I’m glad it’s worked out that way because it’s been to my advantage, as I’m a writer. We can be very self-indulgent. I think writers can get a little bit precious about our work, and when we’re the bosses, the only people who are going to draw that to our attention are probably the studio and the network executives. I’m not someone who would say I wish they didn’t exist. It is born for friction, but I think we need them, and out of that friction comes better work.

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Joss Whedon: The Unexpected Rebel

As the former executive producer of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse, and now Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Joss Whedon has had more than his share of documented struggles with networks who didn’t understand, or have the patience, to foster his particular brand of cult shows. More surprising to Whedon is the lore that’s circulated about how he’s pushed back on those executives. He sets the record straight on his “rebellious rep” and his actual view about his responsibility to the networks.

Joss Whedon
“I’ve probably spoken out against the behavior of the people at the top in the networks two or three times in my career. And now, I find recently that I have a reputation. The very first time I ever disagreed with one network head, he brought out the word difficult. ‘Well, if you’re gonna be difficult…’ I’m like, ‘Wow. I’ve pretty much given you everything you’ve asked for, for four years, actually five, and this is the first time we’ve ever disagreed,’ and boom, here comes the rep. I have had mostly extremely good relationships, not just with network heads, but with standards and practices people; the kind of people, and younger executives, who are supposed to be the enemy. When you’re doing a show, they can be the enemy, and sometimes they have been. They absolutely have. Obviously with Firefly, it was us against them and it was a sad state of affairs to be in. But that’s not how I operate. I am, and always have tried to be, a company man.

I treat showrunning and this work of being in Hollywood like the Army. I take the orders that I’m given, even if I disagree with them, because one day I intend to be giving them and will expect the same.

That goes back to the first shows I worked on, the first movies. I don’t step out of line. Sometimes I look back and go, ‘Maybe I should have.’ Part of me is just pathologically afraid of conflict, and part of me also just doesn’t understand what kind of power I might have. In the instance of saying, ‘Well, it wouldn’t have mattered if I had fought for Angel,’ it might well have mattered if I had fought for Angel, it just never occurred to me that you could.

That was after a time with having a great relationship with the WB and then having them kick Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the curb because they got into a shouting match with Fox. I think everybody’s at fault there. Those business decisions can offend me, but they are not really part of my life. It’s really the day-to-day workings of the show where I will do everything in my power to make the thing palatable to people who are putting up millions and millions of dollars to make the thing happen, and who have an absolute understanding of their network that I don’t. They should have a say in what’s going on.

Yes, I like to be left alone to do my thing. Everybody does. But the moment you forget that the executive you can’t stand, who has never been helpful at all, might be the only person in the room who has the right idea about how to fix something, the moment you forget that, you’re going to lose.

I know a lot of stories of great showrunners who are like, ‘And I told the network, go fuck yourself, and I kicked them out and I shut the door.’ I’ve never done that. I’ve gotten a little bit shirty and I’ve gotten insistent and I’ve drawn the line. I’ve put myself in a position to draw the line and I think that’s an important part of it. I never needed to put a show on the air, so I never had to become so craven to the network that I hated them for it.

When I did Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I said, ‘This is exactly the show we want to do. If you want a show that’s sort of similar, then God-speed. I’m going to do something else with my life.’ And therefore, because I had that absolute clarity, it was easy for me to be giving in other areas. I don’t think you need to treat anybody like your enemy unless they are actively trying to destroy you, which occasionally does happen. There are those kinds of people out there, but there are not many. Everybody has a pretty good will and if you can tap into that and make allies out of everybody, things are going to just go much better. Yet now, I find that I’m this hot-headed maverick, which is amazing because I’m afraid of four-year olds.”

“Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show” by Tara Bennett hits stores on September 2.

Writer/Editor at MTV News. You can follow him on Twitter, but not in real life because that would be weird.
@azalben