Showrunners from across network and cable television gathered this past Saturday at Produced By: NY’s “The Art (and Business) of Showrunning” panel to talk about what the job means and how it has been affected by a changing television landscape. They discussed in detail the dawn of shorter episode orders, Hollywood’s gender bias and how they think about diversity when running their shows.
The panelists included Barbara Hall (“Madam Secretary”), Robert and Michelle King (“The Good Wife”), Clyde Phillips (“Nurse Jackie,” “Dexter”), Darren Star (“Younger,” “Sex and the City”) and Joe Weisberg (“The Americans”).
Check out highlights from the panel below.
What exactly does a showrunner do, anyways?
The showrunner is always one of a show’s executive producers, but, as Phillips explained, the title of showrunner is “not on a piece of paper” so defining the job can get a bit nebulous. Phillips likes his daughter’s explanation of the job: “He’s the president of ‘Dexter.'”
In other words, “Being a showrunner is doing absolutely everything.”
The other panelists agreed, although they emphasized different aspects of the job. The most important task for Star “is guaranteeing the scripts and keeping the vision consistent,” while Robert King had a slightly more pessimistic angle.
King explained, “It’s who’s responsible. When the studio network calls, who can they blame or threaten?”
Why showrunning is harder on a network show than on cable.
Hall and the Kings were the only representatives of network television, and the rest of the panel expressed awe of their heavier workload. As Phillips, who has worked in both mediums, put it, “Now that I’m in cable, I’m never going back.”
Star agreed. “It’s so much harder to do a network show,” he said. He called the standard 22-23 episode order on networks “awful.” Especially after once fulfilling an insane “Melrose Place” episode order of 34 hours a year, wherein they “shot with two crews simultaneously,” Stars now says, “All I know is now I like doing 12 episodes a year. 12 is so civilized.”
“I enjoy the process so much more, as opposed to I don’t even remember doing those shows because your head is in it so much panicking. It’s nice to not be panicking,” he explained.
Weisberg joined the consensus about the benefits of cable, adding that cable allows for time to think about and reshape the arc of the entire season. He called his ability on “The Americans” to go back and edit earlier scripts after writing later ones “an incredible luxury that we have on cable that you would never have on network.”
What “True Detective” means for the future of television.
The panelists mostly agreed that networks are headed toward cable-length seasons of 10-13 episodes. A big reason, as explained by Phillips, is that “networks are going to get better actors and better directors if the orders are not life-killing commitments.”
He used “True Detective” as an example, asking, “How else are you going to get Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson to do a show? You can’t not watch that show,” he said, adding, “the first season anyways.”
Michelle King agreed that the move toward shorter episodes is “absolutely because of the actors” because “they’re starting to say, ‘I am a star…if you want me, shrink the order.'”
“The Americans” once had a director ruin the show.
Asked about the biggest problem he’d faced as a showrunner, Weisberg revealed the “strange and painful” time when “we could not get on the same page with the director of an episode.” After talking to the director — who Weisberg refused to name — went nowhere, Weisberg remembers feeling like, “Scene by scene, it just got worse and worse, and you think you’re watching your baby die.”
“This felt like the whole episode was going down the drain, and you start thinking, well we can fix it in editing, but as the problems pile up and get more and more severe, you start thinking, we’re not going to be able to fix this in editing. And a lot of it was insoluble. And you just realize, you’re going to construct something else,” said Weisberg.
Filming on “Madam Secretary” was once interrupted by the actual Secretary of State.
When Madeleine Albright guest-starred on “Madam Secretary,” filming was halted for almost 45 minutes when Albright suddenly had to take an urgent call.
According to Hall, after “eavesdropping” “we found out that she had to take a call from John Kerry because it was on the eve of the Iranian nuclear agreement, and all of the former Secretaries of State had been called to be briefed…It was Kerry, it was Kissinger, Condi Rice.”
Citing the incident as a time when she “just had to roll with it,” she joked that they couldn’t really interrupt to complain to Albright, “but it might rain and we’re losing the light.”
How things have changed for women in Hollywood, and how they haven’t.
Michelle King credited the number of female executives currently in the industry for making television a better place for women, and Hall agreed, saying, “It’s so much better than it used to be.” Still, “Sometimes things just take a little bit longer than they do with men. You have to say something three times and say it a little louder, and you just have to sort of put up with that.”
And Hall doesn’t want to give the impression that the gender bias has disappeared altogether. When Phillips questioned whether the expectations for women were truly lower than for men, saying, “I think the pay is virtually equal,” Hall audibly laughed.
“I don’t think the pay is virtually equal. I mean maybe at some levels it is, but I don’t think at showrunning it is,” she explained.
Referring back to Weisberg’s surprise at not being able to manage the bad director, Hall explained, “Listening to Joe talk about telling someone to do something and they just won’t do it, that’s something that women deal with. And that’s when you have to say it three times. Because the model is different. People come into the room looking for who has final say, and they’re not used to it being a woman, and there’s a lag time to that.”
On why diversity is important, and what it means.
Robert King called diversity “a priority for our staff,” but “only because so much of our show touches on issues of race, where that’s the subject matter, so you want different perspectives. So usually we’re not just trying to get that one person so we know what we’re talking about. We want to get a debate in the room.”
Michelle King added, “I think diversity is very important on a writing staff, but I also think the definition of diversity is wrong.” She explained, “On our staff, when you have two African American women writers, as we do, they’re diverse from each other because they have different writing skills. And I think it’s patronizing to suggest that we’ve got diversity because of what their ethnicity or their gender is.”
For his part, Star admitted that “Younger” “does not have the most diverse cast on television” and talked about diversity as a priority in guest casting, while Weisberg was concerned with making diversity in the writers room a more intentional concern.
Weisberg mentioned how “easy and natural” it had been to “very unconsciously gravitate toward stuff that felt familiar, like my own voice, and then hire people like that without even knowing what I was doing.” He also credited an increased emphasis on diversity for expanding the scope of “The Americans.” He cited Paige’s turn toward Christianity as a plot that “literally our whole show has revolved around since,” but that “we would not have come up with” without more diverse hiring practices.