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TV Writing 101: What is a showrunner?

The showrunner is the head writer of a TV show. But their responsibilities extend far beyond simply writing the show.

Some of the most famous TV writers who you've heard of, such as Larry David, Shonda Rhimes, Vince Gilligan, or Ryan Murphy, either are or have been showrunners.

It's the most important job on any TV show. Every decision needs to be cleared with them and every stylistic choice is basically coming from or through them.

So, let's take a look at what it means to be a showrunner, what their duties are, and how showrunners get to be showrunners.

A showrunner is not just a TV writer

Picture a TV writers' room. It should include a big conference table, comfortable chairs, two TV monitors, and about 8-16 writers.

Now, picture them all pitching out stories and characters and jokes.

Could be a lot of mayhem if it weren't for the showrunner. The showrunner is the one running the writers' room and, when writers pitch their ideas, they are basically pitching to the showrunner.

The showrunner decides which pitch they like, which they don't, which they're going to move forward with and build off of.

They'll decide, with input from the room of course, how a season is going to be molded, what the episodes will be. They'll also decide who writes which episodes.

In a more practical sense, they'll also dictate when the room starts and ends for the day, and even the tone of the workplace itself.

Basically, they are running the writers' room in every sense of the word.

But, as I mentioned before, there is much more to this job than writing.

The showrunner is the lead creative producer

Every creative decision, from sets to props to wardrobe to casting, has to be approved by the showrunner. In addition to their writing duties, they are basically the lead producer of the show for all creative aspects.

And this includes during shooting.

During production of TV shows, the showrunner is often down on stage with the director, approving or requesting changes, which are then relayed to whoever needs to hear it.

If the showrunner needs to stay in the room, however, a trusted second-in-command will be on stage to oversee things in the showrunner's stead.

This is true for the post-production process. Every single cut goes through the showrunner before being shown to the network or the studio.

Is the showrunner always the one who created the show?

No. The showrunner is often the one who had the idea and created the show. But sometimes seasoned showrunners are brought in to helm ideas from writers who haven't had showrunning experience yet, or to oversee them while they get their sea legs.

There are also many instances, like with some of the famous names mentioned above, where the showrunner goes off and does other things, creates other shows, and leaves somebody else in charge.

Shonda Rhimes was the original showrunner of Grey's Anatomy. But look at everything she's creating and writing. It's insane! There's no way she's be able to run Grey's Anatomy while accomplishing everything she's accomplished.

So, those showrunning duties, at some point along the way, got passed over to someone else.

How can I move forward in my TV writing career and become a showrunner?

The path to showrunner is not easy. There are many, many accomplished TV writers who have never run a show of their own.

And that's no fault of their own. Sometimes they haven't sold and created their own TV show yet. Or they haven't gotten an overall deal, in which studios will sometimes ask you to run a show.

Regardless the path is this... rise up the ranks as a TV writer and/or create your own TV show.

Check out these articles for more information about starting your TV writing career.

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I'm Anton, a TV writer and author of Breaking Into TV Writing, a book about the business of TV writing and how to get your foot in the door.


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