One thing I wanted to add about public awareness of the concept of a “showrunner.” This is mostly a wonderful thing; it’s not only brought a small measure of fame to talented writers who were once completely obscure, but it’s focused fans’ and critics’ questions about a show in the right direction. (It makes much more sense to ask the producer of the show about upcoming storylines than to ask the star. They don’t write their own terrible dialogue, after all.) But even if we know who the showrunner is – and since it’s sometimes an unofficial term, there may be no way we have of knowing for sure – that doesn’t necessarily tell us who’s in charge of the show.
To go back before the explosion of “executive producer” credits, for example, the power arrangement on many shows was simpler. The “producer” was the person who was in day-to-day charge of the show, functioning as what we might today call the showrunner. The “executive producer” was the producer’s boss, who might not be there every day. So a James L. Brooks would be credited as “executive producer” on the several shows he was doing simultaneously, while the people responsible for the day-to-day running of the show were the “producers,” and that title really meant something. During the ’80s, as writing staffs got bigger, “producer” started to have less of a specific meaning. But there’s still that distinction between producers who can work on every aspect of the show all the time, and producers who have other duties that prevent them from being there every moment. On a show like 30 Rock, where the creator is also the star, she has to delegate some of the showrunning responsibility if only because there are only 24 hours in a day. Other shows have creators new to TV, and the studio assigns a showrunner to handle some of the things the creator is still learning. There are endless combinations.
I sometimes think that the real centre of power of a TV show is not necessarily the creator, or the showrunner, but “the Muscle.” I’ve mentioned William Goldman’s book The Season a few times, and in The Season, “The Muscle” is the term he uses to define the person who is in charge in a theatrical production – the one whose vision wins out when there’s a clash, the one who decides what the show will be when it’s crunch time on the road. Sometimes it might be the director, sometimes the producer, sometimes the star. And I think that applies to television to a certain extent. It’s why a producer with several shows, who doesn’t directly write scripts for any of them, can still put his own stamp on all of them while the day-to-day showrunners only show little hints of a personal vision: because everyone involved with the show knows who has the final say on everything. It’s why the identity of the star may sometimes have more impact on the style of the show than the identity of the creator, if the star is powerful enough to demand rewrites. A big, complicated production, with the creative contributions of many people, gets a lot of its specific personality from power – whoever has the most power is probably going to do the most to define the show’s style, whatever his or her title may be.
Of course in a lot of cases, that’s no more helpful than the term “showrunner” in figuring out who’s in charge of a show, since we don’t know who has the ultimate power on a show, and sometimes, even they don’t. So it’s not like this theory will help us understand these power relationships better. It’s just a way of reminding ourselves that power, in a major production, may sometimes be more definitive than producer titles or even who writes the scripts.
One more thing about showrunners: I think a show that really helped contribute to public awareness of the role of showrunners (even though the term wasn’t public knowledge at the time) was The Simpsons. Most shows, then and now, put the names of the showrunners in the mix with all the other producers. But starting in the fifth season, when David Mirkin took over as showrunner, The Simpsons put his name at the end of the show, on a separate card, right before the names of the three creators. Suddenly it was clearer to the viewer that this particular executive producer had a role as important as the more familiar names. And in season 9, which had episodes by four different showrunners or showrunner teams (18 by Mike Scully, holdovers by Oakley and Weinstein, and two “extra” episodes each by Mirkin and Al Jean and Mike Reiss), fans got a really clear look at the different approaches of different showrunners, and how a different executive producer could bring a somewhat personal approach to a show that – in most respects – was basically the same.