What is a "showrunner"?

I keep seeing this term about TV shows.

It sounds similar to a producer or director, but I’ve not seen exactly what a showrunner does?

They are basically the “Guy In Charge”. My impression has always been that they are a combination of producer and head writer. They determine the direction the show will go plot-wise during the season.

Echoing Shoeless: the showrunner is, as I understand it, usually one of the executive producers, but is the one who is actually the person-in-charge of the show itself, including decisions on plot, writers, and actors.

Well-known names who act (or have acted) as showrunners include Shonda Rhimes, Vince Gilligan, Dick Wolf, Chuck Lorre, and Judd Apatow.

This site explains it a bit:

I’ve understood the term “showrunner” as a way to identify producers with substantial decision making and creative input, in contrast to producers that spend their time securing funding and resources. Or, particularly, the “producers” that don’t make any tangible contribution, but are friends with powerful people so they get their name attached to an existing project and occasionally sign something or make a media appearance.

The title for a showrunner is usually “Executive Producer,” who is the person who makes the big decisions about casting, etc. Nowadays, they often are involved in writing, not just individual episodes, but also in guiding the story arcs (telling other writers to include scenes that will have bearing on episodes they’re not writing).

The Executive Producer has been the person running the show for decades: look at Gene Roddenberry or Quinn Martin. “Showrunner” came into vogue around 1990, since it does imply the writing end more strongly (Quinn Martin, for instance, wasn’t a writer, though he did impose a format on those who wrote for him). Executive producers could write, but I think there’s been a shift away from those who are solely managing the production and those who write it also.

But from the beginning, the Executive Producer was nearly always the auteur of the TV show, and if you look at them, you’ll see strong similarities in their productions.

The titles “producer” and “executive producer” are sprinkled so far and wide that they essentially have no meaning. (This is the reason that the DGA is so strict about how the “director” credit is used. They don’t want it to become meaningless like “producer.”) The term “showrunner” filled the need to tell you which executive producer is actually responsible for creating a show.

Interesting. Thanks, all.

Right- a lot of the time the lead actors in a show or the writers who wrote the original material that the show is based on are also “Executive Producers”. See Mark Harmon on NCIS, George R. R. Martin on Game of Thrones, and a lot of others.

Based on an old thread about Executive Producers, it’s a way to get the big name actors a bigger cut of the cash.

Or in some cases, there are multiple executive producers, and the showrunner is basically the guy running the show. Another way of looking at it is that it’s kind of like say… the Navy, where you may have several four-star admirals working together, but only one is the commanding officer, even though all are the same rank.

Eh, it’s not quite so analogous. An executive producer or producer can essentially be anyone in the world. It can be someone who contributes financing, or persuaded someone to contribute financing, or an actor, or the actor’s agent, or another agent who helped conclude a part of the cast or financing arrangements, or a consultant, or a head of the studio who just gets to be an executive producer on everything ex officio, regardless of having nothing to do with a production, or just someone who talked a good game into the right ear, or did someone a favor that had nothing to do with film production, and got a credit for it, etc.

Here’s a blogpost from an industry veteran on what a showrunner does.

Harmon is also listed as executive producer on the spin-off NCIS: New Orleans.

Free Silverman was so successful as a producer that he became the head of the three biggest networks at the time, ABC, CBS, and NBC.

  • Too late to edit: That’s Fred Silverman. Damn you, auto-incorrect!

Among American history buffs, it would be a great insider reference to William Jennings Bryan. :wink:

I’m not a buff. What’s the reference?

I was going to ask about when “showrunner” became popularized. The first people I can recall being referred to as “showrunners” are Matthew Weiner (Mad Men) and Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad). I’ve seen Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues, et al) referred to as HSB’s showrunner in recent media, but don’t recall him being referred to that way in the 1980s. Even in more recent times, I don’t recall, say, Joss Whedon being referred to as Buffy’s or Firefly’s showrunner. But I can well understand that “showrunner” started life as television-production jargon before being exposed to a wider audience.

I remember David Chase being referred to as the Showrunner for The Sopranos back when it was airing, but agreed that I don’t remember the term being used much before 2000.

I do, but I could be mistaken.

I think the first place I encountered the term was in connection with The Simpsons, in a book or article that discussed how different showrunners brought their different sensibilities to different seasons of the show. Here’s a more recent article I found: The Nine Showrunners Who Defined The Simpsons

Yeah, I’m only going from memory. When one first came across the term has a lot to do with what specific media about television one has been exposed to.

Could well be, wouldn’t be surprised at all. Especially in more recent media (say, within the last decade).

I don’t believe “showrunner” is a formally recognized title. It is a term of very recent vintage and isn’t consistently used.

Generally speaking, it appears to usually mean “The most senior or important producer who also writes the show in full or in part.”

Originally, a person like Armando Iannuci, Seth MacFarlane and Erica Messer would have been called the chief executive producer. That role, though, didn’t always include writing, and usually now it does - in the case of True Detective, Nic Pizzolatto was actually the ONLY writer on all of Season One, which would have been unheard of in the past. Conversely, the number of executive producers on shows (and movies) has blossomed to include a lot of people who maybe didn’t really do a heck of a lot creatively, so the word “showrunner” has emerged to specify a particular kind of producer, especially one responsible for television shows of vvery high quality.

“Showrunner leaves series X” is a headline I always read if I watch series X. It can and usually does have more effect than even an actor leaving. I liked Castle for example, but the change in showrunner for Season 8 just meant a complete change to the series in tone, the nature of stories, all for the worse. When the showrunner leaves, he takes the spirit of the show with him.