Television shows have a lot of moving parts — almost every show employs numerous writers and directors. So, how do you make sure everything functions as it should while guaranteeing the overall creative vision of the series? This is the job of a showrunner — a position more like the conductor of an orchestra. We’ll break down the basic responsibilities of the role as well as what it takes to eventually become one. What is a showrunner? Let’s go behind the scenes of today’s biggest television and streaming shows to find the answer.
What's a Showrunner?
The nature of television production requires a team effort. In order to put out a TV show every week for months at a time, a number of writers, producers, and directors are needed to pull it off. The TV Producers job description is quite a bit more involved than one might think.
If you consider the scaled of something like Game of Thrones, each season is essentially like shooting 10 movies at the same time. Perhaps that's why there are TWO Game of Thrones showrunners, not just one.
Let's define showrunner, explain their job description and look at how someone might actually become a showrunner of their own.
What is a Showrunner?
A showrunner is the individual who has primary creative control and management of a TV show. They aren’t always necessarily the creator of the show, but they’re almost always a writer. Showrunners are responsible for keeping the writers’ room moving forward, keeping the actors happy, and sticking to the budget for each episode. Most importantly, showrunners must adhere to the central creative vision of the series.
- James L. Brooks, Matt Groening, and Sam Simon (The Simpsons Seasons 1 & 2)
- Matt and Ross Duffer (Stranger Things)
- Greg Berlanti (Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow)
- David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (Game of Thrones)
- Donald Glover (Atlanta)
WHAT IS A SHOWRUNNER IN TV?
What does a showrunner do?
In a broad sense, the showrunner manages pretty much every aspect of a TV show. In many cases, showrunners develop the show, and from there, they’ll have a role from pre- to post-production.
Showrunners are in charge of the writer's room. They select the writing staff and are responsible for turning in episode and season outlines to the heads of the network. Each episode may have someone different with the “Written by” credit, but showrunners still read every episode to ensure a consistent tone and voice. In typical credits order, you'll most likely find the showrunner credited as an Executive Producer.
A group of talented showrunners gathered in 2019 to discuss the craft and the challenges of such a role. Panelists include showrunners Sam Esmail (Homecoming), Marti Noxon (Sharp Objects), Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective), Steven Canals (Pose), John Singleton (Snowfall), and Sera Gamble (You). They discuss everything they face doing the job and some of the extra obstacles facing female showrunners.
The easiest way to answer, “What is a showrunner?” is to think of the job as a mix between creative and managerial responsibilities. The person helps guide storylines, but they also need to work with the higher-ups. A showrunner may fight to get the show more money so that they can do certain storylines.
It’s for this reason a TV showrunner receives much of the praise for running a successful show. And conversely, the showrunner is often first on the chopping block when a TV show doesn’t do as well.
Here's another panel answering, "What is a showrunner?" As you'll see each of them has their own showrunner definition — as every production requires differing levels of involvement and oversight.
A typical showrunner salary for first-timers tends to be about $30,000 per episode. But if you get to the level of someone like Shonda Rhimes, then showrunners can make $20,000,000 annually.
Plenty of great female showrunners have followed in Rhimes’ footsteps, such as Yvette Lee Bowser on Dear White People and Liz Feldman on Dead to Me. Feldman is a great example of someone who worked their way up, starting as a stand-up comic before working with Ellen DeGeneres and landing her own television show.
WHAT IS A SHOWRUNNER?
Today's top showrunners
In the past few years, the recognition of the showrunner has grown exponentially. There are certain showrunners we know by name because they bring such a specific vision to their shows. Here are a few of those noteworthy showrunners and what defines their work.
One of the most infamous examples of a showrunner bumping heads with a network is Dan Harmon. Harmon served as the showrunner for Community for three seasons before being fired ahead of Season 4. He was promptly brought back as co-showrunner for Season 5.
He also developed the story circle to help writers create better episodes of TV shows and feature films.
Harmon’s firing ultimately came down to issues between those two roles of a showrunner we talked about earlier. The showrunner needs to manage between the creative and managerial, and despite the show's success, it just wasn’t working on Community.
Harmon wanted to make good TV while the studio was interested in ensuring the show was a bigger rating hit. Harmon couldn’t make the show he wanted with the budget being proposed, so he was fired.
But getting rid of a show runner isn’t anything new. A new American Gods showrunner had to be brought onboard after Bryan Fuller and Michael Green left over creative differences.
Unless you were in a coma between 2008-2013, you've heard of Breaking Bad. That show was created by Vince Gilligan who also acted as showrunner for the entire run. Most showrunners are involved in many facets of the production but Gilligan went a step further and actually directed a number of episodes as well. Here's a look at Gilligan's day-to-day role on Breaking Bad.
Ryan Murphy inked a deal worth $300 million (not a typical showrunner salary, by the way) with Netflix to develop shows for the streaming service. Murphy is best known for spearheading shows like Glee, American Horror Story, and most recently, Netflix’s Hollywood.
Here's another panel with Murphy and more of today's top showrunners including Jenji Kohan (Orange is the New Black), Ava DuVernay (Queen Sugar), David E. Kelley (Big Little Lies), Noah Hawley (Fargo), and Lisa Joy (Westworld).
One thing becomes apparent across his TV shows, proving him to be one of the most distinct showrunners around. Gorgeous aesthetics, confident underdogs, and excellent roles for Sarah Paulson typically show up in his works. Essentially, you always know when you’re watching a Ryan Murphy TV show.
When Grey's Anatomy debuted in 2005, it began the rise of the medium's most successful and influential showrunners: Shonda Rhimes. On her resume, Rhimes has led some of the latest and greatest shows including Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, and Empire. Recently, Rhimes signed a massive development deal with Netflix.
Here she is in conversation on the future of storytelling and her unique (some would call revolutionary) answer to "What is a showrunner?"
How to become a showrunner
No one becomes a showrunner overnight. While there are many ways to get ahead in the industry, here’s the common step-by-step way many people have gotten the role.
1. Start Writing
First, you need to develop good writing habits and hone your craft. Start creating original pilots in addition to writing spec scripts. Original pilots allow you to develop a unique writing style. Meanwhile, spec scripts are great for learning how to get inside another writer’s headspace.
During this time, you can learn what television shows you’re drawn to. Do you mostly want to write comedies or dramas? It’s best to focus on a single niche rather than a little bit of everything or else an agent won’t know how to place you.
Here's a quick checklist for writers looking to jumpstart their career:
- Find out when pilot season is
- Read and study other TV pilots like The Office and Stranger Things
- Find the best online screenwriting software
- Learn how to write better dialogue
- Enter your work into screenwriting contests
- Practice pitching your TV show idea
2. Work Your Way Up in the Writer's Room
Showrunners need to understand as many aspects as they can about creating a television show, so you should be familiar with the responsibilities of everyone you may eventually be in charge of.
You can start from the bottom as a writer’s assistant to a staff television writer to a story editor to a showrunner’s assistant and so forth. It’s a long ladder up but worth it for the right individual.
Here are showrunners like Greg Daniels (The Office U.S.) discussing how they run their writer's rooms.
People who are currently active WGAE or WGAW members with a “supervising producer” credit or above on a current TV series or has a pilot script currently set up at a network is also eligible to apply for the WGA showrunner program.
This program will teach you everything you need to know about running a TV show. And many prior entrants went on to great things.
While you're rising through the ranks of the writer's room, you can also get a head start on your career as a showrunner. StudioBinder's TV writing and developing masterclass will help you take your golden ticket idea from conception to a completed pilot. Here's the first episode on writing and developing an idea for television.
https://www.studiobinder.com/tag/game-of-thrones/In this free, 7-episode course with topics like writing a pilot, creating a show bible, and secrets on how to pitch your idea, you will be extra prepared to answer the question: What is a showrunner? Me.
What Does a TV Producer Do?
People who want to break into TV may ask, “What is a showrunner?” But there are other people who may ask, “What is a producer?” Both take a great deal of work, but those passionate about creating entertaining stories will find a way. Now that you have a better idea of what showrunners do, see if you have what it takes to be a producer like the Game of Thrones showrunners.