Typing Faster

March 10, 2010

What’s a Showrunner? The WGC’s Showrunner Code

Filed under: Future of TV, Kvetch, Stuff I Like, the biz, Working — petertypingfaster @ 10:33 am

What’s a showrunner? It can be a pretty nebulous position, especially in Canada where the tradition of showrunning isn’t very established. In the past few years there has definitely been an ongoing discussion in the Canadian business trying to concretely define what a showrunner is and what responsibilities the position entails.

To that end the Writers Guild of Canada consulted with a number of established Canadian showrunners, as well as the Cultural Human Resources Council, to come up with a document that contains all the relevant information.

And guess what? It’s live!

Let’s start with one of the best descriptions of a showrunner I’ve ever read:

The Showrunner is the chief custodian of the creative vision of a television series. The Showrunner’s primary responsibility is to communicate the creative vision of that series – often from pilot episode through to finale.

Showrunners need to be able to collaborate effectively with all the other producers, executive producers, directors, cast and crew on the show as well as broadcast executives and distributors. They are generally credited as producers or executive producers.

Showrunning skills cannot be learned solely in a classroom setting. Field experience is essential. Anyone seriously contemplating becoming a Showrunner should first complete several successful tours of duty in series production, series writing and story editing.

Scripts are the lifeblood of drama and comedy series. Typically Showrunners are successful TV writers who have risen through the ranks, gaining the necessary skills in production. Directors and producers can also become Showrunners, of course – provided they have acquired the necessary professional writing skills, experience and credits.

TV series development and production is an intense, organic, ever-changing process. It requires Showrunners to be passionate, creative, strong and open to the universe.

Showrunning itself takes an inordinate amount of time, talent, energy, stamina – and the ongoing ability to complete many tasks more or less simultaneously.

Showrunners need to meet an exacting business challenge – namely, to produce the best show possible within a set framework (budget, available resources and schedule).

Only a tiny minority of writers possess the creative, business and managerial skills needed to be Showrunners. Only a tiny number of producers and executive producers possess the creative skills and writing experience needed to be Showrunners. Therefore, a successful Showrunner is a rare bird.

Finally, it needs to be said that running a hit tv series requires the ability to invoke a creative magic not listed among the competencies outlines in the Chart and Profile.

–Steve Lucas, on behalf of the CHRC’s Showrunners’ Expert Working Group

Pretty bang on. If you’re interested in taking a look at the chart of competencies you can find a brief overview in the WGC’s article, or go here (though that doesn’t seem to be the complete document).

What’s of even more interest than the general overview though is the deal points suggested by the WGC. In fact, much of the article is given over to advice on how to negotiate a Showrunner contract, and it makes for fascinating reading.

What terms should you be asking for? To consider yourself a true showrunner on the show, and not just a head writer, the consensus from the group was that the minimum items to ask for are as follows:

  • final approval on cast (or if not a veto, an equal voice in selection of cast)
  • hiring key creatives (including hiring writing staff and, if not control over hiring of directors, a meaningful voice in that process)
  • fine cut (says one showrunner to a chorus of agreement, “If you don’t have fine cut, you’re not really running it”)
  • involvement in all creative conversations with the network
  • control of notes process (showrunners surveyed were emphatic about the need to take notes directly from the network/broadcaster)
  • role in the editing room (the economic argument for this is that you can help adjust for bad decisions more quickly)
  • a writer on set all the time, or tone meetings with the director (the argument for this is that a writer can make changes on the fly to make sense of cuts)
  • Executive Producer credit (as opposed to Co-Executive Producer, or just Producer)

As one in-demand showrunner put it: “I only work with people who want me to do those things.” If you can’t get everything on the list, advice from the experienced is “trade money for control every time.”

They even offer up an excerpt from an experienced showrunner’s contract.

1. Prodco hereby engages Company to provide the showrunner services (the Services) of Writer for the __________ Season, as such services are known in the Canadian television industry. Without limiting the generality of the foregoing, the Services shall include the following in collaboration and conjunction with the producer team for the Series, with final approval in each instance reserved to Prodco:

  1. acting as a key liaison between the broadcaster and the production on story department, casting and editing decisions;
  2. creating the story department schedule for approval by Producer and managing the story department so that all scripts are being delivered pursuant to the approved story department schedule;
  3. providing feedback regarding the Episodes from the broadcaster to Producer and ensuring changes required by the broadcaster are made, as approved by Producer;
  4. supervising the post production schedule and the off-line editing process in accordance with the post production schedule provided by Producer;
  5. supervising all aspects of the story department, including developing and pitching story ideas and providing notes to the story department writers on all outlines, first draft, and second draft scripts;
  6. supervising the casting of all Episodes, including attending casting sessions and providing creative feedback;
  7. supervising all production meetings for the Episodes and giving creative feedback to all key crew personnel on an as-needed basis;
  8. in conjunction with the other Series’ executive producers, supervising the “showrunner” cut of all Episodes, ensuring all changes required by Producer are made;
  9. performing such other services as may be reasonably required by Producer and as are consistent with first-class supervising producers in the Canadian television production industry.

I’m a firm believer that if you want to know what a specific position entails, the easiest way to learn about it is to read the relevant contract. The above seems like a pretty accurate indication of what a Showrunner would be expected to do on a typical production.

The article doesn’t end there though, also offering up some tips on what to look for in a creator contract (if you’re the creator of the show).

The following items should be attended to in your [creator] contract (even a pilot contract):

  • Copyright in the development materials (try to keep it)
  • Attachment as showrunner, or guaranteed engagement in the story room of a resulting series
  • A guaranteed number of scripts the creator will write in the resulting series
  • Entitlement to ongoing “episodic” royalties (i.e., something paid to the creator for every episode made for the entire run of the resulting series, whether the creator writes the script, or even remains attached to the show at all)
  • That the concept or bible contract will be covered under the IPA and have fringes paid on the fees (these contracts do not automatically fall under the IPA, and if they don’t, no fringes are paid)
  • Entitlement to “Created by” credit

The “Created by” credit is entirely up to individual negotiation. The IPA does not include any provisions for it or for any payments accruing to it. This is also not a credit automatically awarded to someone who writes a bible or a pilot script. In collective bargaining, the WGC has consistently tried to gain jurisdiction over creator credits, but we are not there yet. This will remain a contentious topic of discussion at the bargaining table because many producers assert their role as creators too. It’s therefore very important that the member (or agent negotiating for the member) protect themselves up front in their contract.

Definitely a lot of great advice in there. Hope you all enjoy it as much as I did.

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5 Comments »

  1. This really WAS great – thanks!

    Comment by Diane — March 10, 2010 @ 3:41 pm

  2. This is one of the better articles I’ve found on being a showrunner. Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Gamal — September 1, 2010 @ 2:45 pm

  3. thank you thank you thank you.

    Comment by lolitSA — May 16, 2011 @ 9:10 am

  4. We absolutely love your blog and find almost all of your post’s to be precisely what I’m looking for.

    Do you offer guest writers to write content in your case?

    I wouldn’t mind writing a post or elaborating on a lot of the subjects you write in relation to here. Again, awesome site!

    Comment by Augusta — May 31, 2013 @ 5:05 am

  5. I am actually a show runner since many years and can totally agree. It is a constant balance act, but otherwise life would be boring. People like Chuck Lorre and Lorne Michaels run so many shows at the same time, it feels like the waiter in Las Vegas balancing multiple plates on sticks. Thank you for the great description.

    Comment by manhattandatingproject — January 29, 2015 @ 12:02 am


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