Realscreen West ’15: Making or breaking a show with showrunners

A Realscreen West session examined the importance of finding the right showrunner and the multi-faceted role they play in the production process.
June 3, 2015

As a producer, hiring a freelance showrunner for your program is one of the most important calls to be made. While a good fit can lift your show to great heights, the wrong choice can potentially kill your series.

A handful of producers converged at a Realscreen West panel titled “The Showrunner: Soldier, Savior or Spy?” on Tuesday (June 2) to discuss the pitfalls – and successes – of the process alongside MBN Productions showrunner Billy Taylor and agent Alan Moore, VP of alternative and international television at APA. The session was moderated by Rebecca Toth Diefenbach, co-president and executive producer at Sirens Media.

“As a showrunner myself, I’d love to be on every single one of [my shows] but I can’t be on it day to day to day, so that showrunner is integral to the success of your show,” said Jenny Daly, president of T Group Productions. “So we’re very diligent about who we bring into the mix that’s going to represent us as a company, but also is great for the project itself.”

The problem, Daly points out, is that networks and production companies can have different ideas about the ideal candidate, so what’s essential is negotiating a middle ground.

“It’s kind of a dance you have to do to ensure that – as a company – we feel confident in a body that’s literally taking a lot of the weight. But ultimately, I’m responsible, so if that show does poorly, it’s not that showrunner’s fault, it’s my fault,” said Daly.

On the network side, Lauren Gellert - executive VP of development and original programming at WE tv – said that if either the network or prodco is insisting on a showrunner, there needs to be a good reason for it and all parties need to “do their due diligence” and background checks.

“Someone is responsible on a day-to-day [basis] and they’re key to the project and the process,” she said.

Arthur Smith, the co-founder and CEO of A. Smith & Co. Productions, said he has seven showrunners within the company, and makes a concerted effort to groom showrunners from the inside. The exec recalled a recent experience in which the prodco pushed for a certain showrunner even though they were unfamiliar with the net.

“We really, really pushed him. To the point of, we’re guaranteeing it, we’ll stand behind it, we must have this person – he is ready,” said Smith. “And the network, fortunately, supported it, and the person did incredibly well and they actually tried to hire them from us.”

At this point, moderator Toth Diefenbach asked Billy Taylor which master he was serving as a showrunner – the network or the production company?

“Hopefully, at the outset, you’re looking at it as a collaboration,” said Taylor. “There are checks and balances. The other production company is checking you, and you’re delivering a cut and then the network’s checking that, and you’re going in, and there’s this back and forth volley. And that’s why we have several rounds of notes.

“In a perfect world, you’re collaborating with the production company and you’re collaborating with the network, and there should be a complete transparency there, and I don’t feel one is greater than the other,” said Taylor.

On the topic of showrunners serving as “spies” for the networks or prodcos, Chris Rantamaki - recently appointed senior VP of production and development for Discovery Channel – said he had encountered such situations in the past, to which Taylor pointed out that,”If you feel your showrunner is a spy, what else is going on? It’s symptomatic of an unhealthy production.”

“You don’t want to feel like Benedict Arnold or Judas Iscariot, but at the same time, if the show is falling apart for some reason, you also don’t want to be the guy left holding the bag,” said Taylor.

Later on, agent Alan Moore was asked how he helps link the right showrunner with the appropriate project and prodco.

“We need as much information as early in the process as possible – it’s much more than the start date, end date,” he said. “We need to know, do you need someone who’s strong in the field, someone who’s strong in post, someone who’s great with talent. It’s important to know as early as possible to identify people who might be coming up and who would be good for it, not just who’s going to be available right then.”

(Photo by Rahoul Ghose.)

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.