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Showrunner 101

On a recent Saturday morning, 22 television writers gathered in a large room at Writers Guild of America, west (WGA) headquarters in Los Angeles to learn the mad science of running a TV show for a broadcast network.

The class—whose students include veteran writers and novices, including comedy and drama scribes—was Hollywood’s latest attempt to rein in ever-spiraling production costs, which are often placed in the hands of amateurs. With the price tag of quality production so high and competition so intense, networks can’t afford an unprepared showrunner.

Sponsored WGA and a consortium of networks and studios, the Showrunner Training Program is designed to give up-and-coming showrunners a dose of the enormous responsibility that comes with running a TV show: keeping production on schedule, controlling a budget, leading a staff and managing relations with the network and studio.

While some Hollywood veterans may scoff at the notion of teaching show business, for six day-long sessions, a who’s who of current showrunners and TV executives revealed their secrets of how to run a show.

“Unfortunately, there are a lot of people thrust into the position of showrunner now who don’t know how to do it,” says Half & Half executive producer Yvette Lee Bowser, who has written for several network sitcoms, including A Different World in 1987. “You come up as a writer, and then suddenly you get your own show on and you’re in the hot seat without the managerial or leadership skills. It’s like, 'Oh, you can write jokes? Here, run a business.’”

CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves kicked off the first day of class condemning the cost of ignorance in Hollywood, particularly for showrunners, who he said could cause real damage to a network’s bottom line due to simple mismanagement. He vowed that, if the class could give these ambitious students the tools to stay in budget and become good managers, he’d hire them.

“That really set the tone for the entire program,” says Nick Holly, a student who is a first-time executive producer and co-creator of ABC’s new comedy Sons and Daughters. “Everyone got serious pretty quickly.”

The class, which was the brainchild of veteran producers John Wells (ER, The West Wing) and Jeff Melvoin (In Justice, Alias), comes as TV writers are increasingly tapped to become CEOs of shows with budgets as high as $50 million.

“Writers used to stay longer on shows and learn the craft better,” Moonves said later in an interview. He had eagerly signed off on the $100,000 budget for the class on behalf of the networks and studios. “These days—and I saw this a couple times on Friends—a young writer on a hit show goes off to run their own show after a year or two, and they aren’t ready.

“Showrunners are more important than ever,” continued Moonves. “A successful show is not about a good pilot; it’s about the 20th episode, and to get that far, you need a well-trained showrunner.”

Carole Kirschner, who spent 15 years as a development executive at CBS and now runs other industry educational programs, was brought in as the class administrator. She interviewed network and studio executives, showrunners and production staffers to see what they thought a first-time showrunner needed to know. “The idea was to build this class by talking to someone in virtually every position related to the day-to-day operation of a TV show,” Kirschner says.

The application process was opened to writers who were experienced enough in their trade, or for those who had a pilot in contention at a network. The first step in the process was that they had to be recommended by a studio or network executive, or another showrunner. Of 115 applications, the group chose 35 to interview and then picked the 22 (10 comedy writers and 12 drama scribes) who made the final cut. The class kicked off Jan. 14.

Perhaps more than any other lesson, students were drilled on the importance of completing a show on time. Every day a network show is behind schedule can cost as much as $150,000, and neither a network nor a studio has much patience for that. It’s a great way for a showrunner to lose their job—rookie or veteran.

How I Met Your Mother co-creator Craig Thomas learned this season just how hard that can be. After coming up as a writer on other TV shows, he and college buddy Carter Bays wrote their own sitcom script. CBS decided to turn it into a series, and they were suddenly thrust into the roles of co-CEOs of a multimillion-dollar business.

Everything from managing budgets to leading a staff was their responsibility, and they struggled to keep pace. A typical Monday morning included a table read of a script, a network meeting, a studio meeting, a production meeting and then a writers meeting—all before 10 a.m. Not to mention squeezing in decisions on sets and costumes.

At one point, Thomas remembers being on the phone discussing an episode—only he couldn’t remember which one he was even talking about. “There are moments where you have so much to do and so much in your head, you are convinced your head is literally going to explode,” he says. “You want to panic, but you just can’t—there isn’t time.”

One tip that hit home for the students was from Lost’s executive producer Carlton Cuse, who preached the importance of a showrunner getting involved in story outlines early on, so when an actual first script comes in, there are no surprises and an episode won’t have to go back to the drawing board.

Wells and Bowser actually handed out production schedules that showed students how their shows are organized. For instance, on West Wing, Wells outlines a six-week stretch between when the story outline is due and when shooting commences, with set deadlines in between for a story revision, two separate script drafts and finalizing production details.

Surprisingly, managing money seemed more daunting to the students than managing egos. Budgets are something few of the writers knew about—or had to care about—in the past. Known as one of the most business-savvy producers in Hollywood, Wells vehemently stressed the importance and advantages of learning the intricacies of a show’s budget. He took students through a typical show budget, and many of the class participants quickly realized they had a lot to learn. At one point, Wells pointed to a specific line item and asked if anyone knew what it meant. Twenty-two heads looked down; no one knew that it was the basic account for paying actors.

Budgets “overwhelmed everybody,” says Veena Sud, a class participant who next season will take over as showrunner on CBS’ Cold Case. “We were looking though massive amounts of documents, and I was thinking, 'My God, this is like being CEO of some humongous multigazillion-dollar company.’”

Veteran showrunners use basic strategies such as amortizing the cost of expensive one-time stunts or guest stars over the run of an entire season, something many students said they didn’t know was allowed. While the budgeting process can’t be taught in a day, the lecture left students with the notion that they had to get themselves up to speed. “When he was done, at least you knew what you had to go learn,” Sud says.

In addition to schedules and budgets, a critical element is effective management of people—not a strong trait in writers, who do much of their work alone. “This job calls upon a lot of things that aren’t inherent in writer types,” says Mother’s Thomas. “It calls for a type-A personality and being really organized. That’s why writers have trouble with it—we are creative and weird.”

Managing a room of staff writers, especially crucial for comedies, can be a challenge. Besides keeping things organized and productive in a room of often quirky people paid to be funny, there are also personality issues that must be dealt with. In one class, Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence forced students to cope with classic situations in a writers’ room: dealing with a writer trying to influence stories based on what the actors want and with a writer who cuts down ideas but never has other suggestions. Lawrence advises to resolve individual issues one-on-one outside of the room. And while a showrunner may be tempted to keep their writing staff at work all night, Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal said pointedly in one class, “Nothing gets funnier at 3 a.m.”

“Those exercises really made you think about how important it is to come back to the room more often,” says Sons & Daughters’ Holly. “I realized, as busy as I am, you don’t want the writers to feel stranded and let problems build.”

Other leadership tactics throughout the course focused on dealing with actors, guild regulations regarding staffers, and even how to hire and fire people. Students also learned what not to do. In a practice interview, one student asked a staff-writer candidate for some story ideas, only to learn that that is against guild regulations because it is considered working for free.

A showrunner also must cater to the needs of the network and studio. And this interaction can often be testy, especially over the feedback, or notes, the networks and studios give showrunners about scripts. Thomas says he was guilty of this from the start.

“At the beginning, we took things personally and got upset, and I wish we wouldn’t have done that. It’s a waste of energy,” he says. “Fighting the network does no one any good. You have to make the network and studio feel heard, even if you don’t use the note—make them feel a part of the process.”

While producers and executives shared numerous pieces of advice and anecdotes, Melvoin says one of the most important lessons of the program was that there is no such thing as a perfect showrunner. “We wanted them to know it’s okay to screw up, it’s an impossible job,” he says. “So by humanizing the job, it gives them confidence.”

Learning From Mistakes

Several big-time showrunners shared their major gaffes. “Hearing someone like Diane English say that making Murphy Brown pregnant might have been a mistake for the life of the show, that’s fascinating and makes you feel like everyone can make mistakes,” says class participant Glen Mazzara, who is showrunner Shawn Ryan’s No. 2 on The Shield.

Mazzara says the class better prepared him to make the jump and that it was “invaluable. Hopefully, I can be teaching that class one day.”