From Harmon to Rhimes, How TV Showrunners Turned Into Rock Stars
Shonda Rhimes, Dan Harmon | Photo Credits: Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images; Victor Decolongon/Getty Images
After TV Guide Magazine and a handful of other outlets broke the news that Community creator Dan Harmon had been replaced as showrunner, the fan response was fast — and furious. Upset viewers stormed Twitter and online comments sections, worried that the comedy wouldn't be the same without Harmon leading the charge. Some even took to calling the show's upcoming fourth season "Fauxmmunity."
Fans plotting a Community mutiny over a showrunner exit? If we're in a golden age for scripted TV (as many critics have written in recent years), then this is also a gilded time for the writers who create and produce our favorite shows.
Some of the lowest-rated shows on TV harbor some of the most passionate fans — and those savvy viewers tend to treat showrunners like rock stars, almost as much as they do the series' actors. (The term "showrunner" came into vogue in the early 1990s as the number of executive producers on a series skyrocketed and people needed a way to identify who was making the key decisions.) "The showrunner is critical because they put together all the pieces," says Neal Baer, whose credits include running ER and Law & Order: SVU. "Anything that puts more light on writers in a positive way is a good thing."
That stardom has helped galvanize fan bases and has arguably given writers a bit more leverage at times with networks and studios. But it cuts both ways: When fans aren't so happy with a show's direction, they also now feel free to pile on those same writers they once worshipped. ("I've gotten really trashed because I didn't bring Mariska Hargitay and Chris Meloni together on SVU," Baer remembers.)
The amount of attention over the departure of a showrunner amuses veteran TV writers, many of whom remember a time when they toiled mostly in obscurity. A few über-producers (think Aaron Spelling, Steven Bochco and Norman Lear) became household names in the 1970s and '80s, yet few viewers could probably name the writers behind hit juggernauts like The Cosby Show or Dallas.
Compare that to now. Among today's star showrunners, Lost's Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse were probably more mobbed at Comic-Con than their stars; Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter causes an Internet skirmish every time he tweets; Joss Whedon is a hero to fans thanks to Buffy the Vampire Slayer; and Shonda Rhimes is seen as part of the DNA of Grey's Anatomy.
Part of that is thanks to a dramatic increase in media attention toward the nitty gritty of how TV is made. "People are more interested in how things are put together now," says Cheers veteran Rob Long, who's the showrunner behind TBS' upcoming sitcom Sullivan & Son. "It's maybe the general explosion of media, including the web. The showrunner in TV is like a director in features, the way the director has a lot of power and influence over a project. I think it's only natural that people figure out who the showrunner is."
Social media has now bridged the gap between fans and writers; folks like Harmon, Lindelof, Rhimes and The Big Bang Theory's Bill Prady are prolific on Twitter, and even frequently engage with viewers, both fans and critics. "It's like the coach of your favorite team," Long says.
The spotlight on showrunners also means viewers pay attention when there's change at the top. Next season, Paul Lieberstein (who also appears on screen as Toby) is exiting NBC's The Office as showrunner to focus on a Dwight-themed spinoff; Greg Daniels, who originally adapted the show from its UK roots but later shifted more of his focus to Parks and Recreation, is back to give The Office an overhaul.
Cougar Town co-creators Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel are sticking around but will no longer run things day-to-day in order to focus on new development; Ric Swartzlander (Gary Unmarried) is now running the show, which moves to TBS next year from ABC.
Among other recent changes, Friends alum Wil Calhoun is taking over NBC's Whitney, replacing Betsy Thomas; former Dexter showrunner Clyde Phillips is the new boss on Showtime's Nurse Jackie, replacing Linda Wallem and Liz Brixius; Mark Hudis is in line to take over HBO's True Blood as Alan Ball departs after Season 5; and Theresa Rebeck is no longer running NBC's Smash, replaced by Gossip Girl's Josh Safran.
Of course, as Harmon learned, being a well-known showrunner doesn't mean you won't get sacked if the powers that be feel it's time for you to go. Says Long: "That's the first thing you learn when you're a showrunner."
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