The making of films or television programmes is a collaborative process, that involves the input of many, many people. With television being much more immediate and in our homes, the creative process, whilst still as involved, does not attract the same sort of attention for the unseen, working minds behind the output that film does. A film’s star or director are routinely used to promote the film, especially if their previous fare has been well received. In television, it is all about the story.
The landscape is changing a little on television, more in the US than in the U.K., writers, or the showrunner – a much more prevalent role stateside – is coming to the fore in television. Names like Greg Berlanti, Shonda Rhimes, Kurt Sutter, David Benioff are now the creative forces and decision makers behind some of television’s most successful shows.
Whereas a few of these showrunners are becoming well known and rightly lauded for their media contribution, it is still in the realm of film where the auteur is truly appreciated and, to some degree expected. In television, in the U.K. at least, the show creator or writer still remains an anonymous figure.
There are a few shows here in the U.K. that have elevated the creative forces behind them to the national consciousness. Sherlock has made Mark Gatiss and to a lesser extent, Steven Moffat, household names. Julian Fellowes is similarly well known due to the success of Downton Abbey. These are shows that have one writer or a duo as opposed to the more common setup of a group of writers working on an overall arc.
In film, it is usually the director who is credited with the overall vision of the film. Unlike television, films are a complete work, so the director shapes the whole look, from story and pace to visuals and acting performances, they are usually involved from beginning to the end. With television, episodic as it is, after the initial concept or idea, the show can be developed by numerous writers and generally have a rotation of directors.
With television, episodic as it is, after the initial concept or idea, the show can be developed by numerous writers and generally have a rotation of directors.
Where television has sometimes run into problems is when someone, generally a powerful writer, is too attached to the material, not allowing other writers or directors creative input or insisting on writing every word of every script. The brilliant ‘The Newsroom’ suffered from that, with the incredibly talented Aaron Sorkin apparently so invested in the material, he insisted on writing every episode. On a multi-charactered, verbally complex and layered show, it was a big ask to maintain the quality of even the first episode over three seasons. The first season was ten episodes, the second cut marginally shorter to nine. By the third season and final season, it was down to six. Even for a talent such as Sorkin, with his dialogue-heavy writing style, taking on the burden of scripting every chatty episode was too much.
The rise of the showrunner is a good thing. The quality of television has benefited from the vision of so many of these great creatives, their vibrant ideas and story arcs light up screens worldwide. A good showrunner though is good because they surround themselves with good people. Even if they are great storytellers in their own right, they know that utilising other creative voices, even those that are different from their own, can improve the shows and ideas they want to bring to networks.
Whether the showrunner will ever come to these shores is up for debate. Cable television is slowly becoming more prevalent, but the national broadcaster, the BBC, still remains, for a lot of us who would try to get a foot in the industry, the gold standard and first port of call. Still, I believe the showrunner or more Gatiss’ and Fellowes’ are inevitable.
With so many ways to get one’s work into the public sphere now and the aforementioned rise of cable television, the path of the future showrunner is gradually coming into focus. Just remember though; it’s a collaborative business.