Marathon management

For skeins that run for years, showrunners must find balance between stability and freshness

Creating a hit drama skein is hard enough. But once a show clicks, the work is just starting. For a showrunner and a network, sustaining a program’s success — and ratings — is a whole new challenge.

“That’s the difference between television and movies,” says Ron Scalera, senior VP and creative director for advertising and promotions at CBS. “Movies for the most part are one-shot deals. Their whole business is now based on that first weekend. TV is exactly the opposite. It has to sustain over a long period of time. It’s like a sprint vs. a marathon. We’re in the marathon business.”

Winning that race entails a lot of strategic thinking. Showrunners avoid second-guessing themselves about what fans will like. Instead, they try to make the show they want to see and keep the writing strong.

Although “Alias” creator J.J. Abrams notes, “At the same time we are indebted to and owe our existence to the fans. To not check in with them is irresponsible.”

Then there’s the question of what to change and what to keep constant. The consensus among showrunners is to stick to a program’s core, and make alterations around the edges. But that means different things to different series.

At one extreme is the longest-running drama on TV, “Law & Order,” where the rule, despite frequent cast additions and subtractions, is “Change nothing.”

“Essentially you know what you’re getting when you tune in,” franchise creator Dick Wolf tells Daily Variety. “That’s why people love the show. It’s extremely reassuring to know that if you haven’t seen it for five years, it’s still ‘Law & Order.’ If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And it ain’t been broke for 14 years.”

But for the highly serialized shows such as “Alias” and “7th Heaven” that kind of stability is not an option.

On the latter, as the children on the program become older, the stories simply have to grow up with them. So creator Brenda Hampton focuses on keeping the show’s family-friendly storytelling intact. “We’ve always tried to do traditional stories told with a nontraditional twist to them, and we continue to do so,” she explains.

For “Alias,” keeping the core intact means sticking to the intricate can’t-tell-the-players-without-a-scorecard plotting that has proved a blessing and a curse. It makes the show unique but makes it very difficult for new viewers to get onboard in midstream. Fox faced a similar problem with “24” and succeeded by running the show without repeats. Abrams is excited about ABC’s decision to try the same strategy with “Alias.”

At the Eye, vet “JAG” showrunner Donald Bellisario has the luxury of taking a middle ground with his series. He likes to slowly add new characters, gradually reveal his heroes’ backstories and unwind long-term character arcs. The key word being “slowly.”

“I tell everyone that when you create a show and characters, you get tired of them as a writer faster than the audience does, because even the regular audience member doesn’t see every episode,” says Bellisario.

For showrunners, it’s sometimes tough just to avoid repetion

“The difficulty is that you use up all of the easy ideas in the early going,” says “ER’s” John Wells. “It’s much more about how do we keep it fresh for everyone who’s participating than it is about focusing directly on the audience.”

The promo departments face a similar problem.

“The challenge for us to find a new way of saying there’s a twist,” says Vince Manzi, president of the NBC Agency. “We like to make every weekly show promo turn into something you can’t miss.”

But that can fuel a tug of war between writers and networks over how much to reveal in promos. “I would never give away a twist ending,” says Manzi. “Do we give away something that happens in the first seven minutes? Sometimes. But I would never give away a big twist at the end.”

The successful showrunners learn to live with that kind of compromise. Abrams has no problem if the promo reveals the end of act one. “What you don’t want is them using the end of act four,” he says. “The questions are good to ask, but it’s frustrating to see the answers revealed.”

Promos also face some of the world’s stiffest competition: the refrigerator, the bathroom and the remote control. “So if there’s one scene where someone fires a gun, I guarantee it’ll be in the promo,” says Bellisario, who has promo approval, a rarity among showrunners.

CBS’ Scalera aims promos at the viewer who knows nothing about the series, knowing it’s easier to retain core viewers. “It’s about getting the person who’s not a regular viewer to sample the show and maybe they will keep coming back,” says Scalera, who’s careful not to use too much hype.

“You can’t overpromise. With a movie, you can get away with that, but with a TV series it’s a different relationship. You have to keep delivering week after week.”

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