‘Lost’ executive producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof attend the Lost “Meet the Creator” event at the Apple Store Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, CA.
Television makes its own stars — that’s a showbiz truism from the days of Milton Berle and Sid Caesar. But these days television is delivering a new breed of star — the celebrity showrunner — which is changing the way networks tubthump their shows and deepening the way fans connect with shows.
In some cases, such showrunners are becoming as well-known to fans as the shows’ thesps. Think J. J. Abrams, Seth MacFarlane, Matthew Weiner, Joss Whedon, Alan Ball, Ronald D. Moore, Shawn Ryan and Shonda Rhimes. Up-and-comers in this realm include “Glee’s” Ryan Murphy; Kurt Sutter, leader of “Sons of Anarchy”; Jason Katims, steward of “Parenthood” and “Friday Night Lights”; Bryan Fuller, of the now-departed “Pushing Daisies”; and “Modern Family” co-creator Steve Levitan.
Not since Rod Serling fronted “The Twilight Zone” have writer-producers enjoyed such a large presence in the spotlight. Exec producers and writers are the marquee players in the podcasts and behind-the-scenes videos and episode recaps that many nets feature on their websites in an effort to grab more time (and ad impressions) with viewers. For scribes, the chance to have a more public role in connection with a show can open doors to career-enhancing opportunities, and it can give fans a richer appreciation of who their favorite writers are as people. Even showrunners themselves are following other showrunners’ Twitter feeds to learn more about their favorites.
Sutter, the creator/exec producer of FX’s hard-charging biker drama, regularly downloads what’s on his mind at his SutterInk.com blog, as well as his Twitter feed and Facebook page. In addition to stoking fan interest in his show, Sutter’s recent musings have ranged from venting anger at NBC for its treatment of Conan O’Brien (who has a standing invitation to appear on “Anarchy”) to his thoughts on why men like Tiger Woods and Jesse James cheat on their wives.
Rhimes (left), creator/exec producer ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice,” is a Twitter maven, frequently answering fan questions about everything from the show to her family life to her childhood. (A sample from March 20: Question: “What was the first concert you ever went to?” Answer: “Duran Duran.”) Rhimes and her “Grey’s Anatomy” writers also post substantial discourses on every episode of the hit sudser on the Grey Matter blog hosted by ABC.com. (Moreover, Rhimes for several years has been part of a group that live-blogs the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee on the pop culture-centric blog A List of Things Thrown 5 Minutes Ago.)
Of course, the explosion of social media and the ability of writer-producers to speak in Twitter time to an infinite number of fans have done wonders to raise the profile of showrunners outside of industry circles. But just as important has been the exponential increase in mainstream media coverage of all aspects of showbiz: Entertainment Weekly made Whedon a star alongside Sarah Michelle Gellar as
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” blossomed in the late 1990s. The New York Times anointed David Chase at the peak of the newspaper’s worship of “The Sopranos.” More recently, Weiner has been put on a pedestal by outlets that can’t get enough of “Mad Men.” The increased exposure of the showrunner’s central role in making TV series has fueled sophisticated fans’ interest in learning more about them.
The apex of the contempo star showrunner trend may be “Lost” stewards Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, in part because of the mysterious nature of the show. “Lost’s” fervent fan base hangs on every word of the duo, known as “Darlton” in the fan-o-sphere, because they’re the keepers of the show’s intricate mythology. When the final season of “Lost” bowed Feb. 2, it wasn’t Matthew Fox or Josh Holloway who made an appearance the same night on ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” It was Darlton, to the delight of “Lost” fans. Lindelof and Cuse got a standing ovation from the audience.
ABC has been only too happy to incorporate the “Lost” leaders into its marketing and promo initiatives for the show — especially this year as it winds down to what the Alphabet hopes will be a blockbuster finale. “We’ve been planning the final season for over a year, and putting Damon and Carlton on ‘Jimmy’ was by design,” says Mike Benson, co-head of marketing for ABC. “Nobody can articulate the mythology of the show better.”
Nets and studios have been encouraging exec producers to embrace the seemingly limitless promotional opportunities offered by blogging, Internet vid segments, Twitter, Facebook and the like. After all, a showrunner who builds a strong following and attracts media attention is another form of branding for a show.
“I would put any of our creators out there,” says Dana Walden, chairman of 20th Century Fox Television., which has high-profile showrunners under its roof. “I think fans want additional avenues to learn about their favorite shows.”
There’s a double-edged blade to this new pursuit, however: The same tools that gather fans under a virtual tent in support of a show can become a rallying point for venom directed at a network or studio should the showrunner have conflicts or if the cancellation ax swings. Or on the flip side, if fans are dissatisfied with the creative direction of a show, there are plenty of places to trash it and the production team. (Think “Heroes” and its steady decline in ratings and fan esteem.)
“In the days of yore, you didn’t have to worry about these things,” says Hart Hanson, creator and exec producer of Fox’s “Bones” and an active Twitter-er with nearly 19,000 followers. “You got your fan mail or your hate mail, and you always had to listen to the studio and the network. But now there’s this bigger voice out there.”
Hanson (right) was drawn into Twitter at the suggestion of thesp Stephen Fry, who has guested in a number of “Bones” segs and encouraged Hanson to use it as a promo tool. Hanson now gets more missives via Twitter than he can keep up with, even as he checks in as much as four to six times in a typical day. “Bones” fans are not shy about telling him what they like and don’t like about the show — in detail.
“It’s a constant question I ask myself: How much to pay attention to them? Are they representative of the audience? They certainly don’t mind hollering at me,” Hanson says. “I had to develop a very thick skin.”
Some showrunners actively court the spotlight, while others wrestle with the pros and cons of becoming something of a public figure. Some seem to be naturally at ease with having a two-way conversation with fans and followers via the arm’s-length forum of the web and Twitter.
“Getting into podcasts off iTunes,” Ryan tweeted on March 27. “Who’s got some good entertaining recommendations for me?”
Throughout pilot season, the producer has kept his followers up to date on developments on his Fox network drama pilot “Ride-Along” and upcoming FX series “Terriers.”: “More Ride-Along casting news: The wonderfully talented Billy Lush (“Generation Kill”) has been cast as Liam,” Ryan reported to his followers shortly after midnight March 18.
Sometimes the topics of discourse even go beyond the scope of typical show chatter. Musing on the recent headlines about extramarital escapades by Tiger Woods and Jesse James, Sutter noted candidly that he ended his first marriage quickly because he was afraid of straying: “I was trying to keep my brain one step ahead of my dick,” he wrote in a March 18 post.
A few writers and producers have expanded their fan interaction beyond social media to real-world get-togethers. MacFarlane, who has built an animation empire on Fox’s air with the unsinkable “Family Guy,” “American Dad” and “The Cleveland show,” has done live stage shows and last November fronted his own comedy-variety spesh on Fox., co-hosted with Alex Borstein: “Family Guy Presents: Seth & Alex’s Almost Live Comedy Show.”
For others, however, the prospect of relocating from the writers’ rooms and edit bays to serve as the public face of a show can be daunting.
“Lost’s” Lindelof and Cuse have become TV personalities in their own right. They’ve hosted multiple “Lost” clip specials for the Alphabet, made dozens of public appearances (including SRO sessions at Comic-Con), are central to the show’s running podcasts and also have a presence on Twitter and Facebook.
“We never imagined we would become the face of the show, and we certainly didn’t have expectations about achieving celebrity status,” says “Lost’s” Cuse. “Going on camera was definitely a leap for us. It happened only because we could offer detail on the narrative.”
Lindelof has come to appreciate his unusual status as a star-showrunner.
“This is the best form of notoriety, and I call it that as opposed to ‘celebrity,’?” Lindelof says. “We are only known by people interested in the show. I get recognized at the ArcLight (theater complex in Hollywood). It seems every usher and employee at the concession stand is a ‘Lost’ fan. But for the most part, it’s incredibly rare when someone recognizes me on the street.”
Hanson also emphasizes that he keeps his newfound recognition in perspective. His is a popular feed among other showrunners, which has allowed him to make connections within the industry that would have been otherwise hard to cultivate. Julie Plec, exec producer of CW’s “Vampire Diaries,” follows Hanson, Rhimes and others with the same eager interest that “Vampire Diaries” fans follow her tweets.
“I’ve got about 20,000 followers and that sounds like a ton of people,” Hanson says. “I think most people in this world haven’t got a clue who I am and don’t care, and I’m extremely happy with that.”
The pure promotional value of having showrunners wired in to social networks is hard to quantify. Hanson notes that his Twitter feed has a strong following among TV reporters and critics, and that has helped keep “Bones” top of mind among an important constituency.
Plec and her fellow “Vampire Diaries” exec producer Kevin Williamson are besotted with Twitter and its ability to keep them plugged into the show’s hardcore fan base. The writing staff of “Diaries” makes a point of watching their Twitter feeds every Thursday evening during the 8 p.m. East Coast airing of the show.
“The whole TV and film industry is built on focus groups and test screenings,” Plec says. “In my opinion, watching a Twitter feed during an episode of our show is a built-in focus group. They react to everything — and it’s fascinating because (over time) you get to witness your fan community as it builds and grows.”
Plec is a good example of a rising-star showrunner who is making a name for herself in and outside of industry circles much faster than she would without the world of Web fandom. It all starts with the fact that she’s on a successful series, but then the Twitterati take it to another level.
“To have a community of people out there who say ‘Hey, I can tell Julie Plec wrote that scene’ — it’s positive feedback that makes you feel good,” she says. “And I know how great it is to have this kind of direct access to someone that you look up to and admire.”