The late Aaron Spelling was modest and courtly to a fault. So when asked about his storied career at the TV Critics Assn. tour years ago, he gave most of the credit to the actors, writers and artisans with whom he’d worked.
When a rather naive reporter wondered what he contributed if that were true, Spelling spoke at length about approving and overseeing every aspect of production down to the smallest details, then added, “Other than that, I don’t do anything.”
Despite the 56,000-sq.-ft., 123-room mansion producing helped him furnish, Spelling was never referred to as a “showrunner” — since by all accounts the term didn’t exist through most of his career. Indeed, it’s not precisely clear when the designation began to be widely used, with most pegging its coining to the late 1980s or early ’90s, as writers exerted greater influence over the medium.
Still, the modern generation of TV auteurs — those associated with writing or rewriting every episode of high-class dramas in particular — has helped burnish the image of the showrunner, without necessarily shedding light on the true scope or evolving nature of the undertaking.
Whatever the doubts about its origins, “showrunner” joined the lexicon as a response to the more promiscuous granting of “executive producer” credits, as managers, big-name actors and (in the case of reality shows) network executives increasingly began to claim the title. With a half-dozen or more people sometimes sharing that designation, sorting out who was ultimately in charge became an issue.
What’s changed, mostly for the better, is the more intricate nature of TV storytelling, and the recognition that keeping a show on track creatively often required placing the whole enterprise in the hands of the people guiding its vision.
Under that scenario, such producers as Matthew Weiner (“Mad Men”), Vince Gilligan (“Breaking Bad”) or David Simon (“Treme,” “The Wire”) hold the reins to not just writing, but visual and production flourishes, casting, even decisions about minutia like promotion and publicity. (Hence the information-free “Mad Men” teases, which are often cryptically limited to out-of-context words of dialogue and reaction shots.)
In the modern era, writer-showrunners have generally put their stamp on every script. Sure, someone else might have received credit on an episode of “Deadwood,” but everyone knew David Milch’s prose permeated each hour. A few were so prolific — think David E. Kelley and Aaron Sorkin — to write practically every script, even with a 22-episode annual load.
Shorter orders resembling the European TV model have made single-author shows more feasible, as evidenced by “Fargo’s” Noah Hawley (who worked outlining the story with other writers) or “True Detective’s” Nic Pizzolatto and “Downton Abbey’s” Julian Fellowes (who didn’t). The corollary of that has also been a shift regarding directors — historically treated like guns for hire on TV procedurals, yet on “True Detective” (helmed by Cary Fukunaga) or Steve Soderbergh’s upcoming Cinemax drama “The Knick” defining a show by directing an entire season.
For all the focus and praise heaped on creative masterminds (who also become lightning rods, it should be noted, when today’s highly engaged fans are disappointed), networks take comfort in knowing there’s someone in charge with a proven knack for running a series. By that measure, it would be hard to be more in demand than the likes of Chuck Lorre — the architect behind four CBS sitcoms, including “The Big Bang Theory” — or Howard Gordon, who just completed a “24” revival to go with his work on “Homeland,” “Tyrant” and TNT’s upcoming “Legends.”
Television is obviously far more complex than it was in Spelling’s heyday, when the producer known for serving up “mind candy” controlled so much real estate on ABC it was nicknamed “Aaron’s Broadcasting Company.” Yet today, a similar distinction falls to Shonda Rhimes, who will have pulled off a hat trick come fall by providing the network’s entire Thursday lineup, anchored by “Scandal.”
So while a lot has changed, there are still some recurring aspects to that old saw, “Let’s put on (and run) a show.”