To showrunner or not to showrunner

Bevan LeeWriters don’t just become showrunners overnight, they earn the privilege says Bevan Lee in a piece that first appeared in Encore.

I was recently asked by a journo what I thought of the validity of the American showrunner model here. Wouldn’t our industry be better if we had them? I told her we do have them, and we have for years, but we call them script producers.

“But what about people like David Simon and Matthew Weiner?” she asked. “They’d never get a chance to do The Wire or Mad Men here. The writer would not be given that sort of control.”

Here is what I wrote her: Showrunners work their way up the ladder to those positions. David Simon did not arrive fully formed to have total control over The Wire. He was involved as an advisor and as part of the scripting process for six seasons of Homicide: Life on the Street with Paul Attanasio as the showrunner. That’s where he learnt his TV craft. The fact that he lived what he was writing about as a crime reporter, and that he is very talented, certainly helped. His success in this and miniseries The Corner would have led him to being showrunner on the larger scale project that was The Wire.

Matthew Weiner equally earned his stripes on Becker, Andy Richter Controls the Universe and The Sopranos in a less grand role than showrunner. There is no way he would have been trusted to make Mad Men without that experience behind him. Our own Shane Brennan is now showrunner of NCIS and its spin off. Shane laboured at the coalface of Australian television for decades before going to the US and earning his stripes in lesser positions on One Tree Hill and CSI. These are all people experienced in production, who have control because they have earned the right to have it, not because it is given to them simply for being the writer.

Unless this is understood, the whole showrunner debate is hijacked by unearned delusions of power and grandeur in the minds of up-and-coming writers. Not every writer has the ability to be a showrunner. A showrunner must be equal part creator, prolific storyteller, producer and diplomat, with excellent people skills if the project is to run smoothly. These skills must be innate and also honed over a number of years before the individual is ready to take the showrunner seat.

In précis, if you want to be a showrunner, earn the right to be one, earn your stripes. Yes, a writer ideally should be given the right to shepherd his project through to completion, but he needs to develop both the writing skills and the production skills to earn that right and, in most cases, that takes years at the writing/production coal face.

Bevan Lee is the creator of Packed to the Rafters, Winners and Losers and the forthcoming A Place To Call Home.

On Tuesday February 26 at 3pm Eastern Standard Time, Encore’s Colin Delaney will host a Google Hangout with Bevan Lee and Glen Mazzara, showrunner of The Walking Dead.

This feature first appeared in the tablet edition of Encore. To download click on the links below.


  1. Richard Moss
    25 Feb 13
    2:38 pm

  2. Creating good theatre (drama or comedy) is a collaborative process. It is as dangerous to be rigid as it is too be slack. The written work must be of a certain standard if it is to work well, so must be the directing,the acting, the staging and the technical work.

    In television this rarely happens, as the structure is held together like random rubble, rather than garden wall bond. Producer dominates directors, writer insists, script editor insists, actor makes humble plea, all too often based upon his/ her character alone.

    Theatre needs air to breathe and space in which to find its centre, all too often, commercial television stifles this process.

    Brief Encounter, was written by Noel Coward directed by David Lean, Performed by Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, Stanley Holloway and Joyce Carey and featured Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto number 2 played by none other than Eileen Joyce. That didn’t stop the producers trying to bury it, because they (the producers mind you) thought it would be an embarrassing flop.

  3. Save ROBIN the Boy Wonder!
    27 Feb 13
    3:28 pm

  4. Pretty sure Paul Attanasio wasn’t the showrunner on “Homicide.”

    He wrote the pilot so he got the “Created by” credit.

    But I don’t think he had anything to do with the show after that.

    Too busy writing features at the time…

  5. Out of the Fire
    1 Mar 13
    10:11 am

  6. The script producer doesn’t run the show in Australia, they run the script department. They rarely if ever, have any say in the production/editing process and they certainly don’t have control over the choices made. Those decisions are still made by the producer and/or EP and what ends up on screen can be vastly different to what the writer/script producer wanted. Agree that the writer can’t expect to walk straight into the showrunner role but to say it already exists in Australia is misleading and wrong.