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The fall TV season touches down

With the push for instant hits, producers with successful shows are in enormous demand.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 17, 2004


When writer-creator Robert Cochran conceived of "24," Fox's hit political thriller, he had to tackle important plot questions such as how to work in the abduction of the hero's daughter.

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These days, as the show moves into its fourth season, Mr. Cochran often has other, more mundane issues on his mind, such as "whether or not the show can afford to rent a Goodyear blimp," he says with a laugh.

The "24" scribe still gets to think about what makes a believable character. But Cochran, once simply a writer, has since joined an elite corps of multitasking Hollywood insiders: TV's showrunners. These are the maestros who literally run the show - meaning they do just about everything on a dramatic series, from writing scripts and casting actors to negotiating with the networks over salaries and budgets (the blimp was nixed). Network execs don't like a show's theme music, or they object to the use of profanity in a script? Call in the showrunner to mediate.

As the fall television season gets under way, showrunners, perhaps more than anyone in Hollywood, have the vantage point to help viewers understand how the new lineup evolved - and why we'll see what we see. After all, they work at the point where creative and business interests collide - a point that, in this age of competition from cheaper-to-produce reality TV, is increasingly pressure-packed.

Indeed, these greater pressures on showrunners "directly impact what people end up seeing on the screen," says Katrina Wood, owner of MediaXchange, a consulting group that runs an international training program for showrunners.

It's easy to spot many of these pressures. Perhaps most obvious is the ripple effect from the rise of the unscripted, reality genre. "Reality TV has made a big difference in the way showrunners operate," says Richard Stayton, editor of Written By, the official magazine of the Writers Guild of America.

Because scripted shows are more expensive to produce than the reality-show option, they do not get long to prove themselves, he says. They need to produce high ratings immediately or risk cancellation. "The networks hold that ax over your head and you have to prove that you can be that much more profitable," says Mr. Stayton.

One technique showrunners have developed to reach a larger audience quickly is to include multiple story-lines. A quick glance through the freshman crop of shows this fall reveals a surprising number of shows with large casts.

"It's a chance to tell more stories, to put out more diverse points of view, to let a lot more things happen," says Shonda Rhimes, creator and executive producer of "Grey's Anatomy," a new medical drama on ABC.

The show stars three female doctors. "Stories can move a lot faster if we're not just following one doctor through the hospital," she adds.

"Lost," a new show from J.J. Abrams (creator and showrunner of ABC's "Alias"), has no fewer than four dozen cast members. The series is about the survivors of a plane crash who find themselves stranded on a desert island.

"We had to populate the island with a very, very large cast because these are the people that we're going to be with," says Mr. Abrams, explaining that long-term story arcs demanded the hordes.

The show's creators say they've learned something from "Survivor," the ever-popular reality show: Make your cast a diverse one.