Showrunners talk about their jobs

MANCHESTER — What does it take to be a showrunner — an executive producer of a television show also responsible for its creative direction?

ITVFest gathered a panel of five top-notch showrunners from television shows such as "24," "Late Night with David Letterman," "The Daily Show," "Monk," and "Smash" on Saturday at Factory Point Place for "Showrunning: Art of Making TV." The room was filled with the panelists' energy as they described what helped them succeed in the challenging role.

A "showrunner" is a television executive producer who is also the head writer. Their duties often combine those traditionally assigned to the head writer, executive producer and script editor. As defined by author G. Michael Dobbs, "A showrunner is more than just a producer. He or she is creator or co-creator of a show and is a writer as well. These people are a guiding light for a production. They are making decisions about casting, story arcs, as well as the day-to-day issues of getting a show done and ready for air."

Panelist Donick Cary, a writer, producer and showrunner who got his start on "Late Night with David Letterman" and worked on "The Simpsons," "Parks and Recreation," and "New Girl," describes the showrunner as the person who, by episode eight of a television series, is doing forty jobs.

For quality television, the panelists emphasized the importance of writing and editing.

Panelist Theresa Rebeck, a playwright, writer and producer who has worked on "NYPD Blue" and "Law and Order: Criminal Intent" and created "Smash," took that sentiment further.

"Camera work, editing and acting make the show," she advised the audience. "Don't make mistakes. Cast brilliantly."

Panelist Joel Surnow, best known as co-creator and executive producer of "24" starring Kiefer Sutherland, discussed the importance of writing and matching quality writers to the characters.

"Find the writers who can write for the character, who can write in the characters voice," Surnow said.

According to panelist Randy Zisk, a producer and director known for the television drama "Bones" and the quirky detective show "Monk," being a showrunner is about "building a team." That task carries has its own challenges, and in Zisk's experience, "It's harder to find funny people."

As the panel was discussing their experiences and sharing what has worked for them when dealing with personality differences, Richard Korson, a producer known for his work on "The Daily Show," suggests people should "know their lane and stay in it."

The tone comes from the top, Cary said, and the showrunner has to figure out how to set the tone.

Cary said that when he was at "Late Night with David Letterman," he was in charge of Letterman and he had to manage the comedian's mood. "That experience was miserable," he said.

To avoid burnout, Cary said, "Know when to say when."

After Letterman Cary went to work on "The Simpsons," where he quickly learned to enjoy the pace of preparing a show over a nine-month period compared to five shows in one week.

Each panelist offered their advice, based on their personal experiences as a showrunner, on how to put out fires while making a television show.

"How you put out a fire depends on what kind of fire it is," Surnow said.

Rebeck said delegation is a key element of success. The question to ask, she said, is "Whose problem can I make this?"

"It's like a Game of Thrones," Cary added. "Pick your alliances."

As the session was winding down a member of the audience asked the panelists how they got started as a showrunner.

"There are so many ways to go to get to showrunner," says Zisk who says he got his start "getting bagels for the guy who used to get bagels for the boss."

Cary, who got his start in television as a writer, suggested bringing personal experiences to your writing. He said it's not that important to be the guy sitting in a room who knows how to spell.

"Go out and do things. Do what you love. If you get on a show you love you won't care what you're doing," Cary says.


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