What is a Showrunner?

What is a Showrunner?

by Jessica Leff, Digital Marketing Specialist - June 29, 2017 | Tags: ,

Do you know who is responsible for your favorite television show? Do you know whose creative vision is being made into a reality for you to enjoy each week (or for about thirteen hours in a row if you’re choosing to binge watch a season of a Netflix show)? Do you know the person you have to thank for giving you something to talk about, bond with your family about, or a joke to laugh about at the end of a long day? While a ton of work goes into one episode of television, someone is in charge of the process and that is the showrunner.




The Oxford Dictionary defines “showrunner” as “the person who has overall creative authority and management responsibility for a television program.” In short, they run the show. They are at the top of the food chain, making the final decisions.




The exact details of the job differ for each individual showrunner, but in general they are extremely busy multitasking. They usually have multiple episodes in a different stage of production at one time. It is their job to supervise everything from preproduction to production to postproduction, and handle issues from plot to budget. They must be creative problem solvers willing to work long days to ensure the show is delivered on time, on budget and with a consistent tone. 




In the early days of television, it was a “studio’s medium,” meaning that the studio controlled all aspects of production. That began to change in the late 1970s with The Mary Tyler Moore Show. By the late 1980s, television had become a “writer’s medium” and the industry needed a title for the person who had the final say on creative decisions, differentiating them from the other producers. Thus, the term showrunner was born, used by Variety in 1992. In 1995, the New York Times did a profile of John Wells who was showrunning E.R. at the time. Back then, showrunners were still somewhat anonymous. That soon began to change, especially with the rise in popularity of the internet. People became just as interested in interacting with the creators of their favorite television shows as they were in watching the shows themselves. The media’s attention followed and the role of the showrunner as it is known today began to take form. A showrunner is expected to represent their show in the public eye and often even answer questions about the series.




You won’t see the word “showrunner” in the credits. The original showrunner is often the creator, though this is not always the case. So, sometimes they have the “created by” or “developed by” credit, but that’s not a hard and fast rule. The showrunner can also change during the run of the show for a variety of reasons. They are often credited as the executive producer, but there may be more than one and it’s possible not all are showrunners (though a show can have co-showrunners). When in doubt, you can always Google it.




There are many more showrunners now than there were in the past, though many note that there is still a lack of diversity in writers’ rooms and therefore in the pool of showrunners. There is a belief that showrunners have a sort of stamp they leave on a show, so if you like one show that someone runs, you’ll likely enjoy others. Here are just a few notable examples that you might recognize, listed with shows they ran or run, though all have numerous other credits to their names:


Carlton Cuse: After co-showrunning Lost, he went on to run Bates Motel, The Strain and The Returned. He is currently co-showrunning Colony on the USA Network.


Jason Katims: Many know him as the man who makes other grown men cry - he was the showrunner on Friday Night Lights, Parenthood, and About a Boy. Currently he is working on The Path and Rise


Jenji Kohan: After showrunning a cable television show, Weeds, Kohan took her talents to Netflix to run Orange is the New Black.


Chuck Lorre: Comedy is Chuck Lorre’s specialty, currently showrunning Disjointed and Mom. He also co-ran Two and Half Men


Shonda Rhimes: For many, Rhimes is synonymous with her shows, with ABC even airing them all on the same night in 2014. She is the showrunner on Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. She also ran Private Practice.


Mike Schurr: Before his current role as showrunner of The Good Place, he served as a showrunner on Parks and Recreation


Joss Whedon: Probably best known for showrunning Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he was also a co-showrunner on Dollhouse and co-runs Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.


Resources for more information:

Film: Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show

Excerpt: What exactly do TV showrunners do?


When did People Start Saying Showrunner? http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2011/10/14/showrunner_meaning_and_origin.html

Emily Nussbaumm on the New Interactive Showrunner http://nymag.com/arts/tv/upfronts/2011/emily-nussbaum-interactive-showrunner-2011-5/index1.html