The Television Showrunner: Authorship, Agency & Identity in American Television
Ellen Seiter (Chair), Jennifer Holt, Aniko Imre, Henry Jenkins
While authorship has been a fundamental component in film studies since the early 1960s, television authorship—because TV directors do not hold a position of creative control over the series—has been slower to emerge as a critical tool for understanding a program’s origins, meanings and reception. The director as auteur helped facilitate film’s transition and reception from mass medium to art form in the 1960s, with the Cahiers du Cinema writers in France and (soon to follow) Andrew Sarris in the United States as major proponents of auteur theory. If film and television programs are a product of their respective nations, production practices, distribution methods, and creators’ distinct worldviews, these mediums hold distinct differences that subsequently require different methodological approaches to authorship.
Television’s authorship originates with the writer-producer, as first examined academically by Horace Newcomb and Robert Alley in their 1983 book The Producer’s Medium, a monograph which included interviews with figures from Norman Lear (All in the Family, Good Times, The Jeffersons) to Diane English (Murphy Brown). The producer was known as the creator, head writer, and ultimate manager and boss of a series. By the 1980s, popular American trade press branded this multifaceted role as the “showrunner.” This dissertation will conceptualize the showrunner as both an individual author with agency, influence and power, and a complex contributor the evolving landscape of television and media industries. While theories focusing around the sole auteur have long been criticized due to the collaborative nature of media authorship, in the ecosystem of a television show, the TV auteur is both the creative and managerial “last word,” much like the film director. Both directors and showrunners must also answer to studio heads, financers, collaborators, stars, and fans. Unlike the director, the showrunner has never been an official credit. This is a senior role in television, and one usually becomes this position through climbing up the ladder, from assistant to staff writer to producer, or already hold a prominent position in the film, art or literary world. The promotion to showrunner includes heightened income, cultural capital, and influence. In the case of David Lynch, the film director joined TV writer-producer Mark Frost (Hill Street Blues, 1981-1987, NBC) as a co-showrunner of the cult hit Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990-1991),. This model is common for first time showrunners in need of a managerial guide, or a more senior adviser. To be successful in the role, one must not only create a long-term vision of a series, but he or she must also deal with the daily managerial tasks of budgeting, hiring, firing, and leading a staff of writers, actors and below the line crew members. The authorial intent of the showrunner is the driving force of continuity and identity of a series.
Significant chapters in monographs, edited collections and journal articles have been dedicated to the showrunner from scholars such as Elana Levine and Michael Z. Newman (2011), Miranda Banks (2013), Alisa Perren and Thomas Schatz (2014) and Jason Mitell (2015), yet there is still no full length academic investigation that examines this figure from a historical and contemporary, individual and large-scale, gendered and racialized perspectives. While the showrunner is not strictly an American phenomenon, with a strong presence in British and Danish national programming in particular, the focus on the American showrunner is due the distinct history, business models, and identities of U.S television. Following this American focus, my future work will investigate the showrunner in other national and global contexts.
The showunner has often been likened to an auteur, particularly within popular discourse on television’s newfound “cinematic” appearance given the heightened production values of cable programming. The analysis of the televisual image, or television aesthetics as a whole, has often been overlooked. In some ways, this was a means of distinguishing television from film studies. From Lynch’s Twin Peaks to David Chase’s The Sopranos (HBO, 1999-2007) to Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men (AMC, 2007-2015), male showrunners gain the highest accolades and subsequent journalistic and academic writing on “quality” and “prestige” serialized dramas, often with a male-driven protagonist in the form of a anti-hero. Brett Martin’s book Difficult Men (2103) praises these male-driven anti-hero programs with a behind the scenes, journalistic look, while Amanda Lotz’s Cable Guys (2014) provides a critical feminist look at the post-second wave feminist crisis of masculinity within male-driven cable programming.
In the post-network era, the broadcast models of TV-making are in an economic and creative crisis, while competition from cable channels and online streaming outlets continues to escalate. These new avenues provide unprecedented opportunities for creative control and little reliance on advertising revenue or a wide audience for success. While showrunners dominated since the beginning of television history, this newfound creative freedom from non-network models provides potential TV showrunners unprecedented control. From television’s origins as a mass medium in the 1940s to its current turning point, I will provide an investigation in the field of media studies on one of television’s most complex and significant figures.