The Showrunner: Authorship, Agency and Identity in US Television

Dissertation

The Television Showrunner: Authorship, Agency & Identity in American Television

Committee

Ellen Seiter (Chair), Jennifer Holt, Aniko Imre, Henry Jenkins

Abstract

My dissertation traces the evolution of the writer turned writer-producer turned creator-writer-producer, known as the showrunner. I suggest that a complex set of factors influenced this development, ranging from changes in FCC regulations and lawmaking, the influence of post-second wave feminism and post-Civil Rights, critical discourse surrounding the auteur figure and quality television, and individual agency and personal incentives. The project argues that authorship in television must be understood within the context of production, distribution, and reception practices. While theories focusing around the sole auteur have 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. However, co-showrunners are quite common, and the creative-manager hybrid must answer to executives, studios, and network commands. Showrunners thus function as bureaucratic artists that must constantly negotiate the creative and business spheres. The project will map out the symbiotic relationship between the individual worker and the industry at large.  For example, while deregulation and conglomeration affect individuals, writers’ strikes as collective action impacts how the industry is forced to make changes. In terms of textual analysis, I study each series within a showrunner’s political and social views. Previous dissertations study TV through studios, networks, and viewers. An exploration of its creators and laborers will provide a new and useful context to understanding how authorship, agency and identity function in TV.

Project Description

This project will link the connections between media authorship, industrial practices, labor, social movements, and critical discourse of the US television writer-producer turned showrunner. It aims to provide a framework for the role of the showrunner during significant shifts in TV history including distribution models, narrowing of audiences, the rise of serialized and long form series and the introduction of content formerly reserved for film features.  Using historiography, ethnography and close textual analysis, I argue that a complex set of factors influenced the evolution of the writer-producer turned showrunner ranging from changes in FCC regulations and lawmaking, the influence of post-second wave feminism and post-Civil Rights, critical discourse surrounding the auteur figure and quality television, and individual agency and personal incentives. The showrunner is thus an ideal subject for studying the relationship between industry, labor, agency and identity within the creative industries in a post-Fordist system of product, distributution and consumption. This initial post-World War II shift in the first chapter will be bookended with a final chapter considering digital labor in the new media economy, citing scholars like Angela McRobbie, Trebor Scholz, and Amanda Lotz.

The dissertation spans the initial rise of the dual writer-producer in the 1950s, the ascent of the independent studios in the 1970s, followed by premium cable in the 1990s, and the digital post-network era of the 2000s. Each of these major historical shifts also signaled newfound challenges and developments to the role of showrunner, but no previous study has evaluated how these major movements impacted the showrunner, or how the showrunner may have caused new dynamics and standards for TV.

My primary resources for the dissertation combine historical archives and documents with ethnographic research. I will first investigate the various contracts, labor meeting notes, original union and guild files, trade presses, and other relevant documents from the Writer’s Guild West Archives and Producer’s Guild in Los Angeles. Interviewing media workers who interact with showrunners is also vital, while speaking to showrunners is a high objective. Access to ethnographic participant observation within a showrunner’s writer’s room, day-to-day managing is the ultimate goal.

Scholarship on US television and its industry is often historicized, theorized and scrutinized through the lens of networks, studios, and viewers. The collaborative nature of television is assumed, but not further investigated.  Horace Newcomb and Robert Alley first examined the writer-producer as author in their 1983 book The Producer’s Medium, a monograph that 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. The book focuses on the idea that the producer is the author of a series, and can instill their own views into programming. Newcomb and Alley narrow in on socially conscious television that arose in the 1970s and continued into the 1980s.

By the 1980s, popular American trade press branded this multifaceted role as the “showrunner.” Since then, most scholarship on media authorship, especially TV, comes in the form of edited collections or individual articles, rather than a holistic study of showrunners. This is a testament to the breadth of work possible on the showrunner, and the various methodologies and theories one could use to dissect the nature of the multifarious media worker. 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 authorship remains 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 auteurhelped facilitate film’s transition and reception from mass medium to art form in the 1960s, with the Cahiers du Cinemawriters in France and (soon to follow) Andrew Sarris in the United States as major proponents of auteur theory. This is why pinpointing the construction of showrunners as auteursis key. Authorship has been most frequently analyzed from critical discourse, or the reception, rather than the production, of a media author. In contrast to film research, where the auteur/director is placed at an ultimate value, the role of TV creator is vastly overlooked.

Unlike the director, the showrunner has never been an official credit, or associated with a union, guild, or any formal organization. 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 showrunner can be a part of producer, writer, director and actor affiliations. The promotion to showrunner includes heightened income, cultural capital, and influence. Discourse surrounding the showrunner as auteuremerged as early as 1990 with David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (ABC), and heightened during critical reception surrounding a new “Golden Age of Television” surrounding quality drama with male anti-heroes. 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. In the case of David Lynch, the already acclaimed 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 seasoned TV writer, 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 of a series. I will take a cue from case studies of series that first examine industry contexts to further understand feminist the impact a series, such as the writing of the 1980s program Cagney and Lacey(D’Acci, 1994) in which the author traced the history of the series inception, conducted first hand interviews, analyzed discourse, along with textual analysis.

In the past few years, studies of understanding the joint creator/head writer/producer largely focus on the discursive construction of the hybrid job as an auteuristic mythical figure (Mitell, 2015; Newman and Levine, 2011). FromTwin Peaksto David Chase’s The Sopranos (HBO, 1999-2007) to Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men(AMC, 2007-2015), male showrunners employ serialized dramas, often with a male-driven protagonist in the form of an 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.

And while the scope of production studies, as established by John Caldwell, Vicki Mayer and Miranda Banks in 2009, functions in the form of case studies that will frequently investigate the labor of above the line and below the line workers, but from the perspective of social theory rather than connections to collaborative authorship. The project will thus map out the symbiotic relationship between the individual worker and the industry at large.  For example, while deregulation and conglomeration affect individuals, writers’ strikes as collective action impacts how the industry is forced to make changes. In terms of textual analysis, I view each series as a case study to evaluate a showrunner’s political and social views, while I aim to further investigate the context of  production, distribution, and consumption of the series or showrunner’s body of work.

John Caldwell argues for the self-reflexive nature of media workers in interviews and behind-the-scenes commentary.  I expand on this notion to explore the self-reflexive and autobiographical elements in television programs about the lives of showrunners.  Previously, scholars such as Henry Jenkins and Suzanne Scott examined the self-reflexive nature of TV creators such as Gene Rodebnerry of Star Trekand fanboy auteur Zack Snyder, director of franchise comic book film adaptions. These creators are tied to their original source material and science fiction/adventure genre. The same can be said for other franchise building showrunners, from Joss Whedon of Buffy the Vampire Slayerto JJ Abrams of Lost.  These series are tied to their genres and mythologies.

Showrunners with non-TV backgrounds can further bring in their own expertise and knowledge. David Simon, a native of Baltimore and former journalist, created a documentary realism in his series, from Homicide: Life on the Streetand The Wire.

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.

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