Last year, Sierra Teller Ornelas, showrunner of Rutherford Falls, told me, “Structurally, we'll have to figure out a better way to do this, because the structure we have now is not working—in my opinion.” And as Netflix, the first big name in streaming, begins an almost inevitable contraction, the situation is becoming even more dire.
Teller Ornelas was describing the unsustainable pace and lack of training plaguing the television writer industry. The problem has been running rampant, and described as such, for years. In January of 2018, for example, John Rogers, a television writer and longtime showrunner, tweeted, “Today was my fourth, maybe fifth lunch with a showrunner-level writer where we basically said, ‘What the FUCK is going on with television right now?’ Shit is officially on fire.”
Making television is a mix of art and factory work. Where a movie—even one in a series—is self-contained and takes many years to produce, the television formula has, for most of the medium’s history, involved producing dozens of episodes a year, with each one having to fit into the tone and world of the overall series. This is why the cliché has always been that while films are a director’s medium, television is one for writers: When the director and guest stars change week to week, it’s the writers who ensure internal consistency.
So while a director making a movie is used to thinking about budget, schedule, casting, set design, costuming, and so on, writers think about… well, writing. But there has to be a writer who keeps an eye on more than just the scripts. Hence, the showrunner.
The term “showrunner” appears nowhere in the credits of your favorite show—people who have this job are listed as writers and executive producers. Until fairly recently, it was a bit of industry jargon that denoted a combination of head writer and executive producer keeping the whole machine moving as it should; it was a flexible title that worked for whatever a particular show needed.
And, when there were only a few networks and then a few cable channels, there was a path to becoming a showrunner that made up for the lack of training a writer would have in logistics. Basically, the training came through mentoring and experience. When television consisted of 20-22 episodes a year, most being written around the same time other episodes were being filmed, even junior writers could watch their script go from their hands to the screen, and all the parts in between. Good showrunners would make sure writers were on set for their specific scripts. (They were under contract for that same period, anyway.) Writers moved up the writer ranks, and by the time they were pitching their own shows, they would have seen at least 50 episodes of television be made.
A lot has changed in the last few decades. Some of it is good—when there were only a few opportunities on a few channels, they overwhelmingly went to straight, white men. That, slowly, has changed, and is changing. Writers’ rooms are more diverse than ever.
But the hunger for content brought on by the explosion of streaming has stretched the old, ad hoc training system to its breaking point. There simply are not enough experienced showrunners to head all the shows being made. Moreover, shorter episode orders and script writing for a whole season finishing before production has begun has robbed new writers of concrete experience they would have gotten even a few years ago. When those writers go on to pitch their shows, there’s a chance they’ve never seen one of their scripts actually get filmed. And, again, there aren’t enough experienced showrunners to pair with them.
Then there’s the other change that keeps writers from seeking the help they need: the rise of the idea of “showrunner” in the public consciousness, even as the industry itself is losing a grip on what the job means, and once did.
What was once an inside-baseball term for a job that encompassed everything from writing a pilot to making sure everyone was fed on set has, as TV has entered its “auteur” phase, taken on a more mystical air. The term showrunner, according to Jeff Melvoin, first appeared in print in a profile of John Wells’ work on ER, meaning that the general public has only been aware of the term for, at most, a few decades. In that time, “showrunner” has come to mean visionary or genius, and in an age where fans feel entitled to be heard, the showrunner has also been the person lauded or jeered by fans. This can mean that writers entering television for the first time, pitching their stories, feel like they should have that title, while not truly being aware of all the non-creative work that goes with it. Or, as Rogers put it in a recent tweet: “I have followed my bliss to become a weaver of dreams and now I'm on the phone with the line producer screaming about how expensive it is to move the trucks.”
What is showrunning?
“A showrunner is two separate things. First of all, the showrunner is the head writer and the vision of the show that's supposed to be executed… sometimes the showrunner is the creator. But it's your vision that everybody's kind of signing on to show for that,” said Carol Barbee of Raising Dion, a showrunner with over 20 years in television.
“The other side of the job is that you have to be a manager of people and a manager of production. Showrunners are often not the creators. They are brought in to literally run the show. To literally run the assembly line that goes from idea to outline to a script to production to editing. So you have to be that person who's sort of the head of the assembly line,” Barbee said.
Javier Grillo-Marxuach has written about television writing and co-hosts Children of Tendu, a podcast devoted to sharing knowledge and experience gleaned from years writing and producing. “A lot of people fantasize that being a showrunner means you show up and tell everybody and boss them around, you know, and that it's just sort of this fun, sexy, glamorous job,” he said. “And it is to some degree. But showrunning means being the CEO of a startup with a budget that can be in the hundreds of millions and you are responsible for delivering a product reliably.”
When it came to moving up the ladder, things were relatively standardized under the old system.
“I kind of compare it to the Big Three automakers in the same period,” said Melvoin. “You had the Big Three automakers, they were all making essentially the same car and the same varieties of car. They all had their sedan, their sporty car, their station wagon. And the differences were, to some people, significant, but they were somewhat superficial. I like the body design on this one. I like the chrome on this one.
“And so when you have these genres that were dominating TV at the time, whether it was medical shows, a doctor show, Texas soaps, cops shows—you know, if you wrote one spec for any entry in that field on any network, people could read it with sufficient knowledge of other networks to decide what they wanted to hire or not. And that was the way people got involved in writing.”
Damon Lindelof, famous for his work on shows like Lost and The Leftovers, has a more fanciful view—and one in direct opposition to Melvoin’s.
“It is a bit of alchemy, creative work,” he said. “It's magic. Like we're not making, like, a product on an assembly line.”
This difference in viewpoint underlines a lot of the problems in the job. Those who went through the older system see the job as that of a manager; then there are those who have a more mystical, creative view. The latter view—that the showrunner is a genius whose process and vision should be unquestioned—is the one held in the popular consciousness. And it can be, unfortunately, all new entrants to the job know about it.
Becoming a showrunner used to be standardized, said Grillo-Marxuach. “When I started working in television back in the Stone Age and I had to fight velociraptors to get into the studio, the way you advanced was incredibly regimented. You did one season of at least 22 episodes on a show as a staff writer. Then you got promoted to story editor. You did at least one season of 22 on that. Then you got promoted to executive story editor. Then the same thing to co-producer, to producer, supervising producer to, you know, executive producer. So you had like a stepwise system of several years that you had, that you had to spend in the trenches just to legitimately get the promotions you needed to be at the executive producer level. And if you look at the amount of time that it took me starting my career in that time versus the amount of time that it takes, even writers who, you know, have put time in various staffs to get to executive producer, it's a much shorter curve now.”
Along with this formal path was a lot of mentoring. “For all the problems to be had in the ’80s and ’90s, one of the things that nobody seems to realize is that there was a very, very hard-wired system of apprenticeship,” continued Grillo-Marxuach. “The first show that I ever worked on, I worked for these hardcore Stephen Cannell veterans, and they were sort of like what I imagine Mad Men in the ’80s with cocaine would have been—at least in the way they told their stories of the ’80s. But they had a very, very, very dyed-in-the-wool culture of mentorship. My first showrunner literally threw me into the room and said, ‘Do a pass with the editor.’ And to an extent, everybody was perceived to be in producer school.”
This is a direct contrast to the view of Lindelof, who said, “What it’s meant to mean is this is the individual whose vision this is and the person who takes responsibility for everything that you see, even if it was a massive collaboration. You know, the buck basically stops at this one individual. We need to know who's at the top of the pyramid. So Elon Musk is the showrunner of Tesla and Mark Zuckerberg is the showrunner of Facebook.”
As those people themselves have proven, that is a fundamentally dangerous position for someone with no experience to find themselves in.
Good old days with good old boys
The old system was effective at turning out people prepared to run network shows in rigid, highly codified genres. What it wasn’t good at was encouraging difference of any kind. Rooms run by straight white men who mentored straight white men perpetuated an industry where everyone in the top jobs were homogenous.
“There has been a culture of a kind of cronyism in terms of the way those opportunities are basically given,” said Lindelof, who offered up his own experience as an example of the problems with the showrunner pipeline.
“I was not hired to be a showrunner. I was hired to write a pilot with J.J. Abrams,” he said. “And then J.J. said, ‘I'm going to go direct Mission Impossible 3’ after we had made the last pilot and I was just basically standing there holding the baby.” He continued, “I also understand that, because of my gender and my race, that I was given a lot more faith and trust than women and people of color. And if that's not true, then why aren't there more showrunners who are women and people of color?”
Like so much of our culture, the system valorized unhealthy working environments as “paying your dues,” or perpetuated the myth that good art is necessarily the product of suffering and misery. “Unfortunately, there's a couple of times where the creativity has paid off and it’s clear that a diva made a great show. And so everyone thinks that's what it takes. But what about these other hundred great shows that you didn't hear squat about anything bad happening?” said Rogers. “The idea that when there's arguments and tension and stress in the room, that makes art is a brutal, toxic myth. If it’s true, explain Breaking Bad. Those writers would take a bullet for Vince [Gilligan], and he ran that room like a gentleman.”
“I think it's been employed as a mask for people who can only work that way. Many of the best writers out there and the best showrunners run a very safe, humane environment,” said Melvoin.
“My last show, about two or three weeks in, it was kind of a weird vibe. And I asked my number two about it, and he said, ‘Yeah, we're just waiting for you to freak out. We're waiting to see what kind of guy you are when you freak out.’ And I was like, well, I'm not going to freak out. I don't freak out. I’ve raised my voice twice in my entire 20-year career on TV. And both of those were directed upwards. And then half the staff told me their bad boss stories of writers who really seem to want to get people upset and crying,” said Rogers.
An experience Mike Schur had on Parks and Recreation crystalized the reality of the job for him. In Season 2 of the show, there was an episode in which each of the departments in City Hall would be designing a new mural to replace a “super racist one” that was always being vandalized.
“It was a really hard script to break,” said Schur. “We really kind of blew it early on. It was originally like a sculpture that people were working on and blah, blah, blah, and it wasn't working. We figured out what to do. We had a second read-through of the script on the Friday before we shot it, and was like, OK, thank God we did it.”
Finishing the script on the Friday before they filmed it meant that all of the production work—costumes, sets, props, etc.—had to be done over the weekend. And with a premise involving all of this art, there was a lot that needed to be done. Schur wasn’t thinking about any of that, even when a producer asked him to come in on Sunday to approve all of the props.
“So I went off and had my normal weekend and hung out with my wife and kids,” he said. “On Sunday, I went in and walked through the hallway of the production office and it was just humming. I mean, it looked like a normal workday because every department was there and they had been working all weekend. And my heart just sank. I just had this horrible feeling of shame and embarrassment because it was very clear that, like, this is what happens when you don't properly execute scripts on time, is these people have to work on the goddamn weekend.”
Schur said the workers were all happily at work and that he approved everything because their work was great, but he drove home thinking, “I finally understand what the job of a showrunner truly is. And the job of a showrunner is to ensure that nobody ever has to work on the weekends like that. If you want to boil down the job to one sentence, it's make sure that nobody gets to work on the weekend, because if you do your job correctly and you organize your time properly, you ought to be able to create scripts that are good enough and close enough to what will actually be shot with enough time to give everyone else on the crew and every department that the time to prepare and to have a weekend. And because that's just a human thing that we need.”
Another way to look at it? “My first show was very difficult. And David Landsburg, who was my effective showrunner, who was the guy in the room, said that our job as showrunner is to take crap and distribute credit. We are the person who protects the staff,” said Rogers.
Unfortunately, not everyone has these epiphanies. Some people replicate the bad behavior because that’s all they know, and they’re too afraid to challenge what, as far as they’ve seen, works, said Lobato. And under the old system, there were things worse than run-of-the-mill bad working conditions.
Racism, sexism, and homophobia went unpunished because the writers’ room was seen as a place where it had to be safe for anything to be said. And while—in most jobs but especially in creative ones—a low-pressure environment where people can fail and learn from mistakes is vital, that’s not the same thing as a blank check to let the id run wild.
“Pretty soon after I started writing,” said Barbee, “the networks started doing the sexual harassment seminars every year, and everybody had to go in and listen to a sexual harassment seminar. And I'll tell you that there was never more sexual harassment on the set than the day that they had the sexual harassment seminar. And there was a lot of that kind of, you know, Oh, I can't say this anymore. really? Or, If I do say it, are you going to complain? There was a lot of that kind of pressure, the ‘You're not really going to complain about this, are you?’ kind.”
Combined, those two factors made things hostile for parents, caregivers, women, LGBTQ+, BIPOC, and all sorts of diverse voices whose perspectives might have improved television.
More shows, more opportunity, and a chance to clean house
Both of those long-standing aspects of television have, along with the rest of society, undergone a major sea change in the last decade or so. Homogeneity, along with the discrimination inherent in the old system, are being recognized for the detriments they are. Along with the obvious–that every person is a human being worthy of dignity–it’s also become clear that diverse storytelling makes better television.
Along with the cultural changes have been structural changes in the way television is made. There are fewer episodes, fewer seasons, more time between seasons, and more time between writing and production. “I think that's a huge concern of mine personally. That sort of thing is concerning in that in my first three seasons of working in television, I made like 30-plus episodes of television. And now you can talk to someone and be like, oh, I've worked on three shows and I've made 18 episodes of television,” said Teller Ornelas, showrunner of Rutherford Falls. (A representative reached out after publication to clarify that the number is not 30-plus, but in fact 56.)
The hunger for content has led to more shows but fewer episodes per season. Instead of a season of a couple dozen episodes employing a staff of writers full-time, writers find themselves writing for more shows but fewer weeks of the year. One reason is “short orders”—that is, the shows that have about 6-10 episodes a year rather than the traditional 24. “Minirooms” is another term that comes up a lot with today’s writers. A miniroom is when writers are contracted to write a season of television completely separate from the production of that show. Thus, the scripts are all done before anything is filmed and the writers aren’t on staff during the actual production of the show.
“I think what you're seeing right now is once BIPOC showrunners get a chance, they staff a bunch of writers of their culture, right? So it's like Tanya Saracho doing Vida. She's a friend of mine and seeing her have like an all-Latina writers' room, I was like, ‘Oh my God, we can do this. This can happen,’” said Teller Ornelas, whose own show has a writers’ room half-filled with Native writers. “And it's not enough to just have diversity in the writers room. You want to have diversity in the leadership of these shows. And I think they also just make for better shows. So it's not just like altruism; it's like a better business model.”
Teller Ornelas added that there is some benefit to minirooms and short orders: “When I wrote on Happy Endings, all my pilots for years after sounded like Happy Endings. You really get used to writing in someone else's voice. And I do wonder if these young writers are going to make just incredible pilots because you're writing six different people's voices and then able to kind of retain their own voice easier, you know, because the only positive I can think of right now is that those young writers’ pilots have never looked this interesting.”
It also gives the new writers a chance to see many different ways to run a room, instead of just replicating a single experience. Which, as Lobato pointed out, was very dangerous if the only room a writer had been in for years and hundreds of episodes was a toxic one.
The newest generation of showrunners are also questioning some of what they were taught and looking to create better, healthier environments. “There’s this idea that ‘You're not really working unless you're pulling all-nighters’ vibe to it, until you're weeding out the writers who came out of that. My generation of sitcom writers came out of that system, and you're going to get that very stressful, very destructive behavior from it,” said Rogers.
Similarly, Barbee added, “I was on a show one time, and I love those writers, but they were all young men for the most part. And they would stay up all night writing a script like a big camaraderie thing. And it was fun for them, I'm sure. And they would hand me a script at 8 in the morning and it was absolute gibberish. And so I would be like, ‘What are you doing? Please come back later.’”
This system gives more kinds of writers more opportunities to write, but less opportunity to experience how television is made. It also means that being staffed on one show is no longer enough to guarantee a writer a livable salary. But because there are now many more shows with fewer episodes, more showrunners are needed than ever. And that has opened up the job of showrunner to people who wouldn’t have previously had them.
The lack of writers involved in production makes things harder. “I was working on a show called The Librarians and the producers flew the writers out to Portland for three days and just took us on a massive location scout. We haven't even started writing yet, but they said we have some really cool locations to help spark ideas that you can write to so we know what we're shooting. And I ended up writing an episode that took place on Mount Hood because I knew that that was a location that we could use,” said Kate Rorick, showrunner of Leverage: Redemption.
Long-term, the effects could be devastating. The assumption had always been that people at showrunner level had a certain amount of episodes and time in production under their belts. And that they had been mentored. Now, the time and opportunities for both are just gone.
Training, or the lack thereof
While there are more shows, more showrunners, and more viewpoints getting a chance than ever before, there is little to no experience required to become a showrunner. And no training system to pick up the slack.
Lindelof backed that up, saying, “My experience on Watchmen was that almost all of the writers, even the younger ones where this was their first or second gig, were being offered development deals to write their own pilots. And presumably, if those pilots get made, they would be the showrunners.”
Benjamin Lobato, the Mexican-American showrunner of Queen of the South, said, “Anybody that's been in this business for long enough has witnessed over and over again this thing where somebody that either comes from the feature world or just wrote an amazing pilot and suddenly is a showrunner. And this never happens with a person of color. I've never seen a person of color write that amazing script and suddenly be a showrunner.” (Lobato was speaking about the old system. In the current environment, he agreed, people of color with something else in their resume–either work on a previous show or a background as a well-known stand-up comic or sketch performer can break in.)
All of this means that junior writers, ones without producing credits, are often, truly only writers. Fewer episodes and fewer seasons mean writers have to take more jobs a year to make what they used to make. More time between seasons does the same.
But it’s the time between writing and production that is causing the most trouble. Traditional television, with 22 or 24 episodes, had writing and production going at the same time. This made it easy for a showrunner to put a writer on set for their episode, to learn how it was made and what decisions need to be made outside of a writers room. It also let showrunners put writers in editing rooms to watch their scripts come together, all while the writer was on staff and being paid.
But with whole seasons being written well in advance of filming, and writers needing to move to other jobs once the writing is over, that on-the-ground training is disappearing. Some showrunners fight for the budget to keep writers on set, but often it’s only one or two they can get. “I know showrunners who have taken pains to invite their writers into the process, but it's usually on their own time and on their own dime,” said Melvoin. Stacy Rukeyser, showrunner of Netflix’s Sex/Life, backed that up, saying, “I don't know if I'm going to get in trouble for saying this, but I definitely let my writers see the director's cuts on their episodes. I let them see the notes that I gave the editors. I let them see revised cuts. Like I'm trying to still do the training. However, they're not being paid for that time right now.” While the old system was rife with nepotism and privilege, this kind of thing restricts learning opportunities to those who can afford to take time away from being paid or can pay to be on set to learn.
And without other writers around, the job of rewriting during production can fall on the showrunner, increasing their workload.
There are advantages to this new system. For one, having an entire season written before production lends itself to more efficient filming and more cohesive storytelling. For another, writers getting to be in several rooms a year gives them a wider breadth of experience than they would have gotten doing one show every day for years and years.
While the Writers Guild has a showrunner training program, it can’t actually accept everyone who needs the training. Some changes have been positive, but others leave newcomers out in the cold.
“Just as a snapshot, 15 years ago, the class was overwhelmingly male and white and the vast majority worked in broadcast,” said Melvoin, who runs the program. “For the last three years, the majority of the class has been female. I haven't looked at the exact numbers, but there's a lot more diversity in the program. And it's a minority of people that work and broadcast, I believe the majority work in streaming and then it’s basic and premium cable.”
But the other change to the program is that the number of applicants keeps going up and so the requirements to qualify have gotten more stringent—leaving the people who may need the most training the least able to get it. “You have to be a writer, producer, or have active development, and we've had to raise the qualifications of what kind of writer producer you have to be because we keep getting so many applicants. When it started, the requirement was that you had to be an executive story writer and we got over 200 applicants, I think, and then we raised it twice and we still get like 180, 190 applicants for 25 spots.”
Melvoin even knows this isn’t doing television the service it requires, since graduates of the second class of the program had no television experience when he was in it. “Matt Nix, who created Burn Notice, was in the second class that we had. He had never worked on a television show, and I thought at the time, about 14 years ago, this is an aberration, but it's an interesting aberration. And I said he was such a good member of the program and he's come back and spoken every year. Every year we get people applying to the program who have limited or no experience in TV. But you can't deny that they’d be good members of the program.”
It’s telling how many showrunners interviewed for this piece mentioned both the program and that they had applied multiple times and not gotten in. “I applied and I didn't get into the program. And literally like, within months, I was a showrunner,” said Lobato.
With so many different networks, channels, and streaming services hungry for content, there are just more shows being made than there are actual showrunners. And while individual producers and showrunners may be doing as much as they can, a systemic change in how to train new showrunners simply hasn’t appeared to replace what’s being lost.
The COVID of it all
This was the state of television before COVID-19 struck like a hammer, shattering the industry along all of its stress fractures. “Megan Amram, my friend and longtime writing compatriot, said early on that COVID is just a blacklight. It's just a thing that's revealing all of these systemic problems that exist all over the place in the society we live in and in businesses that we work in and everything else. And I think she's totally right,” said Schur.
If writers were being divorced from the process before COVID, Zoom rooms and months of delay in production deepened that divide. “I had a wonderful writer, Olivia Cuartero-Briggs, who wrote an amazing script, was not allowed to go to the set, and didn't get to sit in the editing room. And she missed out on a whole season worth of mentoring, learning, and training,” said Lobato. “And that's really what happens. I have two young girls, and they spent a year out of school. They're never going to get that back. Well, it's no different for these writers and producers that are coming up in the business. They spent a year in front of their computers doing Zoom, story breaking. They lost at least a year's worth of training.”
If writers were limited on set before, once COVID protocols limited those on set to just necessary personnel, writers pretty much disappeared. “If we had not had that three-month delay due to COVID, we would have had overlap between the writers and the set and the writers would still have been under contract. They would still be able to go to set to produce their episodes. I didn't even go to set. I was stuck in Los Angeles with my two kids and I wasn't about to endanger them in any way,” said Rorick of the production of Leverage: Redemption. “So we had constant communication between the two of us, but it was still very, very hard. Should we get a season two knock on wood, it's going to be a priority to have writers, because not only did the writers feel the lack of it, I'm pretty sure I can speak for Dean Devlin and everybody on set that they felt the lack of having the writer there that could just answer the questions right away.”
“I do remember at the beginning of COVID when when things were so uncertain and we didn't know what was happening, it did feel like the writers were getting shut out. It didn't feel like our guild was necessarily fighting for a place on set for writers. And luckily, the people that I work with were like, oh my gosh, yes, of course we have you there. But I don't think that was always the case for everyone,” said Rukeyser.
If budgets were too tight for showrunners to pay to have writers longer before, COVID protocols making shoots longer and more difficult ate up the budget space. If showrunners had to do the rewrites without other writers before, the realities of filming during a pandemic forced them to rewrite more.
“COVID created a desire to keep crews very small, as small as physically possible. In fact, it gave us a preview of how the streaming model for television production is going to work out as it goes widespread, and it's very, very bad. So thank you, COVID, for reminding us that we do want writers on set. Absolutely. It makes the directors happier. It makes the actors happier. It makes production go more smoothly and not just on set for the actual shooting but on location to get into the rotation van and drive around with the scouts so they can anticipate problems that can be solved through the screenwriting part of the process. This reminded us that write everything and then go shoot is not the healthy model. The healthy model is the screenwriters involved from Day Pne all the way through the production,” summed up Rogers.
And if new showrunners were making TV with less experience before, they suddenly had to make TV in a way and in a situation no one had ever done before. There was no “Break glass in case of pandemic” lever in any office in Hollywood. Every showrunner who made a TV show in the last year spoke of having to learn all sorts of new legal requirements and make up new protocols. All of them who ran writers rooms via Zoom hated it.
Given all of that, every show that was made in the last year is even more of a miracle than TV shows usually are.
However, there are some lessons taught by COVID that showrunners hope will stick around. “We had so many sinks around, just like all these handwashing stations, and like, we just touch each other’s shit all day. We should always have these,” said Marja-Lewis Ryan, showrunner of The L-Word: Generation Q. Ryan offered a bigger example: “We really, for the most part, were able to stick to 10-hour workdays on a very big show. We're like a big, slow elephant. And, you know, that seemed impossible two years ago, but now we know how to do it. And like it's better. You know, it's better for everybody. It's better for me, it's better for my crew, for my cast. It's better for everybody.”
While Ryan also missed having an in-person writers room, there was something she’s going to carry forward. “I got to watch my kid take his first steps. I never would have seen that if we hadn't been on Zoom. So I hope that what we've proven is that we can do better for parents, they can Zoom in if they need to, I think it's really OK.”
What’s to be done?
Laying out his concerns for this job and this industry, Rogers tweeted back in 2019, “There's no other mature industry where ‘Are you a moody introvert with ZERO experience in project-management or team-building? Cool, you're now running a company with a $2 million/week burn, hard delivery dates & 150 employees’ is not INSANE, but in TV we now do it all the time.” The very big boat that is television production can’t keep ahead of the wind and waves of change in the industry.
One thing that can be done is to pair new showrunners with experienced producers, to once again split the job of “head writer” and “executive producer.” Melvoin pointed to the example set by Marvel, saying that they have someone overseeing the whole vision in Kevin Feige, and they’re hiring people to just get that done. “That is a very different template from what we've been familiar with for half a century, and particularly the last 30 years. It’s more chilling for those people who think about how the showrunner emerged and what the value of the showrunner is, but overall, I'm not an alarmist, I'm not concerned that the job is going to go away. What I think is happening is that we're becoming more of a ‘both and’ universe instead of just one or the other.” In other words, more jobs are supporting the old role of showrunner, rather than just relying on one person who may or may not be both a creative genius and a masterful administrator.
Jen Statsky of Hacks also extolled the virtues of having more than one person at the top. “There are three creator-showrunners. We are on obviously from the duration at every moment of the show. So we were lucky in that even when our writers room ended, it's still the three of us that are constantly looking at scripts and revising and we have that option.”
The momentum that has changed the makeup of writers rooms, shows, and showrunners needs to be kept up. So does the momentum that has changed the work conditions of those rooms. Maintaining that momentum, even for committed showrunners, has proven difficult. Steven Canals, creator of Pose, said that they wanted the hair and makeup departments to reflect the queer, trans, Black, and Latinx nature of the show. “But one of the other things that we wanted to do in collaboration with the heads of departments was offer internship opportunities. And the thing that I very quickly discovered is that it is nearly impossible to do that. Like for makeup and for hair, to get to intern, you have to be part of the guild, but to be part of the guild, you have to do X number of hours. But it was just all of these hoops. Going through that process, I realized, oh, that's why you don't see more people who look like us doing these jobs. You created a system that just inherently disenfranchises us or doesn’t allow us to have access,” he concluded.
In some ways, Hollywood is a union town. Every job is a union job, for very good historical reasons that are to this day relevant. (IATSE members very publicly authorized a strike just last year due to the dangerous work conditions promulgated by this giant spike in production.) But when the industry has such a history of keeping groups out, giving opportunity while honoring collective bargaining agreements come into conflict.
Building on that, Lewis said, “Every time I hear about shadowing programs, I'm like, ‘Are they paid though?’ That's always my follow-up question. Because if they're not paid, then then they're still so exclusive. We just have to get rid of the exclusivity. When kids like watching TV, and they want to know how to do it. We should be able to say this is how you do it. Go to this program or this program, you apply to all these programs, and then and then you're going to work. But it has to be paid for, or else most people can't go to the program.”
If you can afford to take an unpaid internship or not take another miniroom job so that you can go to set, then you likely already come from a place of privilege. And when the inevitable contraction of the television business comes–which Netflix’s changes are obviously presaging–then it will be the people with that experience who retain showrunner titles. It will be all too easy for Hollywood, risk-averse at the best of times, to say that this was all a grand experiment and it tried letting diverse leaders run rooms but it clearly didn’t work, and that it’s time to go back to the tried, true, and disproportionately white, straight, and male hands.
Lobato said, “We're, like 20 years into these diversity programs. Every year, for two decades, there's a handful of new programs that are started. But the problem was it was not carrying over to the programming, right? So what happens is, you can have all these diversity programs, but if you're not, if you're not creating those shows from those voices, then basically you're just virtue-signaling, right?”
When studios needed a lot of content, they were happy to hire anyone and also proclaim their diversity. But the minute it becomes unsustainable, it’s going to be the marginalized who will lose their shows first. And then this all becomes just another chapter in the long history of diversity programs that companies don’t really invest in.
Canals went further, saying, “Diversity initiatives are really only filling very small gaps, like the gap is so much wider than what those programs are able to aid with. And then the other thing, too, is like, what are all the stereotypes and what are all the complications that come along with being someone who goes through one of those programs? Because it's like, you know, I have plenty of friends who have gone through those programs and have talked about their experience once they're in writers rooms and being looked at as the quote-unquote, diversity hire, you know, and I think and that, again, that's the only you could probably do a whole other piece just on that.”
“It's not lost on me that I'm a showrunner because I was on the show at the right time when all of these conversations started happening. And by the way, it happened to be a show about Mexican drug dealers, right?” said Lobato.
With 20 years of diversity programs having not led to a huge change, it’s easy for studios to claim there’s nothing they can do. Worse, if someone gets a job they are not prepared for and fail, they can be written off in a way a straight, white, cis-man would not. Studios can say they tried having diverse showrunners and it just didn’t work. “I've actually had people say that to me directly. Which always shocks me to shit, because you realize that you're talking to like you're talking to a queer person of color?” said Canals.
“It's such an important point that often gets overlooked, which is, you know, especially folks of color, the LGBTQ people and women as well. Like we're not solely representing ourselves. We're all those of us who come from historically marginalized identities, like we're always representing everyone, you know, like we're carrying the weight of that identity everywhere we go. And so, you know, it isn't fair,” continued Canals.
Netflix pioneered streaming and has laid out a ton of money to remain at the top of what is now an oversaturated market. And this appears the year of reckoning for it—where it becomes clear that Netflix was popular for having a deep back catalog, not because it turned out two ten-episode seasons of a $30-million per episode show every other year. A lot of the streamers launched with exclusives to get new subscribers, but are now relying on their legacy titles to keep people watching—legacy titles that Netflix, not tied to a major studio, doesn’t have, and ones that are usually not known for their diversity.
Every showrunner talked about working hard to make their rooms better, to train a diverse new generation. Mentoring in this job is vital, since, as Schur explains, “The job is almost oral tradition. It's almost handed down.” But if there isn’t time to bring writers along, to pull them into rooms, to take them to lunch, it all falls apart.
Something systemic needs to be done to ensure that new writers are trained as much as some were in the old system. Because as sink-or-swim as television has always been, the lack of experience and support in the new one will simply leave many to fail.
Corrections: An earlier version of this story stated that Sierra Teller Ornelas’ show has a Native writers room and that IATSE workers had gone on strike.