March 22, 2011 Jill

showrunnersinla.jpgA guest post from the fabulous Barbara Haynes on her experience with the second half of the The Shaw Media Showrunner Training Program. Her piece on the first half can be found here.

“I want to be successful when I do my shows.”

This quote, from Scott Gemmill of “NCIS-LA”, is the most common, matter-of-fact thing you’ll never hear in Canada. The relentless pursuit of success is not necessarily rare in Canadian television — it’s just never talked about. Or if it is, the person doing the talking is usually considered a pompous fool.

The second half of The Shaw Media Showrunner Training Program took place in LA a few weeks ago, and the word “success” was heard daily. It was like everyone we met told us they were gonna date the hottest person in the room, and not only did they never apologize for it; they genuinely believed it was possible. Positively un-Canadian, right? But if we want our television to be where our music and literature are — and I think we do — then there’s a lot to learn from our neighbours down south.

Happy Executives

We met Christina Davis of CBS — one of the most passionate TV execs I’ve ever encountered. Granted, she works for the #1 network, so it’s easy to be happy when you’re winning (a phrase forever tainted by the network’s biggest star”) But it was more than that. She just loved television, loved writers, knew her brand, and could pitch the hell out of every pilot she’d commissioned. She also knew the value of her audience. If a project got her and her colleagues excited, she’d still wait to see the focus test results. As she put it, “500 people in Vegas can’t be wrong!”

We also met Quinn Taylor of ABC, another smart, savvy and at times brutally honest executive who was crystal clear on what he was looking for, what would work, and what was just a splashy pilot vs. a series with legs. “Tell me what episode two is!” he asks, or don’t bother pitching.

Visionary Creators

We saw a taping of a “Big Bang Theory” episode where we spotted Bill Prady and the elusive Chuck Lorre, no doubt relaxing on a set filled with sweet, sweet sanity. Three things stood out for me: every character on the show is clear — so clear that he or she could be described in a logline written in the program on everyone’s seat. Two, the women on this show are f*cking hilarious. Yes, the four lead guys are great, but I was most in awe of Kaley Cuoco, Melissa Rauch and (squee!) Mayim Bialik. And finally, the story was incredibly simple. To quote Scott Gemmill again, “a simple script looks a lot easier than it is.” Some people gush about convoluted storylines, believing they signal better or smarter writing. They also brag, oddly enough, that Canadian sitcoms don’t have all the jokes and laugh tracks of US multi-cams. “Two and a Half Men,” Chuck Lorre’s other famous show, is the go-to punching bag for bad comedies. While its tone can be mean and misogynist, it can also be funny. One episode had 18 jokes in a 45-second Cold Open. Until you can write that yourself, you don’t get to mock it.

David Shore, creator of “House”, spoke to us and talked of the challenge of having an angry, sarcastic drug addict at the center of his series. He was lucky not to get the note “Make him more likable,” when he first created the show, but stressed that likable does not equal nice. Like his viewers, Shore loves House, but is he a nice guy? Of course not. Nice, however, is death to writers. It’s also boring for actors and viewers, so networks need to understand that a guy you wanna watch on TV is vastly different from a guy you wanna hang with in real life. Hero means hero; it does not mean role model.

He also said TV is no place to preach. You need to show two sides to every issue and argument. No character actually thinks he’s evil, so resist the urge to populate your story with cartoon villains. Strawmen make for bad TV.

Practical Showrunners

Shane Brennan created NCIS, and Scott Gemmill runs the spin-off, NCIS-LA. He didn’t just speak matter of factly about success; he had a ton of tips on how to achieve it. TV is a business, he stressed, so if you want to write from the heart, go write a play. That doesn’t mean you can’t tell powerful, heartfelt stories on television — just that somebody better be making money while you do. That has a greater chance of happening if you “produce on the page” — learn what can and can’t be shot in a day and know your sets. Figure out when scripts are needed in prep and get them in on or before that day. If you can’t do that, you’re already behind and you will never recover. Gemmill knows that some showrunners don’t care. They claim that their creative process is to be spontaneous. That
is “arrogant, expensive bullshit” and makes life hell for writers, executives, cast and crew. Don’t do it.

Be a good problem solver, don’t get too annoyed by bad notes, pitch with simple, short documents and make sure your outlines are solid. They’re harder to write than scripts, but if you have a good one that’s structurally sound, you’re halfway there. If you’re starting out, know what episode six is. High concept shows are prestigious and attention-grabbing, but think about what’s sustainable. And remember you’re up against “the spectacle of dancing, fatty reality shows” so be compelling while being aware of what’s popular. Nobody knows what’s going to get picked up or what will become a hit. That makes it hard, but also makes it a level playing field. If you have a strong concept with lots of story potential, and you surround yourself with people you like, they will be “the mosh pit lifting you up,” and nothing sounds cooler than that!

Steve Blackman runs the Shonda Rhimes-created “Private Practice” and gave us a tour of the set. Blackman is a Canadian who got his start on “The Associates” in Toronto before working his way up in LA. He couldn’t have been nicer or more open, and stressed the importance of “getting to yes” when dealing with everyone from execs to actors to writers. His background as a lawyer taught him that people need to feel like they’ve won, so when things get tense, make sure you deal with it openly and fairly so everyone walks away feeling okay. Your reputation stays with you a long time. It’s never a mistake to treat people with kindness and respect.

Jeffrey Melvoin runs “Army Wives” and also heads up the US Showrunner Training Program in LA. His mantra is “quality scripts, on time,” echoing Gemmill’s words. He believes in the “no asshole rule” — keep morale up in the writers room by getting rid of any bad influences. Manage upward and downward, and be respectful of (but not paralyzed by) the fact you’re in charge of millions of dollars.

A good showrunner is a producer, a professor, a psychologist, a politician, a pragmatist, a paradigm, a professional (don’t put your name on every damn script unless you want to be reviled in the writer community and dismissed as an insecure ass) and a parent. You can choose not to accept the “parent” label, but then you’re still a parent, just a dysfunctional one. You are the head of the household, so get your staff’s respect before their affection. Use your temper if needed; just don’t lose your temper. Then realize that the job is essentially impossible to do perfectly. Just be able to say you did the best you could, and recognize that the qualities of a writer (loner, brooding, insecure, selfish, paranoid, oblivious and indecisive) are precisely the opposite of those needed for a leader!

Like Blackman, he stressed that manners matter, above and below, and acts of kindness are never wasted. Success means you don’t take short cuts, you trust your instincts, and you repeat the mantra as often as necessary: quality scripts on time.

Inspired Showrunner Trainees

It was an amazing week in LA and we’re excited and inspired to put our training to use. While it’s true that the business model in Canada is wildly different — small budgets, government funding, broadcaster CanCon requirements — we can still emulate the model that has brought success to American television for so many years. Hire a brilliant writer who’s a strong leader, then let him or her run the show. We will respect the executive, listen to their input throughout the process, and appreciate the financial investment they bring to the table. But we also want their trust that we’re still that passionate geek who watched too much TV as a kid (and an adult). We will do our damnedest to make the best show we can. Success isn’t about ego. It’s about creating something smart and
entertaining that makes everybody involved look good. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, even makes money.

Check out Barbara Haynes’ post on the first half of the Showrunner Program in Banff here.  You can follow her on Twitter at and  Also be sure to check out the he said/she said marriage blog she writes with her husband Brent Piaskoski.

Comment (1)

  1. Karen McClellan

    Fantastic post! Great tips and information. A must read. Thank you for sharing all of this.

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