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Who runs the show? Often, it's the writer

Sunday, April 18, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- Actors get the most prominent billing in a program's opening, but the credits also reveal who has the real power as "show runner."

In the film world, the director is king (remember James Cameron at the Oscars?), but on TV the writer rules.

Most of the time the head writer is the show runner, the person responsible for shaping the program's creative direction and character development, not to mention production details such as casting, music and staying within budget.

Nancy Miller, executive producer of Lifetime's "Any Day Now," shares show runner duties with executive producer Gary A. Randall. She oversees the show's writing and creative direction, while he works on post-production and other technical aspects of the series.

"A show runner is basically responsible for keeping a show on the air," Miller said. "When the network's go, 'He's a show runner,' it's a known commodity. They know that person can put a show on the air and get it done week-to-week. You're in charge of the entire production. It's like being the head of a dysfunctional family."

Jeff Greenstein, who was co-creator and co-show runner of the Fox 1995-1996 sitcom "Partners," said the show runner calls the shots on every aspect of the program, and usually acts as a filter during the writing process. The show expresses that person's voice.

"The person who decides whether it goes on the page or not is the show runner," Greenstein said. "If you subscribe to the auteur theory, these are the auteurs."

Some show runners are household names, including David E. Kelley ("The Practice," "Ally McBeal") and Steven Bochco ("NYPD Blue").

Other executive producers act more like the chief of a miniature studio that turns out several programs. These include Aaron Spelling ("7th Heaven," "Rescue 77," "Beverly Hills, 90210," "Melrose Place," etc.) and Kevin Bright, Marta Kauffman and David Crane ("Friends," "Veronica's Closet," "Jesse"). In cases where an executive producer has multiple shows on the air, who deserves credit for authorship of the series?

It varies wildly.

An individual episode may be written by a particular staff writer, but the overall direction of the series is credited to the show runner. "7th Heaven" is an Aaron Spelling production, but even Spelling is quick to give credit for the creative direction of the show to series creator Brenda Hampton.

"She's brilliant," Spelling said last summer. "We do what we've always done in this company: She comes in and pitches four episodes, we talk about them and she'll go write most of them. If anything bothers us in the script, I'll write a note, but she's so cooperative."

Just because someone is listed as the creator, doesn't necessarily mean that person is the show runner. John Masius created "Touched by an Angel," but he left over creative differences with CBS before the show aired. CBS installed Martha Williamson as writer/executive producer, and she made "Angel" the hit it is today.

Sometimes the creator of a show may not have the producing experience to be a show runner, so another executive producer is brought in to oversee the show. That's the case with The WB's "Zoe, Duncan, Jack & Jane," created by the married writing team of Sue and Daniel Paige.

"We weren't prepared to be show runners this year," Sue Paige said. "Michael Jacobs -- or as he calls himself, 'the shepherd' of this project -- was brought in [as the show runner]."

Another type of show runner is the successor who takes over for a program's original guiding force. When David E. Kelley stopped working on CBS's "Chicago Hope," a series he created, John Tinker became the show runner.

Greenstein and his former writing partner Jeff Strauss became show runners of HBO's "Dream On" in its fourth season.

"In that situation, you're trying to remain true to the voice of the show that's been established, but you also try to provide creative growth," Greenstein said. "The difference between that year on 'Dream On' and the first year writing my own show is the weight you carry home at the end of every day. When it's a new show, everyone is looking to you to invent, to lay the creative groundwork for a series that will hopefully run for 11 years."

There's one last type of show runner, exemplified by Pittsburgh native James Widdoes, who with business partner Jonathan Axelrod is a nonwriting executive producer of ABC's "Brother's Keeper" and the upcoming WB series "Movie Stars."

"We can be, in various degrees, part of the show-running team," Widdoes said. "We found ourselves in a niche where we were fortunate to work with a lot of writers who basically didn't want a lot of the other aspects of running a show, so we take those."

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