Paula Pell was a little frazzled recently on the first night of taping for a new NBC midseason comedy, Thick and Thin. While she had a decade as a writer and performer for Saturday Night Live under her belt, this was her first time as an executive producer, or showrunner. She was the boss.
Standing offstage, with storylines and budgets and personnel issues and a thousand other things swirling through her mind, Pell suddenly snapped back to her immediate duty: waiting to be introduced to the live audience as the creator of Thick and Thin. Thinking she saw her cue, Pell scurried onstage—plunging in front of show's stars, who were still being introduced. Pell, oblivious, gave a big hello to the perplexed audience.
“They pulled me back and said, 'This isn't your moment yet. Cool your jets,” she recalls. “You get a little scattered running a show for the first time.”
Pell is one of a growing number of first-time showrunners with projects either freshly arrived on broadcast-network schedules or heading that way. Several shows this fall—including some that have scored encouraging ratings, such as Prison Break on Fox and How I Met Your Mother on CBS—are headed up by showrunning rookies. Prison Break creator Paul Scheuring was a feature-film writer, while Mother comes from executive producers Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, two former Late Show With David Letterman writers who also worked in more-junior roles on a few sitcoms.
The ascension of these first-timers is the latest example of what former WB CEO Jordan Levin calls “a sea change” in the attitude of broadcast networks toward untried talent, as the rising demand for original content in recent years has forced them to take more chances.
“I love the idea of first-time EP's,” says Fox Entertainment President Peter Liguori. “This is a business which continuously needs to reinvent itself, and the single fastest way to do that is for networks to take chances on new talent that has a fresh perspective.”
Taking a writer who's accustomed to solitary work and placing him or her at the helm of a multimillion- dollar undertaking with a sprawling staff can be a risky strategy. But as the practice has become more common, networks and showrunners alike have learned a few lessons that can ease the transition.
“IF YOU PANIC, YOU ARE DEAD”
One of the most important issues from the outset is whether a writer, no matter how talented, has the personality to assume the role of CEO of the company that is a network television show.
“Sometimes being a great writer and a great showrunner are mutually exclusive,” says CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler. “Even if you are fortunate enough to be an incredibly talented writer, showrunning still requires management, diplomacy, organization and planning.”
The responsibilities of the position made an immediate impact on How I Met Your Mother's Bays.
“It's strange that the executive producer position is usually occupied by a writer, because writing is such a personal and lonely job,” he says. “You become a writer because you are a little socially inept and you work better in a room with a computer by yourself, and suddenly you're the head of a company of 200 people and have to use totally different skills from the ones that got you there.”
Gary Scott Thompson, a screenwriter (The Fast and the Furious) who was also a TV rookie when he launched NBC's Las Vegas in 2003, says the solution is to dive in and learn as you go.
“I have 350 people on any given day looking at me saying, 'Okay, what are we doing?'” he says. “If you panic, you are dead. If you don't move fast enough, you are dead. That is where a lot of people fail.”
And while helming a TV show might seem like a glamorous position, newly minted showrunners quickly discover that they have to deal with every bit as much minutiae as any corporate manager.
“You have to oversee every little decision, from color palettes to whether a character's hair is going to be up or down,” says Threshold executive producer David Goyer, who is working on his second television series. “Even crew morale—you just can't ignore that stuff.”
Personnel decisions are another major component of a showrunner's role, and while making hires and granting days off can be enjoyable, letting people go can be a difficult adjustment for first-time bosses.
“We've had to fire two producers, and that's something I've never been involved in before,” says Scheuring. “I just get very squeamish in dealing with other peoples' livelihood. Being a leader, you have to be party to tough decisions like that, but I don't like that cutthroat aspect of it.”
SOME GENUISES NEED A CO-GENIUS
To help a new showrunner deal with the pressure, networks commonly pair them with a more seasoned co-executive producer. In fact, CBS' Tassler says, the networks often stipulate such arrangements when picking up a show.
“It's a great way of introducing new voices into the business,” she says, citing successes with the practice on such shows as CSI (which teamed veteran Carol Mendelsohn with rookie creator Anthony Zuiker) and Without a Trace (Ed Redlich with Hank Steinberg). “If someone has a voice and has talent and they find their way to us, it may be a great forum for them. They just need the support.”
At NBC's Thick and Thin, Pell is working with co- executive producer (and her former SNL boss) Lorne Michaels. “You have people around you like Lorne putting their hand on your shoulder and saying, 'Uh, you may want to think before you do that,'” Pell says. “That is invaluable.”
But while WB's Levin has seen such partnerships work swimmingly, as when he matched veteran David Greenwalt with a rookie named Joss Whedon on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the strategy is far from a sure thing.
“Hedging your bet with experience more often than not leads to failure,” Levin says, because veteran producers often end up wielding too much influence. The key, he adds, is to find an experienced hand “who is confident enough and their ego is in the right place where they can come in and recognize that supporting someone else doesn't minimize what they mean to the show. But that's a rare individual.”
“WANT TO BE AN AUTEUR? GO WORK IN FEATURES”
A co-executive producer may not be the only new collaborator that rookie showrunners suddenly find themselves working with. Scheuring says he knew he'd have to get used to opening up the creative process when he went from screenwriter to executive producer, but he was put off by the sheer number of helpful and not so helpful suggestions—a.k.a. notes—from network superiors.
“Especially when you are a rookie showrunner like me, they watch everything with a very fine microscope,” he says. “At the beginning, it was pretty rocky. I think there were a lot of questions as to whether I was up to snuff, and there were a lot of cooks in the kitchen. I don't think that's rare with someone new, but you just need to stick to your guns and hope it works out.”
Fox's Liguori says the early days with Scheuring were a learning process for both parties.
“He recognized that producing TV is a different task,” Liguori says. “It's like the dance teacher who picks on the best student in the class. We were giving him all that energy because the show was worthy of it. He was open to suggestions and processed them, but clearly processed them through his vision of the show.”
David Heyman, a producer on all the Harry Potter films so far and now the executive producer of CBS' Threshold, says he has been amazed during his first foray into TV by the amount of studio and network involvement.
“When we were deciding on costumes for the pilot, we would literally have to send photographs of each costume to CBS and Paramount,” he says.
Bays had heard all the “horror stories about shows getting noted to death,” he says, but coping with all the suggestions was still a struggle at first. “The strangest part of it is starting with something very personal and turning it over to so many people,” he says. “You are very paranoid that someone is going to take your show and turn it into something you didn't want it to be.”
Thompson says that he has seen too many people, his friends included, who have failed because of their unwillingness to play the game: “If you want to be an auteur, go work in features.”
JUST SAY NO. POLITELY.
A crucial task for an inexperienced showrunner: Cling to a clear vision of the show and convey it to others. “There has to be an editorial framework so that everyone involved can understand why certain choices are made,” says Levin. “That goes to the skill of painting a very clear picture of the vision and then mapping it out creatively for the entire team.”
If the showrunner has only a shaky grasp of the show's concept, that weakness will quickly be exposed, Levin says, as actors, directors, network and studio executives, and marketing people all weigh in. “You have to ground yourself and remain true to your vision. But you better damn well know what it is, because if you don't, you're in trouble.”
Sticking to that vision means knowing when to say no—which can be daunting for someone new to the position, especially a young writer. But, Levin says, network and studio execs actually expect some push-back.
“There's nothing wrong with saying no. It's when someone can't say no that you get worried,” Levin says. “There are instances where somebody will be so eager to please that they would try to service everyone's notes, from the network to the studio to the actors to the other producers, and then the process has way too many voices.”
Bays says he was fortunate to have worked for David Letterman, who is not exactly eager to please would-be note-givers.
“Dave was very good at knowing exactly what he wanted and demanding it and sticking to his decision,” Bays says. “Saying no is a fantastic skill he had, and one I am trying to develop more.”
GO FAST. OR ELSE.
The sheer speed of the production of a weekly show, commonly compared to that of an onrushing train by showrunners, can be the toughest challenge. “I used to get tired after an hour or two of writing features,” recalls Scheuring. “I've learned very quickly that you often have to write 10-20 pages in a day in TV. That was a big jump for me. And you need to stay ahead, because being forced into decisions by time-crunches sucks.”
Tassler says the inability to keep up with the pace is a common problem on shows in rookie hands.
“When you see a show constantly shooting until 5 or 6 in the morning, you know there are problems,” she says. “There are too many stories of, literally, the camera is rolling and pages are being handed to actors as they walk out on-set.”
And in television, of course, time means money—lots of it. “You have to be able to make decisions fast, because every day we shoot is $150,000,” says Thompson. “If you start slowing down, it's just money going down the drain.”
Scheuring says that, in the transition from feature films to television, he has had to learn fiscal restraint: “I would write features that, if they were budgeted, would have been $200 million features, and I'd just let them deal with that.” Writing for Prison Break, he says, “I know very well that we're probably not going to be able to have the flaming Hindenburg crashing into the prison every episode.”
Bays finds that the money involved makes him realize just how big his new responsibilities are.
“Most of the day, you are just putting on a show and having fun, and the cameras are just these big toys we have to play with,” he says. “And then every week, a budget gets put on your desk, and that's when it all hits home. Each episode costing more money than I've ever seen in my life—it kind of freaks you out.”