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Some of the series I follow intensely have showrunners I know off the top of my head. Doctor Who has Stephen Moffat (who was preceded by RTD). Lost had Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof. They are generally responsible for the direction of the show's story, from what I understand.

But what is their job; what do showrunners do above and beyond what other producers/writers do?

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2 Answers 2

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To quote John August (Frankenweenie, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie's Angels...):

The highest ranking producer is the showrunner, the man or woman ultimately responsible for the creative direction of the series.

Although

Showrunner is a function, not a title...

... this person is credited as an Executive Producer. In many cases, he or she has “Created by” credit on the series

  • Note: this doesn't mean that every Executive Producer is a "showrunner"
    (a leading actor is credited as an actor, but that doesn't mean every actor is a leading actor)


Also of note:

Because scripted television is run by writers, the majority of producers you see listed are writers.


Ken Levine (*M*A*S*H*, Cheers, Frasier,...) has this to say:

[The Showrunner] oversees the entire production and essentially provides the voice and creative direction of the show.

  • He hires the writing staff, the crew, the directors. He is in charge of the show’s budget.

  • He approves and breaks the stories, assigns them, rewrites them, and decides when the scripts are ready for distribution.

  • He does all of the casting. Deals with the network and studio. Approves sets, wardrobe, music, ...

  • He also oversees the editing. The editor and director put together their first cut and then the showrunner is in control. He can change that cut at will, if the show is long he determines what gets cut.

He then supervises post production – sound, color correction, music.

[...]

How the hell does he have time to do all of that?

He doesn’t. And that’s the real art of showrunning.

  • How does e.g. Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad) do it?

    The thing about my job as showrunner that I’d most like to delegate

    Dealing with money and budget issues. ... Some days I find myself telling my producers: "Please just deal with the money stuff. Tell me what we can do and tell me what we can’t do." ... I remember when somebody first told me that you’re now in charge of a $40 million start-up, it kind of freaked me out.

So even though a Showrunner is basically responsible for everything, he doesn't actually have to do everything. He can of course appoint people to do things for him.


When Did People Start Saying “Showrunner”?

Most likely, the late 1980s.

The rise of the term “showrunner” tracks with the rise of writers in television.

  • Before TV became a “writer’s medium,” it was a studio’s medium. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, studios controlled all facets of production, from conception onward. Writers were mostly contract workers and did not generally participate in crafting the vision of the show. Studios only allowed experienced executives to pitch new shows, and these executives typically stayed on as the chief producers.

As writers became more critical to keeping shows on air, they were given more production responsibilities. Soon, studios even allowed writers to create new shows—and then to stay on to shape the shows they envisioned. The writer-executive producer was born.

But in an era of producer credit proliferation, those on set needed a new, shorter term to separate the person making final creative decisions from other producers.

“Showrunner” became natural shorthand for the person who literally runs the show.


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+1, Nice and detailed. This is what expected to be from Oliver_C. –  Ankit Sharma Sep 10 '13 at 21:16

Show Runners is essentially just another term for Executive Producer. The show runner is responsible for the day-to-day work involved in a tv series and often combine the main roles of writer, director and editor.

In a nutshell: It's the title for the person who has overall control.

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