They were once just a name on the credits roll, but showrunners have gained celebrity status over the past decade and are now considered the major creative force behind every television drama.
This DQ show examines the showrunner’s rise to power and why it can be one of the most satisfying jobs in Hollywood.
In the first of a two-part programme, DQ hears from leading showrunners about the challenges of this all-consuming position.
Contributors include Shawn Ryan (The Shield), Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire), Ilene Chaiken (Empire), Glen Mazzara (The Walking Dead), Clyde Phillips (Dexter), Eric Newman (Narcos), Terri Miller and Andrew Marlowe (Castle), Maggie Friedman and Corinne Brinkerhoff (No Tomorrow), Jon Bokenkamp (The Blacklist), Les Bohem (Shut Eye), Michelle Ashford (Masters of Sex), Graham Yost (Sneaky Pete), Howard Gordon (Homeland), Matt Miller (Lethal Weapon), Peter Lenkov (MacGyver), Oliver Goldstick (The Collection) and Carol Flint (Designated Survivor).
Part two will be available from Wednesday March 29.
In 2016, several US shows have been killed off despite airing successfully for a number of seasons. This week, we look at the creators and writers behind these shows, many of whom will be in strong demand after the conclusion of their latest projects.
Bates Motel has been a strong performer for cable network A&E but is due to end in 2017 after season five. The first script was written by Anthony Cipriano, and then Carlton Cuse (pictured) and Kerry Ehrin joined as head writers. Cuse and Ehrin continue to run the show and will be in charge of the last season – which is expected to be a retelling of Psycho, on which the series is based. Cuse is one of the busiest showrunners in Hollywood, so won’t be short of things to do. His other gigs include FX’s The Strain and a new project for Amazon based on Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels. Ehrin has been linked with a couple of projects over the last two years (a romantic comedy for NBC and a terrorism drama for CBS) but there’s no concrete news on her plans after Bates Motel.
Black Sails is a prequel to Treasure Island, in the same way Bates Motel is a prequel to Psycho. Created by Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine, it airs on Starz but will finish after its fourth season. Steinberg and Levine have written many of the episodes together and also include Human Target and Jericho among their previous credits. Their plans after Black Sails are yet to be revealed. Steinberg wrote a pilot for an updated version of Beauty and the Beast for ABC, but this appears to have gone quiet.
Castle rumbled along for eight seasons on ABC before being cancelled in May 2016 (though it was very nearly given a short-run ninth season). It was created by Andrew W. Marlowe who wrote a lot of episodes up until season eight before stepping back. The most prominent writers on the latest season were showrunners Alexi Hawley and Terence Paul Winter. The latest news regarding Marlowe is that he is writing a comedy crime series for Tandem Productions with his wife Terri Edda Miller. Called Take Two, the LA-based series centres on private investigator Eddie Valetik and former cop show actress Emma Swift, who come together to form an unlikely crime-busting partnership. Hawley and Winter have yet to reveal their plans following the show’s termination. Hawley’s credits include The Following and State of Affairs, while Winter worked on All of Us.
The Good Wife ran for seven seasons and 156 episodes on CBS, ending on May 8, 2016. The award-winning legal/political drama ended on a high, which is good news for its creators Robert King and Michelle King (pictured). The Kings have their own production company, King Size Productions, which they operate under a three-year overall deal they signed with CBS in late 2014. Key projects to have come out of this setup include political satire BrainDead, which debuted on June 13 on CBS. Ratings for the show have not been great, suggesting an early cancellation (though it may be saved thanks to a streaming rights deal with Amazon).
House of Lies was a Showtime comedy series that followed a group of unscrupulous management consultants. Its fifth and final season ended last month. The show was created by Matthew Carnahan, who also wrote a lot of its episodes. In 2014, he also found time to write a movie called Ride, which starred his partner Helen Hunt. Previously he wrote a novel called Serpent Girl. House of Lies made the news earlier this year when it filmed in Cuba. There are no details yet re Carnahan’s next project.
Person of Interest was a CBS sci-fi drama that ran for five seasons and ended on June 21 this year. Created by Jonathan Nolan (pictured), it was well received by critics and fans, securing an 8.5 rating on IMDb. Nolan is never short of stuff to do, but is currently most closely associated with Westworld, his HBO reboot of the classic movie. He co-wrote the last episode of Person of Interest but a lot of the writing work in recent seasons has been done by Greg Plageman, Denise Thé and Tony Camerino. There’s no news yet on what any of these three are planning for their next projects.
Teen Wolf will end after next year’s season six on MTV. Developed by Jeff Davis (pictured), it’s loosely based on the 1985 film of the same name. Davis has been the dominant writer throughout, typically writing around half of the scripts in each season. Less well known is that he also created CBS’s Criminal Minds, which has gone on to run for 11 seasons. With his track record and the fact he is just 41 years old, Davis is sure to secure another significant gig in the near future. However, the news about Teen Wolf only broke a few days ago, so there has been no word on his future plans.
Orphan Black is a Canadian sci-fi thriller that has built up a strong cult audience. The show has been greenlit for a fifth season by Space in Canada and BBC America but will end after that. There was a panel on the show at this month’s Comic-Con during which the creators Graeme Manson (writer, pictured) and John Fawcett (director) confirmed it was their decision to end the show. They didn’t discuss future plans except to say they’re open to the possibility of a spin-off series or feature film. For Manson, the series was his big breakthrough moment, so expect him to be in demand.
Penny Dreadful, Sky/Showtime’s gothic horror series, will end after three seasons. Like Orphan Black, the decision to end the show came from its creator, John Logan (pictured), who said: “I created Penny Dreadful to tell the story of a woman grappling with her faith, and with the demons inside her,” he said. “For me, the character of Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) is the heart of this series. From the beginning, I imagined her story would unfold over a three-season arc, ending with Vanessa finding peace as she returns to her faith.” Logan, of course, is not short of work, having penned numerous movies including Gladiator, The Aviator, Skyfall and Spectre. His next announced film projects are Just Kids, The next James Bond film and Alien: Covenant. The big question, of course, is whether he’ll be tempted back to TV at any point in the near future.
The Vampire Diaries is soon to end after clocking up eight seasons on The CW. Parting with the show has been made easier for the network by the success of its superhero series. Based on books by LJ Smith, The Vampire Diaries was developed by Kevin Williamson (pictured) and Julie Plec. The latter wrote a couple of episodes in season six but the major writing responsibilities in recent times have belonged to Caroline Dries and Brian Young. Williamson is now busy with a series for ABC called Time After Time and a paranormal project for The CW called Frequency. Williamson and Plec are also exec producers on Fox pilot Recon, which is written by Dries. This one is about an FBI agent who embeds herself in a suspected terrorist family.
CBS’s new legal drama Doubt will star Katherine Heigl. But it is the casting of transgender actress Laverne Cox in the show that is capturing the headlines.
US network CBS has given a series order to Doubt, a legal drama starring Katherine Heigl as a smart and successful defence lawyer who begins to get romantically involved with her client, who may or may not be guilty of a brutal murder.
The show is significant because it also includes transgender actress Laverne Cox (Orange is the New Black) in the cast. Assuming Cox’s role is one that doesn’t propagate the usual stereotypes that surround transgender acting talent, it will be a major breakthrough for the community, which usually finds it difficult to get meaningful roles outside niche cable channels and streaming services.
Doubt’s selection seems to have killed off another show’s chances of progressing to a full series – at least for now. Drew, which is a contemporary take on the Nancy Drew books, was in the running for a series commission from CBS until Doubt was chosen ahead of it. There is a chance it will pop up at another network, though, as CBS Studios is still shopping it around.
Another interesting CBS story, as predicted by the US press, is that superhero series Supergirl is moving to The CW for its second season. In doing so, production will relocate to Vancouver from LA.
The move makes a lot of sense for a couple of reasons. Firstly, despite a very promising pilot episode, the show wasn’t really hitting the mark in the very exposed world of frontline network TV. Secondly, The CW (a 50/50 joint venture from CBS and Time Warner) already has a strong slate of superhero shows including Arrow, The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow, so it will be right at home.
The CBS announcements are part of a busy time of year for the US networks, which generally announce new series for their 2016/17 season in May. Another title in the news this week, for example, is NBC’s The Blacklist: Redemption, a spin-off from the well-established James Spader series The Blacklist.
NBC is a big fan of brand extensions, having also recently announced the launch of legal series Chicago Justice to go alongside scheduling stalwarts Chicago Fire, Chicago Med and Chicago PD.
A bolder move by NBC is the decision to take Eric Kripke and Shawn Ryan’s time travel series Timeless from pilot to series. Bizarrely, that means there are now three time travel shows coming through the US networks system, with ABC’s Time After Time and Fox’s Making History also greenlit as series (and remember, we’ve also just seen Hulu’s 11.22.63 air in the US).
Of course, for every new show there’s usually a cancellation to free up space in the schedule. This week’s unlucky victim on NBC is The Mysteries of Laura, axed after two moderate seasons. Other cancellations include ABC’s Castle, which is coming to an end after eight seasons on air. Create by Andrew W Marlowe, the show focused on a best-selling mystery novelist and an NYPD homicide detective who solved crimes together. When it started it secured an audience of nine to 10 million an episode, but as it comes to a close it is in the five to six million range.
ABC has also cancelled Nashville, Agent Carter and The Muppets. One other show it might have cancelled on the basis of its season one ratings was Shonda Rhimes’ The Catch, but instead it has decided to give the show a second chance in 2016/17.
This isn’t a massive surprise given Rhimes’ fabulous contribution to the network – but it has to go down as a bit of a risk. ABC’s faith in Rhimes has, however, been further underlined with the decision to order another new series called Still Star-Crossed, described as a sequel to Romeo & Juliet. Interestingly, ABC also had the option of going forward with a Shondaland comedy called Toast, but decided to call it quits on that one after a pilot.
Another project in the news this week is Paradime. This one is interesting because it has been optioned from a novel that hasn’t even got to publication yet, showing just how competitive the market for book rights has become. The novel, by Alan Glynn, is a psychological thriller about a man who returns to New York after a spell in Afghanistan and becomes obsessed with a businessman.
The show is being developed by ITV and One-Two Punch Productions, with Glenn Gordon Caron (Medium) onboard to write and direct the series. The appeal of the project is partly down to Glynn’s track record. His previous novel, The Dark Fields, was turned into the movie Limitless in 2011 and then a TV series.
Meanwhile, in Europe, the latest French thriller to be causing a stir is The Disappearance (Disparue), which has been compared to UK hits like Broadchurch and The Missing.
The show has been rating well on France 2, with an audience in excess of five million, and has now been picked up for broadcast by BBC4 in the UK. The Disappearance, written by Marie Deshaires and Catherine Touzet, is set in Lyon and tells the story of a 17-year-old girl who goes missing. As the police investigate the disappearance, a number of people close to the girl’s family are discovered to have secrets of their own that they wish to keep concealed.
Although Disparue is a French scripted series, it actually owes a fair amount to other parts of Europe. It is, for example, based on a Spanish series called Desaparecida that first aired in 2007/08. And it was directed by Franco-Swedish filmmaker Charlotte Brändström, who has worked on Scandinavian crime series like Wallander, thus adding a bit of Nordic Noir to the show’s DNA.
Still in France, Newen Distribution has sold its detective series Candice Renoir to Dutch public broadcaster NPO2. The show, which is one of the top-rated dramas on France 2, has previously been sold to ZDFneo in Germany, CBC in Canada, RTP2 in Portugal, Kanal 11 in Estonia and Fox Crime Italy, among other broadcasters.
Now that we are deep into September, new dramas, and new seasons of established series, are being launched on a pretty regular basis. It is, however, becoming increasingly difficult to identify winners and losers on the basis of their opening ratings.
As we’ve noted previously in this column, so many people are now time-shifting dramas, or watching them on non-traditional platforms, that it can take three or four weeks for the dust to settle and consistent viewing patterns to establish themselves.
The fragmentation of viewing audiences partially explains why so many dramas in the past week or two have opened with comparatively low ratings. In the UK, new series of Downton Abbey and Doctor Who both underperformed on opening night, while in the US the majority of new and returning shows delivered unspectacular ratings.
Gotham, NCIS: LA, Castle, Minority Report and Scream Queens were all at the low-to-moderate end of expectations (although host network Fox is pretty confident that Gotham will recover once time-shifted viewing is factored in).
There are exceptions, of course. Some shows are so hot that people just aren’t willing to delay their viewing enjoyment. The stand-out example of this is Fox’s Empire, which attracted 16.2 million viewers and a 6.7 rating among adults 18-49 for its season two premiere. That figure is the show’s second-best rating ever and confirms Empire’s status as the network show to beat. To put it in context, the only entertainment series on US TV to have drawn a higher 18-49 rating for an episode this year is AMC’s The Walking Dead, which returns to the airwaves on October 11.
Empire is such a strong performer that it was used by Fox as the lead in for a new pathology-based drama called Rosewood, starring Morris Chestnut. Rosewood did pretty well as a result but the early critical reviews of the show suggest that it will take more than a scheduling favour from Empire to sustain it. Remember, this is the age of ultimate choice where nothing will make an audience watch a show if they aren’t convinced.
From Fox’s perspective, the beauty of Empire is the way its audience grew so strongly in the first season. Having started with just under 10 million viewers for episode one, it rose to 13-14 million by the middle of the first season. By the end, it had leapt to 17.62 million.
The lesson is that you don’t have to hit extraordinary heights with the first episode. But you do need two things: firstly, a big enough launch platform to generate momentum and, secondly, a strong enough story to gather new fans as you progress.
So which of this year’s new shows stand a chance of replicating Empire’s success? NBC’s Blindspot has had an encouraging start. After a good early buzz over summer, it launched with 10.6 million viewers and a 3.1 rating among 18-49s. Given everything we’ve previously said about alternative viewing patterns, that’s a pretty good performance. If there is a challenge for Blindspot it will be to sustain the strength of its opening premise: a naked woman is found in a bag in Times Square, her memory gone but her body tattooed with clues to future crimes. This is exactly the kind of show that will either deliver on its promise or lose steam after three or four episodes if viewers tire of the central premise.
CBS’s Limitless also rated quite well (9.8 million viewers at 10pm, a 1.8 rating). Based on the movie of the same name, it was helped by the fact that it featured Bradley Cooper, the star of the film. An IMDb rating of 8.5 suggests that the show’s early adopters quite like the show, so it will be interesting to see how it fares once Cooper is no longer involved in the story. For those not familiar with Limitless, it centres on a drug that enables users to unlock 100% of their brain functionality. In the CBS TV series, this is employed as the basis of an FBI procedural storytelling format.
The dynamics around new dramas are usually volatile, because it’s not always clear what factors will motivate viewers to tune in. But things are generally more predictable for established franchises such as Downton Abbey, which returned to ITV in the UK on Sunday September 20 at 21.00.
After the loyalty demonstrated by the audience over the past five years, the show would probably have expected to see pretty strong ratings as Downton-starved fans rushed to enjoy what will be the last season ever. Instead, season six of Downton Abbey delivered its lowest overnight audience ever: 7.6 million. This is well down on last year’s opening episode, which brought in 8.4 million. The last time Downton dropped this low was for its first ever episode in 2010 (7.7 million).
Low, of course, is a slightly unfair word to use. Downton still beat all its rivals and also massively out-performed ITV’s slot average (35.5% share against 21.3%). Still, it does raise the question where did the Downton fans go? There are a few possibilities.
Firstly, there is the time-shifting point. This opening episode was an extended 90-minute special, so audiences may have decided to bank the show rather than stay up late on Sunday night. Secondly, the promotional build-up to the series may have missed its mark – there was a lot of early PR buzz but my household still managed to miss it, despite being fans. So maybe ITV failed to get its new-series signposting right. Thirdly, the audience may have been put off by the fact that this has already been set up as the final season. While that may seem like a way of generating excitement, it can also have an enervating effect as audiences wonder whether it’s worth tuning in. And finally, writer Julian Fellowes may have judged the show’s sell-by date just right. Perhaps the audience is getting a little weary of Downton’s cosseted worldview and its lack of zombies.
As outlined at the start of this piece, September is when most shows start. But a few are also coming to a close after a summer run. One show that emerged from this period in good shape is OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network’s The Have and the Have Nots. The show, which follows the dynamic between the rich and powerful Cryer family and the hired help who work in their Savannah mansion, is created, written, directed and executive produced by Tyler Perry. The season three finale attracted 3.7 million viewers, making it the most watched telecast in the network’s history. It was then followed by another Tyler Perry show, If Loving You is Wrong, which picked up a healthy 2.9 million viewers. Both shows were also among the top cable performers among women.
Elsewhere, US cable network TNT has announced that it is cancelling Proof, in which a female surgeon is challenged to explore whether there could be an afterlife. Over the course of the show, she transforms from being a sceptic to a reluctant believer.
The first season of the show rated reasonably well but its audience skewed towards older demographics. This was probably the killer blow, given that TNT/TBS’s recently appointed president Kevin Reilly has talked about “sharpening the point of view and being even more adventurous in our programming choices.” Speaking at the channel’s Upfronts in May, he said: “As we expand our portfolio, viewers should expect some very daring shows, some of which will not appeal to all of our current viewers but will be a lightning rod to attract new viewers.”
Finally, Doctor Who’s ratings make for interesting reading. In the UK, the show’s new season opened with just 4.6 million viewers on BBC1, down from 6.8 million for episode one last year. But in the US, the same episode did extremely well for BBC America, delivering double-digit growth from season eight across all key demos in live-plus-same-day ratings. The premiere episode ranks as Doctor Who’s biggest season premiere ever in the adult 18-49 demo, which nearly doubled the season eight average. The debut also saw increased social engagement and reigned as the most social drama of the week leading up to the premiere.
The US airing delivered two million total viewers, 1.1 million of which were adults 18-49. “Doctor Who is unlike anything else on television, a storied franchise that is as fresh and contemporary as ever, with brilliant writing and superb performances,” said Sarah Barnett, president of BBC America. “New and returning Doctor Who fans tuned into the live premiere in record numbers.”
The TV industry is constantly being told that it is out of touch with the teen audience, which now spends so much of its leisure time snacking content on mobile or immersed in social media. So it was interesting to see which scripted shows came out on top at the Teen Choice Awards, a Fox TV event that invites teens to vote for their favourite stars and shows across a range of categories.
In the Best TV Drama category, the winner was Pretty Little Liars, with Castle, Empire, The Fosters, Grey’s Anatomy and Nashville named on the shortlist.
In the Breakout Show category, the winner was Empire, with Blackish, iZombie, Jane the Virgin and Younger also nominated (also on the latter shortlist was Becoming Us, an ABC Family reality show with a transgender theme).
So this week we’ve decided to give a shout-out to the writers and creators who seem to have their fingers on the teen pulse.
Pretty Little Liars In previous columns we’ve commented on the huge social media following established by this ABC Family show, created by I Marlene King. King is already committed to two more series of PLL (which is based on books by Sara Shepard) and also made one series of a spin-off called Ravenswood.
Going forward, she has been signed up to adapt Danielle Vega horror novel The Merciless as a film. She is also developing another Shepard novel, The Perfectionists, as a TV series for ABC Family.
Castle is a crime drama that has been airing on ABC since 2009. Now up to 151 episodes, it was created by Andrew Marlowe and focuses on the love-hate relationship between a homicide detective and a mystery novelist. Marlowe cut his teeth on movies such as Air Force One, End of Days and Hollow Man and is now developing new ideas with ABC Studios. In 2014, the prime responsibility for Castle shifted to David Amann, whose own track record includes Three Rivers, Without a Trace, Crossing Jordan and The X-Files. Amann will not, however, be involved with season eight of Castle, with no news yet about his replacement as showrunner.
Empire is arguably the biggest breakout series of the last year. A Fox show that focuses on a hip-hop music business, it was created by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong. There was big news regarding Daniels this week, with reports that he is writing, directing and executive producing a new music drama pilot for Fox called Star.
Fox was impressed enough by Daniels’ idea to order a pilot based solely on his outline. Fox TV Group chairman and CEO Dana Walden said of Star: “Like Empire, it’s set against the backdrop of the music business but from a different perspective.”
Another ABC Family show, The Fosters follows the lives of the Foster family, consisting of an interracial lesbian couple raising a blended family of biological, adopted and foster children. Now in its third run, it was created by Peter Paige and Bradley Bredeweg, who still write the opening and closing episodes of each season (the rest being penned by a large writing team).
Paige is actually better known as an actor, having appeared in series such as Queer As Folk, Will & Grace, Grey’s Anatomy and Bones. He and Bredeweg teamed up again as writers on Tut, the Spike miniseries, alongside fellow writer Michael Vickerman.
ABC’s country music drama was created by Callie Khouri, who won an Academy Award in 1992 for the Thelma & Louise screenplay. Until Nashville, she mostly worked in movies, writing films such as Something to Talk About, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Mad Money.
Recently Khouri has shared responsibility for key episodes with Dee Johnson, whose many credits include Melrose Place, Commander in Chief and The Good Wife. She was also showrunner on season two of Boss.
This long-running ABC series is the creation of Shonda Rhimes – click here for DQ’s in-depth look at the showrunner’s prodco ShondaLand.
Blackish is a sitcom that centres on an upper-middle-class African-American family. Recently renewed for a second season, it was created by Kenya Barris, whose previous credits include The Game, I Hate My Teenage Daughter and Are We There Yet?.
Current projects in the works from Barris include the movie Barbershop 3 and an untitled ‘girl’s trip’ project for Universal that he will co-write with Tracy Oliver, his partner on Barbershop 3.
This CW series was developed by Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero-Wright and is based on a comic book series of the same name. Thomas has been writing and creating series in the teen/young-adult space for two decades, with credits including Dawson’s Creek, Veronica Mars and 90210.
Ruggiero-Wright also worked on Veronica Mars and counts Dirty Sexy Money among her credits. iZombie recently secured a second-season pick-up.
Jane the Virgin Jane the Virgin was created by Jennie Snyder Urman, whose recent credits include Emily Owens MD, 90210 and, a few years back, Gilmore Girls.
Younger is a TV Land series about a 40-year-old recently divorced mother who gets a makeover and passes herself off as a 26-year-old. Recently commissioned for a second season, it was created by Darren Star, whose credits include Melrose Place, Beverly Hills 90210 and Sex and the City – all of which he also created.
So what can we learn from the tastes of US teenagers? Well, the really inspiring thing to note is the emphatic support for diversity in this mix. Black showrunners, gay showrunners and feminist showrunners all appear in the above list, writing about the widest possible array of characters. The clear message is that US teens are running ahead of the curve in the pursuit of diversity and social equality.