Show runners are running the show

The Baltimore Sun

HOLLYWOOD -- When the dust settles on the strike of 2007, we'll probably see it as a Hollywood turning point. No, not in the history of the Writers Guild of America, or of the studios and networks. It's a critical and historic shift for TV show runners.

The guild and the studios return to the bargaining table today, and there's probably a long road of negotiations ahead, with the strong likelihood that no clear "winner" will emerge. But when assessing the eventual outcome, look at the show runners, the executive producers who are in charge of television series. These are the writer-producers who are emerging as the dominant force of a slowly recombining TV industry. It's a business that's tilting its way toward new media. And show runners are at the center of it all.

Show runners hire and fire writers and crew members, develop story lines, write scripts, cast actors, mind budgets and run interference with studio and network bosses. It's one of the most unusual and demanding job descriptions in the entertainment world.

Sure, show runners always have had power that often extends well beyond their own shows. That's especially true of the industrious few who have had multiple series on the air simultaneously: David E. Kelley, Dick Wolf, John Wells, J.J. Abrams, Shonda Rhimes, Shawn Ryan, Seth MacFarlane and others.

But the strike is proving that show runners are beginning to call the industry's shots in ways that other traditional power sources - trade unions, studio bosses, network executives, agents - either cannot or will not. Indeed, TV writer-producers played a crucial back-channel role in pressuring the studios and the guild to come back to the bargaining table.

During the early days of the strike, show runners separated into two camps, so-called hawks and moderates. The hawks are sticking by the guild's strike rules, which forbid writers from even entering the gates of a struck company. The hawk position has found an emissary in Ryan, of The Shield and The Unit, who is a member of the guild's negotiating committee. The moderates have a prominent voice in Carlton Cuse, executive producer of Lost and also on the guild's negotiating committee, who said that to protect his series, he would do post-production work on eight episodes filmed before the strike.

It's tempting to view the existence of the two camps as a sign of writers' disunity. The very existence of a moderate camp could be construed as a sign of weakness.

On the other hand, show runners have more power than they did in past strikes. That's because TV is in the midst of earth-shattering technological change.

As for the guild, the pickets make for great news. But the WGA doesn't decide what goes down in Hollywood. The guilds are merely the tools that talent and management use to fine-tune their endlessly shifting relationship.

Which leaves us with the show runners, the one force in town whose power is unquestionably on the ascendancy. Why is that? Because show runners make - and often create - the shows, and shows are the only things that matter. Viewers don't watch networks. They watch shows. And they don't care how they get them.

That takes a lot of power from the networks and hands it to show runners. True, the studios still own the shows. But in the new economy, show runners have extra leverage.

Ninety percent of guild members may have authorized this strike, but you can be sure it never would have started without at least a wink and nudge from the few dozen show runners who matter.

And you know what? It's a safe bet it won't end until the show runners sign off on a deal.

Scott Collins writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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