I can’t tell you how many times people ask me, “How do I get to be a showrunner?” Maybe the best way to answer this question is to explain what a showrunner does.
In films, the director is king or queen. But in television, it’s the writer.
Television requires a script every week, sometimes up to 26 per season. TV is a story-eating machine, and the best person to feed this beast is a writer. “Showrunner” is not a title you’ll ever see on the screen. The official designation is Executive Producer. A showrunner is responsible for everything -- from script, to casting, to wardrobe, production design, and budget.
Nothing happens without their approval.
Given the soaring cost of production, showrunners have essentially become CEOs of multi-million dollar enterprises. (FYI, not every executive producer is a showrunner. Welcome to TV where many titles have meanings that only make sense to insiders.)
So how do you earn the right to make the big decisions?
There are two ways: you can come up through the ranks in the writers’ room OR you can sell an original pilot that gets on the air.
1) Rise Through The Ranks
There are four entry-level jobs in a writers' office that offer a path to becoming a Staff Writer. They are: Writers’ Production Assistant (P.A.), Assistant to the Showrunner, Script Coordinator, and Writers’ Assistant. (I’ll describe these jobs in more detail in a future blog.) These are non-writing positions that put you in close proximity to the writing staff and give you a leg up on the rest of the world when it comes to landing a Staff Writer’s job.
For tips on landing those first gigs, check out my previous posts "How To Give Good Meeting... and Get The Job - Part One" And "The 4 Strategies You Need to Nail a Meeting (How to Give Good Meeting - Part Two)" Once in the writers’ room, there is a ladder of promotions and titles designated by the Writers Guild of America.
- Staff Writer
- Story Editor
- Executive Story Editor
- Supervising Producer
- Co-Executive Producer
- Executive Producer
Moving up this ladder can happen quickly or slowly, depending on a show’s success and/or how well you do your job.
In this “climb the ranks” model, a showrunner will have moved through these levels, gaining years of experience in the writers’ room, on set, and in post-production. Then, if they sell a pilot that gets ordered to series, they will be asked to run the show.
2) Sell An Original Pilot And Get it On The Air
If you have little experience in TV, but are fortunate enough to have written a fantastic pilot that gets bought, produced, and picked up to series, you will be paired with an experienced showrunner in Season 1. If you prove yourself to be an outstanding leader who can handle the demands of writing and producing a series, you may well be given the opportunity to run your own show in Season 2 or 3. If this happens, please apply to the WGA Showrunner Training Program, which I run.
Regardless of which path you take to become a showrunner, you must be both a talented writer and an effective manager to be successful. It’s a challenging juggling act to be both… but incredibly satisfying and rewarding.
Director of WGA's Showrunner Training Program, creator & Director of the CBS Diversity Writers Mentoring Program, international speaker and a leading expert on entertainment career strategies, Carole Kirschner teaches creative professionals how to navigate the often mystifying landscape of show business. Her book, Hollywood Game Plan: How to Land a Job in Film, TV and Digital Entertainment is a primer on how to break in and move up in the entertainment industry. Through her popular workshops, Carole teaches writers, producers, directors and executives the real world strategies that will help them not just succeed, but thrive.