Thanks to Nick for the heads up.
Television makes its own stars -- that's a showbiz truism from the
days of Milton Berle and Sid Caesar. But these days television is
delivering a new breed of star -- the celebrity showrunner -- which is
changing the way networks tubthump their shows and deepening the way
fans connect with shows.
In some cases, such showrunners are becoming as well-known to fans as
the shows' thesps. Think J. J. Abrams, Seth MacFarlane, Matthew
Weiner, Joss Whedon, Alan Ball, Ronald D. Moore, Shawn Ryan and Shonda
Rhimes. Up-and-comers in this realm include "Glee's" Ryan Murphy; Kurt
Sutter, leader of "Sons of Anarchy"; Jason Katims, steward of
"Parenthood" and "Friday Night Lights"; Bryan Fuller, of the
now-departed "Pushing Daisies"; and "Modern Family" co-creator Steve
Not since Rod Serling fronted "The Twilight Zone" have
writer-producers enjoyed such a large presence in the spotlight. Exec
producers and writers are the marquee players in the podcasts and
behind-the-scenes videos and episode recaps that many nets feature on
their websites in an effort to grab more time (and ad impressions)
with viewers. For scribes, the chance to have a more public role in
connection with a show can open doors to career-enhancing
opportunities, and it can give fans a richer appreciation of who their
favorite writers are as people. Even showrunners themselves are
following other showrunners' Twitter feeds to learn more about their
Sutter, the creator/exec producer of FX's hard-charging biker drama,
regularly downloads what's on his mind at his SutterInk.com blog, as
well as his Twitter feed and Facebook page. In addition to stoking fan
interest in his show, Sutter's recent musings have ranged from venting
anger at NBC for its treatment of Conan O'Brien (who has a standing
invitation to appear on "Anarchy") to his thoughts on why men like
Tiger Woods and Jesse James cheat on their wives.
Rhimes (left), creator/exec producer ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" and
"Private Practice," is a Twitter maven, frequently answering fan
questions about everything from the show to her family life to her
childhood. (A sample from March 20: Question: "What was the first
concert you ever went to?" Answer: "Duran Duran.") Rhimes and her
"Grey's Anatomy" writers also post substantial discourses on every
episode of the hit sudser on the Grey Matter blog hosted by ABC.com.
(Moreover, Rhimes for several years has been part of a group that
live-blogs the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee on the pop
culture-centric blog A List of Things Thrown 5 Minutes Ago.)
Of course, the explosion of social media and the ability of
writer-producers to speak in Twitter time to an infinite number of
fans have done wonders to raise the profile of showrunners outside of
industry circles. But just as important has been the exponential
increase in mainstream media coverage of all aspects of showbiz:
Entertainment Weekly made Whedon a star alongside Sarah Michelle
"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" blossomed in the late 1990s. The New York
Times anointed David Chase at the peak of the newspaper's worship of
"The Sopranos." More recently, Weiner has been put on a pedestal by
outlets that can't get enough of "Mad Men." The increased exposure of
the showrunner's central role in making TV series has fueled
sophisticated fans' interest in learning more about them.
The apex of the contempo star showrunner trend may be "Lost" stewards
Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, in part because of the mysterious
nature of the show. "Lost's" fervent fan base hangs on every word of
the duo, known as "Darlton" in the fan-o-sphere, because they're the
keepers of the show's intricate mythology. When the final season of
"Lost" bowed Feb. 2, it wasn't Matthew Fox or Josh Holloway who made
an appearance the same night on ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live." It was
Darlton, to the delight of "Lost" fans. Lindelof and Cuse got a
standing ovation from the audience.
ABC has been only too happy to incorporate the "Lost" leaders into its
marketing and promo initiatives for the show -- especially this year
as it winds down to what the Alphabet hopes will be a blockbuster
finale. "We've been planning the final season for over a year, and
putting Damon and Carlton on 'Jimmy' was by design," says Mike Benson,
co-head of marketing for ABC. "Nobody can articulate the mythology of
the show better."
Nets and studios have been encouraging exec producers to embrace the
seemingly limitless promotional opportunities offered by blogging,
Internet vid segments, Twitter, Facebook and the like. After all, a
showrunner who builds a strong following and attracts media attention
is another form of branding for a show.
"I would put any of our creators out there," says Dana Walden,
chairman of 20th Century Fox Television., which has high-profile
showrunners under its roof. "I think fans want additional avenues to
learn about their favorite shows."
There's a double-edged blade to this new pursuit, however: The same
tools that gather fans under a virtual tent in support of a show can
become a rallying point for venom directed at a network or studio
should the showrunner have conflicts or if the cancellation ax swings.
Or on the flip side, if fans are dissatisfied with the creative
direction of a show, there are plenty of places to trash it and the
production team. (Think "Heroes" and its steady decline in ratings and
"In the days of yore, you didn't have to worry about these things,"
says Hart Hanson, creator and exec producer of Fox's "Bones" and an
active Twitter-er with nearly 19,000 followers. "You got your fan mail
or your hate mail, and you always had to listen to the studio and the
network. But now there's this bigger voice out there."
Hanson (right) was drawn into Twitter at the suggestion of thesp
Stephen Fry, who has guested in a number of "Bones" segs and
encouraged Hanson to use it as a promo tool. Hanson now gets more
missives via Twitter than he can keep up with, even as he checks in as
much as four to six times in a typical day. "Bones" fans are not shy
about telling him what they like and don't like about the show -- in
"It's a constant question I ask myself: How much to pay attention to
them? Are they representative of the audience? They certainly don't
mind hollering at me," Hanson says. "I had to develop a very thick
Some showrunners actively court the spotlight, while others wrestle
with the pros and cons of becoming something of a public figure. Some
seem to be naturally at ease with having a two-way conversation with
fans and followers via the arm's-length forum of the web and Twitter.
"Getting into podcasts off iTunes," Ryan tweeted on March 27. "Who's
got some good entertaining recommendations for me?"
Throughout pilot season, the producer has kept his followers up to
date on developments on his Fox network drama pilot "Ride-Along" and
upcoming FX series "Terriers.": "More Ride-Along casting news: The
wonderfully talented Billy Lush ("Generation Kill") has been cast as
Liam," Ryan reported to his followers shortly after midnight March 18.
Sometimes the topics of discourse even go beyond the scope of typical
show chatter. Musing on the recent headlines about extramarital
escapades by Tiger Woods and Jesse James, Sutter noted candidly that
he ended his first marriage quickly because he was afraid of straying:
"I was trying to keep my brain one step ahead of my dick," he wrote in
a March 18 post.
A few writers and producers have expanded their fan interaction beyond
social media to real-world get-togethers. MacFarlane, who has built an
animation empire on Fox's air with the unsinkable "Family Guy,"
"American Dad" and "The Cleveland show," has done live stage shows and
last November fronted his own comedy-variety spesh on Fox., co-hosted
with Alex Borstein: "Family Guy Presents: Seth & Alex's Almost Live
For others, however, the prospect of relocating from the writers'
rooms and edit bays to serve as the public face of a show can be
"Lost's" Lindelof and Cuse have become TV personalities in their own
right. They've hosted multiple "Lost" clip specials for the Alphabet,
made dozens of public appearances (including SRO sessions at
Comic-Con), are central to the show's running podcasts and also have a
presence on Twitter and Facebook.
"We never imagined we would become the face of the show, and we
certainly didn't have expectations about achieving celebrity status,"
says "Lost's" Cuse. "Going on camera was definitely a leap for us. It
happened only because we could offer detail on the narrative."
Lindelof has come to appreciate his unusual status as a star-showrunner.
"This is the best form of notoriety, and I call it that as opposed to
'celebrity,'?" Lindelof says. "We are only known by people interested
in the show. I get recognized at the ArcLight (theater complex in
Hollywood). It seems every usher and employee at the concession stand
is a 'Lost' fan. But for the most part, it's incredibly rare when
someone recognizes me on the street."
Hanson also emphasizes that he keeps his newfound recognition in
perspective. His is a popular feed among other showrunners, which has
allowed him to make connections within the industry that would have
been otherwise hard to cultivate. Julie Plec, exec producer of CW's
"Vampire Diaries," follows Hanson, Rhimes and others with the same
eager interest that "Vampire Diaries" fans follow her tweets.
"I've got about 20,000 followers and that sounds like a ton of
people," Hanson says. "I think most people in this world haven't got a
clue who I am and don't care, and I'm extremely happy with that."
The pure promotional value of having showrunners wired in to social
networks is hard to quantify. Hanson notes that his Twitter feed has a
strong following among TV reporters and critics, and that has helped
keep "Bones" top of mind among an important constituency.
Plec and her fellow "Vampire Diaries" exec producer Kevin Williamson
are besotted with Twitter and its ability to keep them plugged into
the show's hardcore fan base. The writing staff of "Diaries" makes a
point of watching their Twitter feeds every Thursday evening during
the 8 p.m. East Coast airing of the show.
"The whole TV and film industry is built on focus groups and test
screenings," Plec says. "In my opinion, watching a Twitter feed during
an episode of our show is a built-in focus group. They react to
everything -- and it's fascinating because (over time) you get to
witness your fan community as it builds and grows."
Plec is a good example of a rising-star showrunner who is making a
name for herself in and outside of industry circles much faster than
she would without the world of Web fandom. It all starts with the fact
that she's on a successful series, but then the Twitterati take it to
"To have a community of people out there who say 'Hey, I can tell
Julie Plec wrote that scene' -- it's positive feedback that makes you
feel good," she says. "And I know how great it is to have this kind of
direct access to someone that you look up to and admire."
Thanks to Nick for the heads up.