It is becoming an annual tradition: after pilots are shot and delivered, there is a scramble to find showrunners. More and more newly picked up series are in a need of a seasoned showrunner every year. Yesterday, NBC picked up four pilots to series. Half of them, dramas Allegiance and State Of Affairs, don’t have a showrunner. Similarly, Fox picked up three pilots to series and ordered 10 more episodes for comedy Mulaney. Of the four also half, drama Empire and comedy Mulaney, have required a showrunner hire. All four were were picked up to series without a showrunner locked in. Mulaney, which was ordered to series with a six-episode order in October, has since tapped veteran Jon Pollack for the job, working with creator-star John Mulaney. I hear Patrick Massett and John Zinman had been approached for Allegiance, written-directed by George Nolfi, Tom Szentgyorgyi is eyed for State Of Affairs if The Mentalist is cancelled, which appears likely, while the field for hip-hop drama Empire, written by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong and directed by Daniels, appears wide open. State Of Affairs has no writing producer on board after Alexi Hawley, who penned the original script, left, and Joe Carnahan, who received high marks for rewriting and directing the pilot, was only contracted for the pilot as he is busy with The Blacklist. Meanwhile, Empire and Allegiance hail from top feature auspices with no series background. Bringing fresh TV talent (Mulaney, Hawley) or feature talent (Daniels, Strong, Nolfi) to TV is to be applauded. It’s the lack of showrunner talent to support their vision that is alarming.
It’s not that yesterday’s series orders came as a surprise. All pilots that received pickups at Fox and NBC this week had been early favorites, with orders appearing all but certain weeks ago when the showrunner searches started. There just aren’t that many available showrunners to choose from for a match on a specific project. Why is that?
Industry insiders trace the problem back a decade ago when the studios cut back on staff writers, breaking the merit based system for growing writing producers. The very few staff writer jobs started going to mandatory minority hires and friends of writers or writers assistants. While there is nothing wrong with that, the overall dearth of entry level positions readily available to up-and-coming scribes has resulted in fewer writers getting trained as they go up the ranks, creating a big discrepancy with a lot of senior-level writers and green ones and very few middle-level writers with some experience who are ready to take on a show. With top-level showrunners retiring or moving to cable, there are few writers equipped to take their place. Cable has been a big A-list talent drainer, especially on the drama side. For instance yesterday, as Allegiance, Empire and State Of Affairs were getting picked up, a very experienced showrunner, John Shiban, who started his career in broadcast on The X Files, signed on to run Starz’s Da Vinci’s Demons.
The showrunner shortage has driven up the prices of writers with showrunner experience/potential, with the studios snapping up a number of those in the past month to prepare for new series staffing. It was the successful pairing of young creator Jon Bokenkamp and experienced showrunner John Eisendrath that has helped make NBC’s The Blacklist successful. Some time, novice creators need just a little help, like The Good Wife creators Michelle and Robert King and Suits creator Aaron Korsh who took the reigns of their shows after working with seasoned showrunners, Dee Johnson and Sean Jablonski, respectively, for only the first 13 episodes. If only more such veteran showrunners were available to help first-time creators spread their wings…