The ascension of the kings of television part three: Rise of the ‘showrunner’

How did we get from Bonanza to Deadwood? In the final part of his three-part series, Paul of Chin Stroker VS Punter explores the rise of the showrunner and how the studios learned to trust TV writers.

Miss the first two parts? Read one here and two here first.

With HBO and shows like The Sopranos dominating the space, network television was in a very different place by the early 2000s. More mature fare was attracting big audiences and critical success, though this new era still owed a massive debt to shows like Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue – although this was on premium cable, rather than broadcast TV.

As Variety TV columnist Brian Lowry put it: “Producers Steven Bochco and David Milch’s [NYPD Blue] didn’t revolutionise television – at least, not in the way many foresaw. And while the program’s history and success over 12 seasons merit analysis and even celebration, the real revelation is that two decades later, the ground breaking series remains an outlier for broadcast TV – where almost nothing, even now, is bluer than “Blue.”

However, this should not diminish the effect NYPD Blue had on network television audiences, whetting viewer appetites for what was not forthcoming on broadcast channels. Bochco himself said: “I suppose I was naive, I thought NYPD Blue would open a door to more adult, mainstream programming.” Lowry states that despite its success, the series remained an an exception that had little to no impact on broadcast standards. However, it did increase market share for channels like HBO and drive these channels to push the boundaries to serve new audience tastes. Writer on Hill Street Blues and co-creator of NYPD Blue David Milch was one artist pushing those televisual boundaries. For NYPD Blue, Milch’s realistic dialogue became known as ‘Milchspeak’. “When you use profanity,” Milch explained, “if the metrics aren’t right it sounds stupid. You find most people in the street speak ‘Milchspeak.’ Or I should be more humble and say that my characters speak like people in the street.”

Yet it was this realistic language (along with excessive nudity) that caused the most friction between the network and the writer/creators. The level of realism seemed to breed fear at the network and Bochco often found himself having to go to bat for Milch’s dialogue. But Bochco chose his fights well, as his victories over content often bore fruit when it came to hitting those all important ratings. Milch has said the use of profanity throughout his dialogue aided the rhythm of his writing, while also lending an air of believability to the show. Cop shows in the past were always hamstrung by broadcasting standards when it came to language, with hardened criminals that would mind their P’s and Q’s a tough sell for any audience. When the broadcasting standards in television relaxed in the 1990’s, writers like Milch could have characters swear just as much as people do in everyday life. This instantly gave a sense of realism and familiarity to the viewer that wasn’t present very often in network television drama. By the early 2000’s David Milch was a writer in demand writing for NYPD Blue, Murder One and Brooklyn South for CBS simultaneously. Milch would eventually join the creative exodus to cable television and while writers continued to drive quality drama, network television appeared to be losing its monopoly as newer platforms began to splinter market shares.

In 2003, Milch – having finished his network TV writing duties – approached HBO with the idea for a series set in Rome based around an exploration of the Cross of Christianity as the organising principal of a newly forming society. Unfortunately HBO had a project in the works called ‘Rome’ and so with a little re-working the setting became the Dakota plains and the organising principle became gold… and Deadwood was born. A gritty, raw and realistic show, Deadwood blended history and fiction into a wonderfully layered drama that transcended the Western genre it inhabited. In an interview, Milch said Deadwood was about “a fiction that is agreed upon”. In other words, the history of gold is that of society coming together and universally agreeing a mineral excavated from the ground is worth a certain amount. He was fascinated with the supposed history of the west and the perception of gold as answer to all life’s problems, which was explored throughout the show.

While only lasting three seasons, Deadwood earned wide critical acclaim and a loyal fan base, also winning eight Emmy Awards (in 28 nominations) and one Golden Globe, plus numerous other awards for cast and crew. Variety TV critic Brian Lowry described Deadwood as “a vulgar, gritty, at times downright nasty take on the Old West brimming with all the dark genius that series creator and screenwriter extraordinaire David Milch has at his fingertips.”

The popularity of adult, quality, serialised drama was growing – and at the heart of all the popular new shows was the writer as the creative driving force. And soon, this modernised role would face another evolution to that of ‘showrunner’. Arguably the closest thing to an auteur in television, the showrunner is responsible for all aspects of writing and production on a TV show. He, she (or sometimes ‘they’) not only write the show, but must ensure each episode is on time and on budget for both the studio producing the series and the network broadcasting it. With such a high pressure role, a competent showrunner can make a huge difference when it comes to managing not just the creative aspects of the show, but the relationship between network and studio. According to Shawn Ryan, creator of FX’s The Shield: “If the network trusts you to do the job you’ll get a lot of creative freedom, if they sense a void in leadership they’ll rush in to fill it.”

With writers in such a pivotal position within the industry, the position of show runner has seen them become an essential part of how the landscape of modern television has been shaped. The medium has undergone many changes in recent times, from the proliferation of reality TV shows and an increase in the number of online, satellite and cable channels, to the new dominance of streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime. However, with more technology and platforms, there is now even more opportunity and demand for high quality drama, with new talent able to emerge through amateur or lower budget projects that are easier to produce than ever before.

The professional writer is as important as ever, vital in drawing large audiences to shows, whether on cable, streaming or network television services. Quality written drama and comedy remains one of the most sought after ingredients to every schedule and, with bigger budgets, greater marketing presence and the new trend of releasing whole seasons in one go, the pressure has never been greater for showrunners. All of which has seen writers cemented their position as the kings of television.