It’s fair to say that show runners are well and truly on the agenda for the Australian television industry. It was the buzzword around the SPAA conference last November, and will be a major focus at this month’s Television Writers Studio, where the star guest is Glen Mazzara, show runner for The Walking Dead.
Mazzara, a veteran writer of long-form television series, notably on The Shield and Crash, is now one of the leading stalwarts of the show runner model, sharing the mantle with such esteemed company as Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan, Sons of Anarchy’s Kurt Sutter and The Shield’s own Shawn Ryan.
As he explains it, "it’s two different roles. You’re the head writer, who leads a writing team and is responsible for working with the directors, actors, writers, and editors, making all of the creative decisions for every episode, developing the character arcs over the entire season. You have a creative vision.
"You are then running the small production company responsible for producing the show. So you are responsible for the budgets, schedules, all of the day-to-day machinations of producing the show. You’re really the executive producer in charge of the series responsible for all creative and production issues."
Combining the creative and business aspects of the show into one overarching role helps to ensure unity of vision. "In any show that has a strong point of view, you need to have a singular vision," says Mazzara. "The goal is to get all of these talented people to buy into your vision and work with you."
It isn’t a new concept, Mazzara points out, although the term show runner has gained popularity and publicity in recent years. He refers to Hill Street Blues’ Steven Bochco and Miami Vice’s Michael Mann in the 1980s as pioneers of the show runner model. "It’s been around for a long time," he says.
Whereas in film the director is often the auteur, the show runner model works for TV because it puts the emphasis on the writer. "When you have continuing character arcs and you need scripts for a series of ten to 22 episodes, you need writers to track the consistencies and develop the arcs from week to week.
"Some writers are better at it than others. Writers have different strengths. Some are more comfortable just handling the writing aspects and turning over the production to others on their team. Some have a director-producer help them… Every show runner customises the role according to their strengths and needs."
Mazzara describes his own style as something like controlled chaos. "There’s a type of show running that tries to make the writing process as orderly as possible. It needs to be orderly because you’re producing complicated episodes. But the creative process can only be ordered and organised so much.
"I believe the creative process is sloppy and messy and surprising, and needs to be to be successful. So I have a style that accounts for that, where people are free to take chances, to play, and where things are organised hopefully well enough that you can make last minute changes and not throw the trains off the track."
When Mazzara spoke to IF Magazine he had just finished shooting season three of The Walking Dead and was looking forward to a Christmas break spent catching up some TV viewing, including The Wire – a show he skipped first time around because he "didn’t want to accidentally rip it off" while writing for The Shield.
"The TV audience is increasingly savvy – they’ve seen everything, they’re very quick to judge and evaluate and to try out new things and move on, and the online community is very active and people speak to each other. They really want something that they haven’t seen before," he says.
"The shows that are really succeeding right now are the shows that are taking chances. And that’s the TV writing that I enjoy watching, too: the work that pushes itself, that’s trying to say something new, that’s not just settling."
All of which will make fascinating fodder for Mazzara’s appearance at TWS. "I’ll be presenting on the role of a show runner, and how a writer room works," he says.
"American TV is incredibly collaborative, but that collaboration is in support of a particular vision. So it’s a unique type of art. I’m going to talk about that, and talk in particular about how The Walking Dead was developed.
"But I’d also love to talk about the nuts and bolts of how different shows are made. I was on The Shield for a long time, so I’d like to talk about how every show is different, and every show presents its own challenges. I don’t think there’s just one system that works for every show. There needs to be individuality."
The 2013 Television Writers Studio will take place in Melbourne from February 23-25, followed by Sydney from February 28 – March 2.