showrunner event

UK television writers explore life as a US showrunner

On Monday 16 November 2019 the WGGB brought to together over 100 working TV writers to discuss the changing face of British TV writing and what adopting the US showrunner model would really mean for our industry.

Curated by Emma Frost (The Spanish Princess), the line-up of speakers offered a wealth of insight and experience. They included: Jeff Melvoin (Designated Survivor, Killing Eve 3), Matthew Graham (Life on Mars), Rob Williams (The Man In The High Castle, Victim), Jed Mercurio (Bodyguard, Line of Duty) and a video message from Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall.

Melvoin is an experienced US showrunner and chair of the prestigious WGA showrunners’ programme. He gave a potted version of the training programme, comparing the differences in the US and UK systems – the primary difference being that the status of the writer in US production is much higher. Indeed, it is the non-writing producers who answer to the writer and not vice versa.

With great power, however, comes great responsibility. The showrunner is expected to be at the studio/set all day, every day while being responsible for the working environment of the other writers. Every day the showrunner must be all things to everyone.

Not surprisingly, then, US showrunners are much better paid than UK writers, but the studios certainly get their money’s worth. Melvoin’s breakdown of the timeline of writing an episode showed that it can be an extremely efficient system for writing high-volume series and this may be something UK producers and writers will need to consider as commissioners look for longer-running series.

Commissioners and producers, however, will also have to improve their work rate as their American peers rarely have to wait longer than a couple of days for studio notes – a revelation that caused great amusement among the UK contingent.

Frustration at the lack of efficiency and reasonable response times was something that the other speakers bemoaned. It seems that even the top writers can wait months for a response to their ideas – a comforting and annoying revelation for those in the audience waiting for that phone call.

Photos and words: Lisa Holdsworth