December 02, 2015
Academy Foundation

Prepping with the Pros

For college profs, lessons learned in Hollywood resonate in the classroom.

Libby Slate

Self-cloning may not be a job requirement for showrunners, but it couldn’t hurt to be able to claim that talent.

After all, the top job on a series often demands being in three places at once — “when you can only be in two.”

So noted Alex Sepiol, senior vice-president of original scripted series for USA Network, at the Television Academy Foundation’s recent Faculty Seminar, which annually unites college educators from around the country for an extreme closeup on the television industry.

Sepiol moderated a November 11 panel on showrunning that featured Alex Cary and Chip Johannessen. Both are former executive producers on Showtime’s Homeland who left the show for their own development deals. Cary executive-produced TNT’s Legends and previously was showrunner for Fox’s Lie to Me; Johannessen ran Showtime’s Dexter.

Short of cloning, delegation “is the key to survival,” Johannessen told the 20 instructors who had come to L.A. from campuses in Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin, as well as California.

“There are not enough hours in the day to get everything done,” he said. “As a showrunner, you’re probably not good at everything, so finding people with those strengths and assigning them to do those things is key.”

In staffing a writers’ room, Cary started with the obvious — “You have to hire good writers” — adding that they must also be able to “contribute good ideas in a relatively ego-free manner and be able to riff off other people’s ideas.”

But that’s not all: they must “deliver first drafts that are consistently well-written and entertaining. That’s so you can give the show a voice. You need people who can surrender to the show and have a manner you can trust.”

In structuring an overall story — which these days is apt to be serialized rather than stand-alone — “the most important thing is the people in the story, and the most important thing about the people is their stories,” Cary said. “It’s important how they connect. If they don’t have a story, cut them out.”

When it comes to input from outside the room, Cary noted that showrunners should consider network notes as an effort to be helpful and collaborative, not as criticism.

Some producers read reviews; some don’t. As for viewer comments on social media, sometimes showrunners do pay attention. “We’d like to think we’re immune,” Cary said. “But if enough people are screaming [about something], you might like to take a look at that.”

It’s crucial as a showrunner to engage the cast, Johannessen said. “You want to be listening to your actors, and definitely your lead actors. If you get on set and an actor says, ‘I’m not going to do this,’ you’ve really mismanaged something.”

Gaining the stars’ confidence in the writing makes everything easier and brings the writing to another level, Cary added: “They’ll take [the material] and run with it, and you’ll find things you probably never knew you were writing.”

The showrunners’ panel was just one stop on a busy day that also included a discussion of below-the-line jobs and a tour of DreamWorks Animation. Held November 9-13, the 28th annual Faculty Seminar also presented panels on such topics as network programming, pilot production, directing, development, securing rights, as well as the guilds.

Watch excerpts from the Faculty Seminar's "Making of a Pilot" panel.

Participants also attended a taping of ABC’s Dancing with the Stars and a post-show discussion with the director and executive producer, toured Warner Bros. Studios and socialized at an industry mixer. 

April Lundy, an assistant professor of film and television studies at Clark Atlanta University, loved the showrunners’ panel. “I’m a storyteller,” she said, having produced and directed documentaries, reality programs and music videos.

“To be able to see how showrunners manage that storytelling process is enlightening.  Learning that they didn’t now use the [formerly traditional] three-act structure blew my mind. I’ll definitely take that back to my students.

“I’ve been reveling in the seminar,” she said. “This is vital for anyone who teaches media studies.”

Also reveling was Mark Saunders, a senior teaching special instructor at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. “I’m walking around wide-eyed,” he said. “It’s been an amazing experience, seeing the behind the scenes — such as at Dancing with the Stars — seeing how hard everyone works and how smart they are.

"At the business panel, [Reelz executive Rob Swartz] tied everything together as an ecosystem. I hadn’t thought about television like that before.”

For his part, Frank L. Johnson, Jr., a professor of mass communication and digital media at Atlanta Metropolitan State College, pronounced every offering “awesome” and found the below-the-line panel particularly useful. “I don’t think enough students understand the opportunities for jobs below the line,” he remarked.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity to come here,” Johnson added. “What I’m teaching will be current and relevant to the students when they start their careers.”

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