In the parlance of the Hollywood television industry, a showrunner is a television series' executive producer who is also the head writer.
A showrunner's duties often combine those traditionally assigned to the head writer, executive producer, and script editor. In films, directors typically have creative control of a production — but in television, the showrunner always outranks the director. The showrunner is at the opposite end of the staff hierarchy from runners, who are the most junior members of a production team, though showrunners are sometimes (often humorously) called runners for short.
Traditionally, the executive producer of a television program was the chief executive, responsible for the show's creative direction and production. Over time, the title of executive producer was applied to a wider range of roles — from someone who arranges financing to someone who holds the title as an honorific with no management duties. The term showrunner was created to identify the producer who held ultimate management and creative authority for the program. The blog and book Crafty Screenwriting defines a showrunner as "the person responsible for all creative aspects of the show and responsible only to the network (and production company, if it's not [their] production company). The boss. Usually a writer."
Los Angeles Times columnist Scott Collins describes showrunners as:
"Hyphenates", a curious hybrid of starry-eyed artists and tough-as-nails operational managers. They're not just writers; they're not just producers. They hire and fire writers and crew members, develop story lines, write scripts, cast actors, mind budgets and run interference with studio and network bosses. It's one of the most unusual and demanding, right-brain/left-brain job descriptions in the entertainment world....[S]howrunners make – and often create – the show and now more than ever, shows are the only things that matter. In the "long tail" entertainment economy, viewers don't watch networks. They don't even care about networks. They watch shows. And they don't care how they get them.
An interview with Shane Brennan, the showrunner for NCIS and NCIS: Los Angeles, states that:
... the moniker was created to identify the producer who actually held ultimate management and creative authority for the program, given the way the honorific "executive producer" was applied to a wider range of roles. There's also the fact that anyone with any power wanted a producer's credit, including the leading actors, who often did no more than say the writers' lines. "It had got to the stage where it was incredibly confusing; there were so many production credits no one knew who was responsible."
Typically, the showrunner is the creator or co-creator of the series, but this is not always the case. In long-running shows, often the creator of the show moves on, and day-to-day responsibilities of showrunning fall to other writers or writing teams. Law & Order, ER, The Simpsons, The West Wing, Star Trek: The Next Generation, NYPD Blue, and Supernatural are all examples of long-running shows that went through multiple showrunners.
In 2007 The Writers Guild of Canada, the union representing screenwriters in Canada, established the Showrunner Award at the annual Canadian Screenwriting Awards. The first Showrunner Award was presented to Brad Wright, Executive Producer of Stargate Atlantis, and Stargate SG-1, in April 2007.
The concept of a showrunner, specifically interpreted as a writer or presenter with overall responsibility for a television production, began to spread to the British television industry in the first decade of the 21st century.
The first British comedy series to use the term was My Family (2000-11), which had several showrunners in succession. Initially, the show was overseen by creator Fred Barron from series 1–4. Ian Brown and James Hendrie took over for series 5, followed by American writer Tom Leopold for series 6. Former Cheers showrunner Tom Anderson was in charge from series 7 to the final series, series 11.
The first writer given the role of showrunner on a British primetime drama was Tony McHale, creator of Holby City, in 2005, although Jed Mercurio fulfilled a similar role on the less conspicuous medical drama Bodies (2004–2006). However, it was Russell T Davies' work on the 2005 revival of Doctor Who that brought the term to prominence in British television (to the extent that in 2009 a writer for The Guardian wrote that "Over here, the concept of 'showrunner' has only made it as far as Doctor Who").
Davies explained to Mark Lawson that he felt the role of the showrunner was to establish and maintain a consistent tone in a drama. Doctor Who remains the most prominent example of a British television programme with a showrunner, with Steven Moffat having taken over the post from Davies. However, the term has also been used in reference to other writer-producers, such as Tony Jordan on Moving Wallpaper and Echo Beach, Ann McManus on Waterloo Road, Adrian Hodges on Primeval and Jed Mercurio on Bodies, Line of Duty, and Critical.