In short, the executive producer who serves as the head writer. The longer answer is that the showrunner is the person who gives the show its tone and direction.
The initial showrunner is usually the creator (frequently the writer of the pilot
). As the years pass, the original showrunner may leave and a new one may join - this can often be a Jump the Shark
or Growing the Beard
Not to be confused with someone like a go-fer or someone who goes and get things for others - this person runs the show
- Danny Arnold: Barney Miller
- Donald P. Bellisario:
- Rick Berman and Brannon Braga: Star Trek: Enterprise (Seasons 1-3)
- Steven Bochco: Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, NYPD Blue
- Stephen J. Cannell: The Rockford Files, The A-Team, The Greatest American Hero (and most of his other series, in fact)
- David Chase: The Sopranos.
- Marc Cherry: Desperate Housewives
- David Greenwalt: Angel (Seasons 1-3. Co-creator with Joss Whedon, who remained on as writer and executive producer throughout all five seasons, but never became showrunner, even after Greenwalt left to work on Miracles.)
- David X. Cohen: Futurama, (Co-creator with Matt Groening)
- Marta Kauffman & David Crane: Dream On, The Powers That Be, Friends (Seasons 1-3, though they remained involved as producers and occasional writers throughout the rest of the series.), Veronica's Closet.
- Larry David (seasons 1-7), and Jerry Seinfeld (seasons 8 & 9): Seinfeld (Larry David was the sole showrunner throughout most of it's run. When David left after season 7, co-creator and star Jerry Seinfeld became the showrunner for the last two seasons.)
- Tina Fey: 30 Rock. Also plays a showrunner on the show.
- Bryan Fuller: Pushing Daisies
- Larry Gelbart (seasons 1-4): M*A*S*H
- Matt Groening, James L. Brooks & Sam Simon: The Simpsons (season 1 and 2)
- Dan Harmon: Community (seasons 1-3; reinstated in season 5)
- Buck Henry: Get Smart. (co-creator Mel Brooks had little involvement with the series after the pilot)
- Mitchell Hurwitz: Arrested Development
- David E. Kelly: Ally McBeal, The Practice, Boston Legal
- Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante Di Martino: Avatar: The Last Airbender and its Sequel Series The Legend of Korra.
- Eric Kripke: Supernatural (seasons 1-5), Revolution
- Norman Lear: All in the Family, Maude, Sanford and Son.
- Howard Leeds: Small Wonder
- Ryan Murphy: Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan (collectively known as RIB): Glee
- Shonda Rhimes: Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice.
- Gene Roddenberry:
- Shawn Ryan: The Shield
- Dan Schneider: iCarly, Drake & Josh, and Victorious
- Amy Sherman-Palladino: Gilmore Girls (seasons 1-6)
- Paul Simms: NewsRadio
- David Simon: The Wire and The Corner (He also wrote the book on which Homicide: Life on the Street was based, and later joined the writing staff.)
- Aaron Sorkin: Sports Night, The West Wing (Seasons 1-4), Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, The Newsroom
- J. Michael Straczynski: Babylon 5
- Kurt Sutter: Sons of Anarchy
- Jeri Taylor: Star Trek: Voyager (jointly with co-creator Michael Piller for seasons 1-2; left after season 4)
- Heidi Thomas: Call the Midwife
- Matthew Weiner: Mad Men
- Dick Wolf: Law & Order
- Joss Whedon: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (except for season 6) and Dollhouse
- Bruno Heller: The Mentalist, Rome.
- Vince Gilligan: Breaking Bad.
- Jeff Marsh and Dan Povenmire: Phineas and Ferb.
- Glen and Les Charles: Cheers for Seasons 1-2. (co-created with James Burrows, who was a director and not involved with the actual writing process)
- Nell Scovell: Sabrina the Teenage Witch (season 1 only)
- Greg Daniels: King of the Hill - Seasons 1 & 2 (co-created with Mike Judge), The Office (US) (Seasons 1-4 & 9)
- Alfred Gough & Miles Millar: The Strip, Smallville (seasons 1-7), Charlie's Angels 2011 revival series
- Carter Bays & Craig Thomas: How I Met Your Mother
- David Crane & Jeffery Klarik: The Class, Episodes.
- Jed Whedon & Maurissa Tancharoen: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (co-created with Joss Whedon)
Showrunnners Who Took Over Existing Shows
- Russell T Davies: Doctor Who - Series 1-4 + 2009 Specials.
- Steven Moffat: Doctor Who - Series 5 onwards.
- Al Jean & Mike Reiss: The Simpsons - Seasons 3 & 4
- David Mirkin: Seasons 5 & 6
- Bill Oakley & Josh Weinstein: Seasons 7 & 8.
- Mike Scully: Seasons 9 through 12.
- Al Jean: Season 13 to present.
- Gene L. Coon assumed the role of showrunner from Gene Roddenberry after the initial batch of episodes from the first season of Star Trek: The Original Series, starting with "Miri", and he continued in this role until halfway through season 2 ("Bread and Circuses" was his last episode as Producer). He actively produced nearly half of the show's 79 episodes, more than anyone else. He was replaced for the rest of the second season by writer/director John Meredyth Lucas, who left only because Gene Roddenberry was supposed to come back the following season, though he ultimately did not. Notably, both Coon - under the pseudonym "Lee Cronin" - and Lucas continued to write (and in the latter's case, direct) for the show even after having stepped down as showrunner. Journeyman producer Fred Freiberger became showrunner for the third season (often referred to as the turd season), and became the scapegoat for all its problems.
- Ira Steven Behr took over Star Trek: Deep Space Nine from Season 3 onwards, leading to much facial hair growth.
- Maurice Hurley became showrunner in the second seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Baywatch Nights. His work on the former helped the show move towards fully Growing the Beard, but his efforts on the latter proved that no matter how badly a show starts out, it can still Jump the Shark spectacularly.
- Michael Piller became the showrunner for the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and held the role for the rest of its run. He also acted as showrunner for the first two seasons of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and then joint showrunner (with Jeri Taylor) of the first two seasons of Star Trek: Voyager.
- Brannon Braga became the showrunner of Star Trek: Voyager for seasons 5-6, departing in season 7 to develop Star Trek: Enterprise. Like Freiberger before him, he became a major scapegoat, and is often blamed for all of the problems with the show's creative direction throughout its entire run.
- Kenneth Biller became the final showrunner for Star Trek: Voyager in season 7.
- Manny Coto took over primary showrunning duties from Rick Berman and Brannon Braga in the fourth season of Star Trek: Enterprise, replacing Braga as executive producer. Although season 4 was generally considered the best one, it was too late to save the show from cancellation.
- Writer/Actor Paul Lieberstein, for seasons 5-8 of The Office (US).
- Writer/executive producer Sera Gamble worked as showrunner for Supernatural on Seasons 6 and 7.
- Jeremy Carver took over from Gamble starting with Season 8.
- Neal Baer became showrunner of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit for season 2, replacing original showrunner Robert Palm, and has remained in that position for eleven seasons, the longest tenure in franchise history. He will be moving on at the end of season 12.
- Rene Balcer assumed the role of showrunner for the original Law & Order twice: once in the late '90s, and again in the late noughties. In both cases, he left to helm a spinoff as the initial showrunner: First Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and then Law & Order: Los Angeles.
- When Marti Noxon was promoted to executive producer for Season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, she also became showrunner for that season, since Joss Whedon was initially preoccupied with the creation of a single episode ("Once More With Feeling"), as well as prepping Firefly.
- After David Greenwalt left Angel, Jeffrey Bell took over as showrunner for the final two seasons. note It is speculated that he will also act as showrunner on Joss Whedon's new Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. show, since he's the only one of the other four listed executive producers to have showrunning experience.
- Following the Charles Brothers stepping out of the showrunners' positions on Cheers, they were followed by:
- Season 3: Ken Estin
- Seasons 4-7: David Angell, Peter Casey and David Lee
- Seasons 8-10: Cheri Eichen, Bill Steinkellner and Phoef Sutton
- Season 11: Dan O'Shannon and Tom Anderson
- Gene Reynolds (season 5), and Burt Metcalfe (seasons 6-11): M*A*S*H (Creator Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds were the co-producers of the show for the first four seasons; when Gelbart departed after season 4, Reynolds took over for the fifth season, and after he too departed, Burt Metcalfe took over after previously being the show's associate producer up till then).
- When Friends creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane stepped down as showrunners to work on their new show Veronica's Closet, they were followed by:
- Season 4: Michael Borkow
- Seasons 5 & 6: Adam Chase
- Season 7: Wil Calhoun
- Seasons 8-10: Shana Goldberg Meehan & Scott silveri
- When Sabrina the Teenage Witch creator Nell Scovell stepped down after season 1, the showrunners were:
- Seasons 2-4: Miriam Trogdon
- Seasons 5 & 6: Bruce Ferber
- Season 7: David Babcock
- While King of the Hill co-creator Greg Daniels remained a large creative force through the end of season 4, the main showrunners after season 2 were:
- Seasons 3-5: Richard Appel
- Season 6: Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger
- Seasons 7-13: John Altschuler & David Krinsky
- When Aaron Sorkin left The West Wing at the end of season 4, veteran ER producer John Wells became the showrunner of the last three seasons.
- When Smallville creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar left at the end of season 7, Todd Slavkin, Darren Swimmer, Kelly Sounders, and Brian Peterson became the showrunners of the eighth season. When Slavkin and Swimmer left at the end of season 8 to develop the Melrose Place 2009 revival series, Sounders and Peterson became the sole showrunners for the last two seasons.
Shows Where the First Showrunner Was Not the Creator
- LOST is a hybrid as far as the creator/showrunner classification is concerned. Created/showrun by J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof (Jeffrey Lieber, who shares "created by" credit, had nothing to do with the show after writing the original pilot script) and run since early on by Lindelof and Carlton Cuse.
- Doctor Who, which has only had a 'showrunner' position since the 2005 revival. Created primarily by Sydney Newman, Verity Lambert, Donald Wilson and C. E. Webber. The original series may be said to have divided the showrunner's duties between the producer and the script editor; sometimes the former (eg. John Nathan-Turner from 1980 to the cancellation) or the latter (eg. Douglas Adams, 1979; Andrew Cartmel, 1987-89) seemed to have more of the role.
- Likewise, Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures were both technically created by Russell T Davies, but the initial showrunners were Chris Chibnall and Phil Ford respectively. Davies later took full control of Torchwood starting with its third series (though apparently handed a lot of his duties over to Jane Espenson for Torchwood: Miracle Day), while Ford remained showrunner on The Sarah Jane Adventures for its entire run.
- Big Finish Doctor Who, the audio series, had Gary Russell as its showrunner until 2009, when Nicholas Briggs (the voice of the Daleks) took over the role.
- An odd example in Wizards of Waverly Place: The show's creator, Todd J. Greenwald, remains on-staff as a writer and producer, but he is not the showrunner - that honour went to Peter Murrieta for the first three seasons. (In the fourth season, he left and Greenwald stayed on - but Greenwald still did not become the showrunner.)
- Edward Allen Bernero wasn't the creator of Criminal Minds, but was its showrunner from the pilot to the end of the sixth season.
- If a film series can count, producer David Heyman is essentially the showrunner of the Harry Potter movie franchise. Directors come and go and Heyman is often the one who selects them.
- "Showrunning" duties on Star Trek: The Animated Series were divided between story editor D.C. Fontana and animation director Hal Sutherland; Gene Roddenberry, despite receiving creator credit, had no involvement with the series (though he was listed as the "Executive Consultant", in a harbinger of things to come).
- Tim Minear ran Joss Whedon's Firefly.
- Wings was created by the trio of David Angell, Peter Casey and David Lee, with the showrunners being:
- Seasons 1 & 2: Philip LaZebnik
- Seasons 3 & 4: Chris Lloyd
- Season 5: David Hackel
- Seasons 6-8: Ian Gurvitz
- Frasier was also created by Angell, Casey and Lee, but Chris Lloyd was the showrunner in seasons 1-7 , Dan O'Shannon was the showrunner in seasons 8-10, while Lloyd retuned in season 11, this time co-running with Joe Keenan. Lee was the most involved out of the creator trio, frequently directing episodes of the show, while Casey and (until his death during 9/11) Angell's role was mostly limited to consulting on storylines.
- ER was created by well known science fiction Author/Screenwriter Michael Crichton, the showrunners were:
- Seasons 1-3: John Wells (though he remained on as a producer and writer)
- Seasons 4-6: Lydia Woodward
- Seasons 7-9: Jack Orman
- Seasons 10-15: David Zabel
- While Charmed was created by Constance M. Burge, Brad Kern was showrunner throughout all eight seasons. However, Burge remained on as writer and executive producer throughout the first two seasons before leaving at the end of season 2 due to creative differences with Kern.
- Showtime's Dexter was created by James Manos Jr., the showrunners were:
- Seasons 1-4: Clyde Phillips
- Season 5: Chip Johannessen
- Seasons 6-8: Scott Buck
Showrunners in Fiction
- 30 Rock: Liz Lemon is the showrunner for TGS with Tracy Jordan—and is played by the aforementioned Tina Fey, the actual creator-showrunner for 30 Rock.
- Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: Matt Albie and Danny Tripp
- Almost Perfect: Kim Cooper
- The TV Set: David Duchovny plays beleaguered showrunner Mike Klein.
Long-Running Shows That Never Changed Showrunners