September 2023 | Jeff Melvoin AB '75

Join us for a talk with Jeff here!

by Laura Frustaci

Jeff Melvoin AB 75 has worked on over a dozen primetime series and was showrunner on eight of them. In all, he’s been involved in over 470 hours of produced television, most recently as an executive producer on season three of KILLING EVE. Other executive producer credits include DESIGNATED SURVIVOR, ARMY WIVES, ALIAS, and PICKET FENCES. 

He was supervising producer of the CBS series Northern Exposure, for which he won an Emmy and two Golden Globe Awards. Other writer-producer credits include the NBC series HILL STREET BLUES and REMINGTON STEELE.

Melvoin is also founder and chair of the Writers Guild of America West’s celebrated Showrunner Training Program, now in its eighteenth year. In February, 2015, Melvoin received the Morgan Cox Award, the WGA’s highest recognition for Guild service. He has taught at USC School of Cinematic Arts, UCLA, Harvard, and the Sundance Institute. Jeff has also lent his experience to the European Showrunner Programme, leading sessions at the inaugural edition in 2022 and will be returning in 2023.

Jeff Melvoin has always had a history of helping young showrunners develop the skills that it takes to succeed in the entertainment industry. And now, after years of drafting and planning, he’s published a book detailing every aspect of it. RUNNING THE SHOW: TELEVISION FROM THE INSIDE was released today, and within its pages lies a wealth of information, experiences, and anecdotes about Jeff’s time in the business working on shows ranging from KILLING EVE to DESIGNATED SURVIVOR to ARMY WIVES.

Almost twenty years ago, Jeff was the driving force behind the WGA Showrunner Training Program, which he created in response to his observation that there existed dwindling learning opportunities for future showrunners to learn their craft. Jeff recalls: “Before you were allowed to pitch a series in the old days, you had to have a considerable number of years in the business, because the studio’s assumption was that if they picked up your show, you would have enough experience to run it.” No longer is that the case. “At the turn of the century, the networks realized they needed more original material,” Jeff explains, “and so they started to look at less experienced writers. Suddenly freshness was an important thing. And very often that translated to younger people, newer people, people coming from outside of the traditional television path. As a result, you had more opportunity for writers, more originality, but you also had shows that were getting onto the schedule and then failing—not because the writers didn't have talent, but because they didn't have the experience to run a show.”

So Jeff and then-president of the WGA John Wells created the six-week Showrunner Training Program to train 25 young showrunners each year. But demand far exceeded the program’s capacity, even after raising the number of spots to 30 and sometimes even higher. “TV in the last twenty years has become such a hot field,” Jeff reasons. “There are so many people who would like to be part of it, but the knowledge is hard to come by. All of this was on my mind over the last five or ten years when I began making notes for a possible book. With each show I was working on, I would take time to write notes to myself: ‘Be sure to include this.’ The impulse was to get things down while they were still fresh in my head and provide a book that speaks directly and personally to the reader about the business.”  

As it turns out, writing a book wasn’t quite so different from other entertainment mediums. “I found that editing the book was very much like editing film, when you have to take your writer’s hat off and put your editor’s hat on and ask yourself ‘What is the film telling me? How long does this scene want to be? Why am I losing interest?’ And I found I was able to transfer that discipline to my writing.” After 18 months of drafting—and cutting over 100,000 words, Jeff sold the manuscript one year ago to Applause Books, which specializes in books about the performing arts.

Jeff notes, “Being aware that the business is changing dramatically and might look very different six months after the strike is over, I tried to write a book that was more about principles than specific systems or formulaic ways to do things. We're always going to need stories; what format those stories take, how they're presented, the platforms, the economic models, those are going to change. But what's really important to understand is how to organize a show under virtually any circumstance. Resilience and resourcefulness will be key components of the showrunner’s skillset moving forward.”

The book consists of three parts: the first—and shortest—is a mini-history of the business for the last 40 years. The importance of this section for Jeff was to use the prism of his own experiences to illustrate how TV has changed, where new forms come from, and how these forms have grown and transformed the industry. The second section, “Breaking In,”  informs readers about everything from how to become a writer in television to becoming a showrunner for the first time. The third and final section, “Running the Show,” covers much of what’s discussed in the WGA’s Showrunner Training Program. By increasing access to the information through the book, Jeff hopes to arm the next generation of successful showrunners.

Asked to name one of the skills necessary to be a successful showrunner, Jeff’s answer is “the art of compromise.” “The most professional showrunners are the ones who have a good give-and-take with executives,” Jeff says. “They don't cave in, they know when to make a stand, but they also know when to concede.” As Jeff has learned, experienced writers and showrunners are more likely to be open with their ideas, whereas newer writers harbor the belief that they have to defend each and every idea in their scripts to the death. “You only have so much capital to spend with studios, and you have to be careful about how you spend it,” Jeff recommends. “You've got to choose which hill you want to die on.” Another crucial piece of creating good television? Quality scripts on time. “You have to be writing quality stuff,” Jeff states. “But if it's not on time, then it doesn't matter how good it is; you're going to lose influence and won’t get the show that you want.” Procrastinators, take heed!

This is just a taste of the wisdom scribed within the pages of RUNNING THE SHOW: TELEVISION FROM THE INSIDE. Jeff concludes, “I’ve always like the proverb, ‘Give someone a fish, they can feed themself for a day; teach someone to fish, and they can feed themselves for the rest of their life.’ No matter how the business is changing, I hope that the ideas and approaches and principles in the book will help writers get their vision across.”

Jeff’s book is available for purchase now at Barnes & Noble and Amazon.

Join us for a talk with Jeff here!

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