Law & Order Special Victims Unit "Showrunner"

By Victoria Chang, William Guttentag, Roderick Kramer
2006 | Case No. EM1
Every Tuesday evening, after a hectic day at the NBC Universal offices in Universal City, Neal Baer kicked up his feet to watch the latest episode of the award-winning police television series, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU). SVU was part of the triumvirate Law & Order franchise created by Hollywood legend, Dick Wolf. The suite of shows included the original Law & Order, SVU, and Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Baer, an Emmy-nominated writer, was a “showrunner” for SVU—industry slang for the person in charge of every aspect of a television series, from story creation to script writing to direction and post-production—essentially the person who “ran the show.” The term, showrunner, arose from the need to distinguish the executive producer from the writers, cast members, and post-production people who were often called “co-executive producers.” Being a showrunner was analogous to being a baseball manager: “While the baseball manager reports to a general manager as well as team owner(s), the baseball manager is still perceived by the players, the public, and the journalists as the driving force behind the team. He is lauded if the team is successful, and fired if the team is losing. The same is true for the showrunner. Also, like a baseball manager, the showrunner works with other producers, who like the manager’s coaching staff—the pitching coach, the first- and third-base coaches—are professionals and expert at what they do.” By the fall of 2005, Baer was entering his sixth year as a showrunner for SVU. For the show, he handled hiring and supervising the staff; coordinating the main casting of each episode; ensuring that the show adhered to the pre-approved budget; writing when necessary and working with his team of writers; overseeing the cast, crew and production team and production and post-production processes; as well as acting as liaison with bosses from the studio and television network. As part of his job, Baer needed to develop 22 episodes during each September to May season, which meant bringing to fruition a 52-page script every eight days, or the equivalent of producing approximately 10 movies per year. Actors such as Mariska Hargitay on SVU called Baer “the best showrunner I’ve ever worked with, hands down.” As a showrunner, Baer was a lot like senior managers at traditional corporations—he and SVU had earned enough respect within the industry to lead to a significant amount of autonomy but not absolute freedom. He needed to keep people below and above him happy. And he needed to be strategic at a high level to make a successful series, while juggling tight deadlines and budgetary constraints, amongst other day-to-day details on multiple episodes.
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