Cynthia Hsiung Shares 6 Skills Every Showrunner Needs to Succeed

Posted on: Jun 11, 2024

Photo Credit: Grusho Anna // Shutterstock

By Jessica Mathis

Cynthia Hsiung is an award-winning executive producer, director, writer and development professional in television, feature films and digital media. She has developed, produced, written for and directed for companies including HBO, Universal, MTV, VH1, Fox Kids Network and Warner Bros.

Hsiung is the recipient of the UCLA Extension Distinguished Instructor Award and was given an honorary doctorate from Richmond American International University in London in media and communications. She also creates content for her YouTube channel called Your Hollywood Dream, which has over 159,000 subscribers.

You won’t see the credit for a showrunner on your favorite series, but showrunners are the people overseeing the overall vision and production of the show. You’ll see them instead credited as a head writer or executive producer. Many in the entertainment industry aren’t quite sure what the title means, and assume it means the head writer. However, Cynthia says it’s kind of a mix of writing and producing. The showrunner has to be the CEO of an enterprise.

To help better understand the role of showrunner, here are six skills the showrunner must have:

Organizational Management

Showrunners are bosses who hire, manage and fire. They are executives with creative visions, and they need to know how to juggle all of these skills. Like a CEO would for a corporation, showrunners have to understand the organization they are leading, along with all of the moving parts. They need to manage a massive amount of people, along with timelines, budgets, information and data. They need to create and manage the backbone of the series.

Let’s take Elon Musk as an example. As a CEO, he does not need to assemble the actual cars, but he does need to know how to put the blueprints together with the people who are actually designing them. Early on, I imagine Musk had to get his hands dirty to ensure the blueprints were in place and to gain an overall understanding of how everyone on the team would operate.

You can look at the script as the blueprint, as the showrunner knows the key components to the overall production being created. Showrunners may do more of the initial writing and are then able to delegate in order to focus on managing all of the departments, including the production and post-production teams to keep the show moving forward.

Creative Vision

Creative vision means knowing what the blueprint (aka the screenplay) is, how to make it, how to execute one, and how to lead talented people in putting that screenplay together. There are a lot of showrunners that are not always the best at writing, but are good enough so that it gets their characters and creative voice across.

Showrunners hire people who can take what they do and make it even better, while they put their efforts into managing the whole enterprise. They’ll need to manage their creative vision, making sure the entire season or series has one through line, plus the right character and/or season arcs. The first step is for showrunners to know their vision and the backbone of it well enough so that they can organize for others to be able to follow. They’ll need to properly communicate and work with their team to do what’s called “beating out the story.”

Creative Management

The showrunner should hire writers to build their writer’s room in a strategic way, where each person brings something to the show. That might be comedic relief or scientific knowledge, or perhaps policing or legal experience for a crime show.

The showrunner and team are going to go into a writer’s room and you have maybe a show bible, a pilot or a couple episodes written so your team has a general gist of where it is going. But together, you’re exchanging ideas and beating out the story. The showrunner will be overseeing the writing of episodes or even writing themselves, but they’ll be simultaneously fulfilling their other duties.

Production Management

Since the showrunner is responsible for the overall vision of the series, they will also be responsible for making sure the entire operation is staffed. They’ll typically hire department heads who will then usually hire and bring on their own crew members. While the director is in charge of the creative vision for film, the showrunner is really at the helm for television.

At times, the showrunner may need to ensure that the director, art department or post-production team are sticking to the script elements. Ongoing management from the showrunner will include liasing between the writer’s room and the production team, and even the post-production team. This is to ensure the intended creative vision is on track and carried out through completion.

Negotiating and Communicating

While the showrunner is responsible for the creative vision of the show, there will still be plenty of notes from those who are stakeholders in the series. The series partners who provide the funding for the series will have a say in the show. The showrunner must meet with them regularly and make sure scripts and cuts for every episode are reviewed.

The showrunner must bring notes from these meetings to the writer’s room or post production to be incorporated or changed. Sometimes they must explain or defend choices made in the writer’s room. The showrunner must also carry the input from the stakeholders through to all facets of the production.


Network television especially carries a hectic schedule. The showrunner may be overseeing the writing of episode 7 while receiving network notes for episode 5, chiming in on the filming of episode 6 and going through post-production notes for episode 4. They are also turning them all around simultaneously to the next step.
Showrunners can’t always be the ones to handle confrontations or day-to-day tasks, which is why it’s important that they hire assistants or executive producers.

They must also identify who has the best skills for each type of tasks. One executive producer might be best for keeping an eye on all those notes from the network. Another might be the one who makes tough calls, does the firing or handles conflict.

While this is only a bird’s-eye view of the duties a showrunner carries out, Hsiung has shared a lot of insight here into how a showrunner operates within a production. It is a position that many seek after, but few fully understand. It’s certainly a role you won’t really want if you’re not ready for the long hours, hard work and many demands, but it is the position that keeps all of the series moving parts together and moving forward. 

Jessica Mathis (AKA Divinity Rose) is an award winning screenwriter/performer/producer from Louisville, Kentucky. She is the CEO of She Dreams Content Development and Production, which focuses on female forward projects in comedy, docustyle and genre entertainment.

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