Head writer, lead writer and show runner are all unofficial yet synonymous titles. All three terms have come into greater use within the DWU family of programmes since the beginning of the BBC Wales era. The terms refer to the person who is the principal member of the above the line staff. He — for the office has always been held by a male, as of 2021[update] — is the person who guides the show by commissioning scripts, conceiving of the overall story arcs, and settling many creative — as opposed to technical — disputes.
In the opinion of David Tennant, the position was somewhat foreign to the British television industry prior to Russell T Davies' tour on Doctor Who, with the possible exception of people like Julia Smith on EastEnders and Paul Abbott on Shameless. As Russell T Davies opined in his 2009 "exit interview" on BBC Radio 2:
Davies went on to describe how a show with a show runner operated under a "co-ordinated system" of production, in which the various departments were brought together to understand the creative needs of the script. Finding the right way to impart the "tone" of the script, Davies reckoned, was amongst the show runner's main tasks.
He demonstrated the role of the show runner through by showing how he could affect the overall presentation of a villain. If he, as show runner, said to his staff that a good word to describe the Sycorax was voodoo, then that suggested to the prosthetics designer something made of bone, not metal. It further implied to the costume designer robes rather than silver space suits. The fact that the costume department would be using robes would mean that the casting director might cast taller actors rather than shorter ones. Thus, from making a key decision about the overall tone of an episode, the show runner could lead his below the line personnel in significant ways, but still allow them great freedom to carry out the details. (AUDIO: Who on Who?)
In this sense, the show runner on Doctor Who was the executive producer in charge of the creative aspects of the show. Other executive producers, such as Julie Gardner and Piers Wenger — though they both had demonstrated impact on creative matters — were largely more concerned with overall financial control and liaising with various departments of the British Broadcasting Corporation.
People with the title
The term's usage on Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures was perhaps more muddied, largely because the position wasn't actually credited. RTD retained executive creative control of both Torchwood and SJA, while other people, like Phil Ford, acted as the "head writer" on a more day-to-day basis. (REF: Doctor Who: The Writer's Tale) This more diffuse management arrangement is suggested by the frequent presence of both RTD and Chris Chibnall on episodes of Torchwood Declassified about Torchwood scripts neither man wrote.