[Article by Ryan Bovay]
Ever wonder what all that writing/producing jibber/jabber means at the start of an episode? Or why someone might cheer “praise Joss!” for an episode he didn’t himself write? Story/Teleplay splits confusing? This is a very basic breakdown of the writing process as we civilians can understand it.
[Shows Run Who?]
The first thing to understand is that television, unlike Film, is mainly a writer’s medium. Because the heart of any good program, no matter how much luscious production goes into it is a story which is ongoing, this is both practical and ideal.
The Creator is usually the Executive Producer (although not always). There are sometimes more than one or two Executive Producers, some of them being network reps who have input while others are merely higher-up writers, but the one/s credited at the end of the show are referred to as the Showrunner/s. The Showrunner is, 99% of the time, the head writer. The Showrunner’s job, whether or not he/she is also the creator, is to come up with the main storyline for the story arc and the plot for near every episode, along with the other Producers on the show who do not have final say, but contribute a great deal. This is often done in roundtable discussion where the writers who are on the production staff will discuss episodes and plots for hours until they have a concrete frame they like. Doug Petrie wrote “Fool for Love,” but like almost any other episode, the main story, themes and ideas likely came from Joss, and were fleshed out by the entire roundtable.
The frame is filled in only when the script is treated, outlined and drafted out by a capable writer who can give the story good dialogue and make the plot compelling in action. This is why the Showrunner/Creator is always credited in the writing, because more often than not, a good deal of ideas came from the Showrunner (it is always possible that a Creator may not stick with the show or may need help and another Showrunner will be hired; Joss put Marti Noxon on as Showrunner in Season Six of “Buffy,” and after S4 of the West Wing, creator Aaron Sorkin left the show, at which point a new Showrunner was hired).
Producers on the roundtable are often writers on the show, and do more or less based on their “rank.” The higher up they are, the more clout they have in the writer’s room and the more they may actually do on set to help take work off of the Showrunner’s back. The hierarchy for most Hollywood shows is as such: Executive Producer, Co-Executive Producer, Supervising Producer, Producer, Co-Producer.
[Written by, Story by, Teleplay by]
This can be a very tricky field to properly distinguish. “Written By” is usually the simplest: A writer, who may or may not be the Showrunner, is assigned to write an episode and drafts a script. This person takes the frame the production table has come up with and writes the product, which will always be edited and/or reviewed by the Showrunner for any number of reasons (continuity, changes in other scripts, personal preference of the Showrunner, et cetera).
“Story/Teleplay” are more complicated. The best way to illustrate it is to give an example: You have a hypothetical Buffy episode: “The One Where Buffy Kills Things.” “Story by Ferdinand Hammerswick and David Erkel,” and “Teleplay By David Erkel.”
In this case, Ferdinand and David took the story frame that the production table produced and sat down and worked out the story for the script. They came up with ideas about how the story was going to move, the important things the characters would say and what it would mean and why, etc. But, Ferdinand had too many Pilates classes that week and goddamnit if his poodle training boyfriend wasn’t always on his case! So, he wasn’t available to actually sit down and write the script. In cases like this, the “Written By” credit is split in to “Story By” and “Teleplay By” to identify who did what. Ferdinand and David both contributed, but David, the single, coked up little shut in he was, was the only one with the time to open Final Draft and put the ideas into action.
Of course, this is only one scenario. Sometimes only one writer contributes the story and another does the teleplay. Sometimes two writers do the teleplay where one did the story and so and on and so forth. The other major variation of how this could work would be if the show hired a freelance writer to do an episode. By Guild codes of the WGA (Writers Guild of America), a show has to interview (though not always hire) so many freelancers per season rather than using only their Producers/Writers (which is usually the best way to go because everyone is completely filled in on where the series is going).
Say that, for an episode of Angel, “The Brooding Hour,” Joss hires freelance writer Anna Fantana. Joss needs a standalone episode in the middle of the season while the arc takes a break, and asks Anna to help pitch a completely unique story in his world along with his production staff. However, since she is not a Producer and not entirely up to date on what’s going on with all the show’s character and story nuances, a few things need to be tweaked. Anna will still write the script, but Joss, as Showrunner, needs to make some fairly core changes that may/may not disrupt the main plot but will still alter what Anna has done to some extent. In this case, the credit would read “Story By Anna Fantana and Joss Whedon” and “Teleplay By Anna Fantana.”
[Credit Where it’s Due]
Left to Right: Joss Whedon (Creator, Writer, Showrunner: “Buffy,” “Angel” and “Firefly”), Marti Noxon (Writer, Showrunner: “Buffy”) and Tim Minear (Writer: “Angel,” Writer, Showrunner: “Firefly”)
Always remember, though, that the Showrunner/Executive Producer is to be credited or blamed for most of the qualities of the program. The writing staff are only as good as the Showrunner demands them to be, and the story is only as coherent and well-planned out as the Showrunner/Executive Producer properly edits and organizes it to be. Every writer is to be appreciated for their own work, but behind every script is the touch of the Showrunner, for better or worse. The show is his or her story.