Writing Credits Explained

[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.



10 thoughts on “Writing Credits Explained”

  1. [Note: Nico Tam posted this comment on February 8, 2014.]

    Great article. But I thought David Greenwalt was showrunner on Angel (s1-3) and then Jeffrey Bell (s4-5) ?

    Joss Whedon was only (official) showrunner on Buffy (except s6) and Dollhouse. But I think the tittle is less meaningful in Whedon shows, cause we all know Joss also had final word on Angel and Firefly, even if he wasn’t showrunner.


  2. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on August 4, 2016.]

    Related confusion: what’s the difference between “guest starring” “also starring” and “co-starring” ? I’d wager that guest stars are relatively high profile actors compared to co-stars or… um… “also-stars” … but from what I’ve seen shows use the latter terms interchangeably, and in some cases they list some actors as co-stars and others as also-stars?? Which is quite confusing.


  3. [Note: Other Scott posted this comment on August 4, 2016.]

    I can answer that, I think.

    Also starring is a contract roles, they have a contract with the show they just don’t have the same billing as the people in the opening credits.

    Guest starring does not have that same level of contract with the show, their relationship with the show only applies to the episodes they appear in.

    I’m not sure what co-starring is exactly, I can’t say I’ve seen it used. Can you give me an example?


  4. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on August 4, 2016.]

    Co-starring refers to the names you see in the end credits – the minor roles that aren’t significant to warrant “Guest Star” status.

    You’ve got the Guest Starring and Also Starring definitions right. I should point out, though, that there are plenty of exceptions to these rules, depending on the studio determining the actors’ status.

    For example, on The Simpsons, Russi Taylor and Tress MacNeille are always listed as “Also Starring.” They’re not credited in every episode, though – only the ones they lend their voice to. Meanwhile, the late Marcia Wallace was always credited as a “Special Guest Star.” Why the distinction? Only the studio knows…


  5. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on August 4, 2016.]

    God, this is so confusing.

    The Larry Sanders Show has the guest stars listed (without roles given minus Maureen Muller– I assume they were playing themselves?), then the other actors in the episode listed as FEATURING. Okay, so maybe co-star and also-starring and featuring are all interchangeable, right?

    Except often they aren’t, and shows will list both?? Like, The King of Queens lists Ricki Lake as a guest star (which is fine, she’s a recurring character), but randomly has one of the five other bit parts in the episode as ALSO STARRING while the other four bit parts are listed as CO-STARRING. Much as I would like to believe this particular also-star was so special that she deserved her own title unique to her, I really don’t see any logical reason for the distinction. Is it contractual shenanigans?


  6. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on August 4, 2016.]

    Yep. All in the contracts. And the rules vary from one production studio to another. (And yes, The Larry Sanders Show often featured celebrities playing themselves, in addition to those playing fictional characters, which made the whole thing even more confusing.)

    There are tons of confusing contractual decisions and inconsistencies, in multiple shows and on multiple levels. For instance, the opening credits to Gilmore Girls always feature a “Special Appearance by Edward Herrmann” credit. Herrmann was a permanent fixture in the show’s intro, even in episodes where he didn’t appear, yet his status was relegated to “Special Appearance.” And on top of that, some of the show’s stars, like Liza Weil and Jared Padalecki, were only in the opening credits in the episodes they appeared in, even though they were billed under “Starring.”

    So yeah. Contract shenanigans.


  7. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on August 5, 2016.]

    That’s great, but if you had clicked the two links I provided you’d see I was referring to the end credits rather than the opening titles.

    My understanding was that guest stars were listed at the bottom of the screen during the first act while co-stars were listed during the end credits, minus shenanigans. Which is highly confusing in some cases. Like, in the particular case of the random King of Queens end credits I linked to– what makes the actress playing Kira so special that she gets an “also starring” credit while the actor she shares her scene with is just listed a co-star?


  8. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on August 5, 2016.]

    I did click the two links. I was just pointing out that there are strange inconsistencies on multiple levels.

    There are some shows that list guest stars at the beginning of each episode, but there are others (mostly sitcoms) that don’t list any guest stars until the end credits. There are shows that list guest stars in the opening credits, and shows that don’t list regular cast members until the closing credits.

    You don’t even need to stray past the Buffyverse to find strange inconsistencies. The boy killed by Adam in “Goodbye Iowa” got a guest star (rather than co-star) credit, despite the fact that he was an unknown actor in just one small scene. Mercedes McNab was a co-star in the first season of Buffy and a guest star beginning with Season Two. One of Dawn’s new friends in “Lessons” was billed a guest star, the other a co-star.

    There are no set rules that all studios follow. It’s all just dictated by money and contracts.


  9. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on August 5, 2016.]


    (As an aside, I actually was curious. Impossible as it may seem, it really was just an amusing coincidence that one of the first Youtube results for “tv ending credits” lists my favorite actress in a weirdly prominent position.)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s