Writers’ Room 101: Tie Goes To The Showrunner

Quick, stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

“Film is a director’s medium, but TV is a writer’s medium!”

That’s what they say. But we writers often hear that as:

“Film is a director’s medium…but TV is soooo much better for writers because there, THE WRITER IS KING!”

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard this expression. People love to repeat it, probably because it feels like a very “inside baseball” kind of thing to let roll off your tongue. And in a broad sense, it’s generally true. But it’s also a bit misleading, and can set new writers up for an unrealistic expectation of what being part of a writing staff is like.

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Taken too literally, “TV is a writer’s medium” gives the impression that as a writer, the words you put on the page are the be-all and end-all of how the show’s stories get told. I’ve even heard TV writers compared to Broadway playwrights, some of whom are known to flip out if an actor dares change a single line of dialogue. And since writing is considered sacred in the theater world, and television evolved from theater (and radio, of course), the same reverence for the written word should carry over. Makes sense, right?

Right. It totally makes sense. In theory.

When I first started writing for TV, I’d already heard and read the “TV is a writer’s medium” thing a million times. So I stepped into my first writers’ room and eventually cranked out my very first soon-to-be-produced teleplay with my chest puffed out, confident that what I wrote was what would ultimately appear onscreen, word for word, just as I typed it. Because TV is a writer’s medium, and I was a writer. Bam. My logic was impeccable.

But nobody prepared me for what would happen after I turned in that first script. It was rewritten. Not extensively, but enough that it caught me by surprise. I was never given a heads-up that my words would be altered without my permission (how DARE they!), and to be honest, I freaked out a little.

Was my script terrible? Did I suck as a writer and not know it? Was I going to get fired?

The answers to these questions came later: no, no, and no. Eventually I learned that being rewritten is just a normal part of the process of being on staff (I discussed this process at length in my previous post).

Because when they say, “TV is a writer’s medium,” what they really mean is, “TV is the head writer’s medium.” And by “head writer,” of course, they mean the showrunner. So it’s critical to keep in mind that your main job is to help implement the showrunner’s vision, and your scripts can and will be altered to serve that purpose.

(Sidebar: Scripts can also be rewritten for reasons that have nothing to do with you, like the logistical concerns of the production team. For instance, the showrunner may have had every intention of shooting that pivotal scene you wrote that takes place inside a capacity-filled Yankee Stadium during a thunderstorm. But once your show’s line producer finishes crunching the numbers and has a massive heart attack, don’t be surprised if the scene suddenly gets reduced to two people having a nice chat inside a coffee shop…especially if you just happen to have a coffee shop as one of your standing sets.)

Budget concerns aside, here’s the other big thing that it took me a while to figure out: every show is a reflection of the showrunner’s personality. Doesn’t matter if it’s a crime drama, a multi-camera sitcom, or a show about superheroes fighting dragons. At the end of the day, the show will mirror how the showrunner sees the world – sometimes in obvious ways, sometimes in subtle ones. And you don’t necessarily have to agree with that worldview on a personal level, but you do have to do your job. So be prepared to bend and mold your ideas to make them fit the showrunner’s vision of what the show is. Because even if you’re 100% convinced that some character just has to wear a blue shirt but the person who created the show prefers a red shirt…everything else being equal, guess what? Tie goes to the showrunner.

Having said all that, can you still fight for your own ideas? Can you offer a different viewpoint and try to get the showrunner to see things your way? Of course you can, and you should. Many showrunners are open to hearing a well-thought-out dissenting opinion. But keep these two things in mind:

  1. Pick your battles VERY carefully. If it’s really not worth fighting for, let it go. You don’t want to become known as the “problem child” writer who pushes back at every turn.
  2. When the showrunner offers a firm “no” to your idea, stop right there. Don’t fool yourself into thinking they’ll respect you more if you show some backbone and dig your heels in. They won’t.

Ultimately, you don’t want to win the battle and lose the war (and by “lose the war,” I mean “lose your job”). Realize that no matter how collegial and collaborative a writing staff is, it’s still the showrunner’s baby. So when you pitch the Funniest Joke Ever and the showrunner vetoes it, don’t pout. Take that energy and pour it into the pilot you’ve been working on when you go home every night.

You are working on your pilot, right?

tvrunnersshowrunners_smallGet more insights into the life of a showrunner with
The TV Showrunner’s Roadmap

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