One unexpected fruit of the internet: a million blogs dedicated to recapping every episode of every TV show currently on the air. Throw in all the people devoting their free time/lives to reexamining old episodes of Buffy, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Doctor Who, and you’ve got approximately 1 trillion web pages all devoted to one thing: Telling People What They Already Saw.
The AVClub, HitFix, TelevisionWithoutPity, and Entertainment Weekly — among countless other sites — have all figured out how to monetize the desperate need for TV addicts to have their opinions verified through consensus. No show is too small to be covered, no detail is too small to be obsessed over. Thanks to the explosion of the TV echo-chamber, never before has so much attention been given to the process of making television.
And never before have so many people gotten it so wrong.
Reviewers in particular love to speculate about how shows get made, and they do so in a very authoritarian manner. They occasionally get some things right — like how TV is a writer-driven medium — but they severely underestimate just how collaborative the medium really is.
With so much rampant misinformation out about how a writers’ room actually works, consider this my ever-so-humble attempt to get some actual facts into the mix…
PART 1: THE BASIC STRUCTURE
First, no two rooms are structured identically. Writers’ rooms are like snowflakes. Snowflakes full of stress and anxiety. And chocolate covered espresso beans. The following is a pretty basic configuration, with some caveats I’ll explain later.
The room itself is typically a conference room with a long table. Comedies will have either one large screen that all the writers can see or an individual screen for each writer at the table. This is so all the writers can cull through every script together, line-by-line, before they start shooting. On dramas, there is less of a need for all the writers to see the same document, so screens are rarer. A staple of all writers rooms, though: dry erase boards. Lots and lots of dry erase boards.
These are the people that work in and around the room:
Writers’ P.A. — This is considered an entry-level job (albeit, a very hard-to-get entry-level position). P.A. stands for “Production Assistant.” There are also Set P.A.s that assist with the actual shooting of the show, Post P.A.s that work with the editorial department, and Production P.A.s that work in the Production Office — the office responsible for coordinating all the separate elements that go into producing a season of television. P.A.s are the “legs” of show business. They run errands, make copies, get lunch and coffee, etc. Nice producers will allow P.A.s to contribute creatively where they can — like in generating content for the show’s website and social media accounts. If you’ve just moved to Los Angeles, and want to start getting some experience in the entertainment industry, this is the job to look for.
Writers’ Assistant — On most shows, this job title is a misnomer as the writers’ assistant assists the “writing process” more than anything else. Their most important job is to take notes whenever stories for the show are discussed, making sure that no good idea gets lost in the shuffle. They may also conduct research, produce content for the web, and — by virtue of their position — even get to pitch stories/jokes/lines/etc. On shows that don’t have a daily convening writers’ room, though, the writers’ assistants tend to resemble more typical assistants (answering phones, setting schedules, etc.)
Script Coordinator — Think of this person as the “guardian of the script.” Nothing shall enter the official draft of a script without first passing through her. Every draft of every script goes through the S.C. They proof the script for typos and errors. They make sure the stories, characters, and locations track. On a show like Lost with a rich mythology, the Script Coordinator might be in charge of keeping the show’s “bible” — a continuity of everything that’s happened on screen (not to mention the stuff that got cut before airtime). On multi-camera comedies, the script coordinator and the writers assistant often share their duties, with the more senior person getting the “coordinator” tag.
Staff Writer — Though all the writers work on a staff, the term “staff writer” is reserved for the “freshest” member(s) of the writing staff. These are typically writers working on just their first or second show. As a writer works his/her way up the ranks, they move through the following titles:
Executive Story Editor
Consulting Producer is another title worn by writers, but it doesn’t easily fit into the above hierarchy. Typically, a Consulting Producer is a higher level writer who’s working less than full-time on the show.
Note #1 on Producer credits: Not everyone with a producer title is a writer. There are non-writing producers, though they tend to be outnumbered by the writer-producers, especially on comedies. People involved in the development of a show may continue to get a producer credit on every episode even if they no longer do anything on a weekly basis.
Note #2 on Producer credits: Executives who work at the network and studio, despite being heavily involved in the development and production of a show, rarely get producer titles. If they do appear in the credits, it’ll sometimes be as “Executive in Charge of Production” or something to that affect.
And then there’s the showrunner, a term heard only in certain parts of New York and LA until a few years ago. The term itself doesn’t appear on official paperwork or in any credits. In the most general sense, the showrunner is the person tabbed by the network & studio to be in charge of the day-to-day operations of the show. The showrunner isn’t even necessarily a writer, though he/she usually is.
The term is now everywhere thanks to the blogosphere. As TV criticism matured, it started taking more and more cues from film criticism, specifically the auteur theory of film, which states: “You sound smarter as a critic when you can pin all the success or failure of a collaborative work of art on one person.” (Okay, that’s not the right definition, but it’s not wrong either.)
To TV critics, the showrunner is the main creative voice behind a TV series. To network execs, the showrunner is the person they expect to have answers when they call with questions. To the cast and crew, the showrunner is the person who ultimately decides if you need to come in on a weekend.
PART 2: THE BASIC PROCESS
At the beginning of the season, all the writers gather in “the room” to discuss, very broadly, stories for the season. On a procedural show, they’ll come in with stories & articles they’ve read that might make for good material. On a more character-driven show, they’ll begin to map out season-long arcs for each character. On a character-driven procedural show (like Grey’s Anatomy, where I got my start), it’s both.
Once there’s a rough structure for what has to happen when, the showrunner starts assigning individual episodes to specific writers. Before said writers go off on their own to write, though, the content for each individual episode is discussed in detail in the room. All major plot points are agreed on — sometimes even including key dialogue — before the writer goes off to write a story document and/or outline. (What’s the difference between a story document and an outline? The story document talks about all the stories in a given episode separately, and the outline breaks the stories into scenes and puts them in the order.) Once the Network and Studio have signed off on the outline, the writer then goes away with all the notes from the room (taken by the writers assistant) and fleshes out the outline into a script.
Note: Some shows give the individual writers tremendous freedom to deviate from the outline. Other shows want the writer to stick to the outline as much as possible. If you’re a first-time writer on a show, my advice is to stick to the outline, unless instructed otherwise.
The script then gets read by the higher-level writers, who offer their notes and feedback. On a sitcom, the script usually goes back to the room for a group polish (mostly for jokes), with every writer chiming in. The script coordinator then sends the script to the studio, who gives notes. Based on those notes, a new draft is generated for the network (assuming the studio and network are two different entities, which they usually are), and once the studio and network have signed off the script, it becomes a PRODUCTION DRAFT or TABLE DRAFT. That’s the first draft of the script that gets disseminated to the cast and crew.
The script is not done though. This draft will get read at a table read, where all the regular cast members, all the writers, representatives from various departments, and many of the execs on the show are present. After the table read, the writers will compare notes on what they think worked and didn’t work, and the showrunner will take all that into consideration, resulting in a new draft of the script.
Even after shooting has begun, changes can — and will — happen. Every time a change gets made to a script in production, the changes are issued on a different paper color. The production draft is white, followed by blue pages, pink pages, yellow pages, and so forth (different studios have different color wheels). I’ve worked on shows that also include goldenrod, tan, and buff pages, before going back to white pages (called “double white” at this point). We once issued “triple buff” pages, meaning it had so many changes over course of production, it went through the color cycle three times.
PART 3: CREDIT WHERE CREDIT IS DUE
What do the credits mean you see on screen? “Story by” usually means the writer (or writers) generated the initial story document or outline that the episode is based on. “Teleplay by” means that’s the writer assigned to writing the script itself. “Written by” means the writer(s) wrote both the outline and the script.
A showrunner will do a pass on every script, as will at least one other higher level writer (usually). And they will typically do these passes without credit, even if the script changes a great deal during rewrites.
“Created By” refers to writer(s) who wrote the pilot the network bought and produced. Even if the creator leaves the show, their name will still appear on every episode.
“Developed By” is like “Created By” for shows based on preexisting material — a movie, book, or another TV series.
PART 4: VARIATIONS
Comedies have larger writing staffs than dramas. Network dramas have larger staffs than cable dramas.
If a staff is big enough, a show might have two writers rooms working simultaneously. They’ll either be breaking different episodes or one room is working on a specific episode while the other room brainstorms ideas for future episodes.
(Oh, yeah, the process of figuring out how a story should be told on television is known as “breaking” it. Don’t ask me why.)
Multi-camera comedies (i.e. those shot in front of a live studio audience) have a different process than single-camera comedies and dramas. On a multi-camera comedy, the entire writing staff attends rehearsals and is present during the one night of taping. On single-camera comedies and dramas — which take a week or longer to be filmed — usually just one writer is on set during that period, ready to offer quick fixes as needed.
Some shows have no writers’ room whatsoever. Writers pitch ideas directly to the showrunner, only convening as a group for lunch (if that).
Primetime animated shows tend to resemble their live-action counterparts right up until the table read — then it looks very different (as the animation process can take many months).
You know that funny line on last night’s Big Bang Theory that keeps making you chuckle? Good luck figuring out who came up with it.