Here's more of my interview with Paul Guyot, bloggist of Ink Slingerfame, and a fine professional television writer who knows whereof he speaks...
AE: How do you deal with network notes that seem wrong to you?
PG: It depends on your position on the show. As a staff writer or story editor you deal with it by keeping your mouth shut and letting the producers take care of it. Chances are, by the time the script is being read by the network you're off it as a story editor level writer.
How I would deal with it is to always appease them when they give the note. Don't commit either way - say something like "Oh, okay, I'll take a look at that." And then what I do is try and figure out what they are really saying with their note. For instance, say I know that my last scene in act three is terrific, but the exec says, "The act three out doesn't work." What they are really saying is that the story isn't carrying enough tension or suspense for them up to this point. More often than not I will go back and fix something in another part of the script or story - without messing with the scene they had a problem with - and when they read it again they love it, thinking their note was taken. And it was more or less.
There is a misconception in Hollywood that all network execs are idiots who give notes simply to justify their jobs, and they know nothing about story or writing. This is bullshit. Yes, there are some idiots working at the networks, just like there are some idiot writers out there. But I have found the vast majority of execs to be decent people working to try and make the best show possible. Now, my idea of best might differ from theirs, but if you communicate well with each other and have no hidden agendas, the process is usually helpful.
AE: How about director and actor notes that seem wrong?
PG: Okay, now we have a different animal. In television - and I'm going to piss off the DGA here - the director is a hired hand. I mean no disrespect by that. I simply mean that they are hired by the executive producers (usually writers) of the show to come in and keep the vision of the series. A director that understands and respects that is wonderful and will usually have really great notes. The directors that come in trying to add to their reels will often end up giving notes that might be really cool within a specific scene, but will hurt the overall story. When you get bad notes from a director, you simply tell them no - in the most decent way possible - and try and explain why.
When actors give you bad notes... well, it all depends on the actor's power level. An actor who has an Exec Producer credit is very dangerous because 99 times out of a hundred they're given that credit simply to make the deal, without any thought to what creative storytelling ability they may or may not possess. When a star gives notes, you deal with it the same as you do the network, just with more care. Much more care. Actors' egos are hand-blown glass. The slightest bump and they can shatter, you as the writer can get cut badly. :)
AE: How can you tell which things production really needs changed and which things they'd just like changed because it would make their lives easier?
PG: This comes with experience. I don't know of another way to learn. Again, it's all about communication. If you have a good UPM that you trust and that trusts you, it will be obvious. If there is tension or if production is at war with the writers for whatever reasons, then you have to figure it out and that's where you need the experience. They will usually be much more like script cops on things that need changing, whereas on the stuff they'd like changed, it tends to be more of a creative argument they try and make.
AE: What makes a great showrunner, aside from great writing and a vision for the show?
PG: The job is so difficult to do well. There are so many things a showrunner must know to be good. Now, it can be done by idiots - it is all the time - but to do it well, you have to know everything from writing, to story, to production, to the business of television...
But for me the number one quality of a showrunner is the ability to manage people. One of the best showrunners I've seen is not that great of a writer. He's good, but very by-the-numbers. But he is a GREAT showrunner. He knows production, knows how to balance what the writers want with what production needs and what the actors want. He makes the studio and network feel like they are a welcomed and important part of the process - even if he hates them. He knows how to keep a staff happy and excited. I really believe great writing is overrated for a showrunner. Yes, it's an outstanding attribute, but I will take a great manager who has a staff of excellent writers to help him/her over a genius writer who has no idea how to deal with the myriad of showrunner problems any day.