Who Addresses Notes?Complications Ensue
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Friday, March 16, 2007

Q. When notes come back from a network re a TV epiode... who addresses them?
The showrunner is responsible for all creative aspects of the show. So he or she is responsible for the notes. He may give the notes to the writer of the episode to execute, and then he'll do a pass to make sure what the writer did fits his vision and the network's needs.

The whole concept of the writer being in charge of the show is mysterious to people up here in the North. coming from years in LA, I am always amazed when I have to explain it. Simply put, someone has to be in command of the ship. In a movie, it's the director, but it hasn't always been. In the studio days, it was the producer, and sometimes you'd have three or four directors during the course of a movie, with the producer replacing the directors like Lincoln replaced generals, until he gets the results he's looking for.

In TV, it makes sense to have multiple directors (and multiple assistant directors). Rather than have one director shoot everything, you can have one director shooting while another director preps the next episode, and a third director edits the episode he shot last week. It means each director can approach the problems of each episodic script with a level head and plenty of time and enough sleep.

But if you have multiple directors, then none of them can keep track of the whole story you're telling over the course of the season. So who's in charge? In Canada that is often a non-writing producer.

In the US, it's always a writer. Why? Because TV is a huge beast that needs to be fed a fresh script every week or it lumbers into a hole and dies. And that script needs to be shootable. Which means that the writers have to work closely with the production crew to make the most of their creative talents while giving them challenges they can handle. Between the Production White draft and the last Double Blue draft, the script will need changes to accommodate the crew. We didn't get that arena we promised; where else can the hero's girlfriend be gunned down? We're expecting a major storm next week; can we move 40% of the exteriors inside? Hey, we can get a tractor prototype that walks on four legs! For free! It's really cool. Can we put it in an episode?

It just makes sense for the person consulting with the department heads to be the person who's evaluating whether or not the changes they're suggesting in the shoot are what's best for the story. Why separate those two jobs? Sometimes the story will not accommodate all interiors, or a four-legged tractor, and sometimes the story really wants to be shot outside during a storm. Department heads are not keeping the story in the forefront of their mind. They are (a) trying to make really cool costumes/sets/special effects/whatever, and (b) make their lives easier. Sometimes the coolest costume is not right for the character; sometimes the story requires an ugly set slapped together on the fly rather than the cool set they've made blueprints for. You can have a producer in the middle, mediating between the story department and the departments, but it's simpler to just put the top writer (often the creator of the show) in charge.

That doesn't mean there's no room for the creative producer in the mix. A good showrunner consults with everyone, and listens to them, especially when they can fire him. Only a fool ignores the people who are bringing the money he's spending. We're not talking about final say, either. The network has final say. (Ultimately the audience has final say.) But someone's got to have first say, and it seems to work better when that someone is a writer.

Canada seems to be transitioning from the producer-driven system to the American writer-driven system, but it's a difficult cultural change. Producers aren't used to trusting writers to run their shows because they haven't seen that system working; and, not that many writers have experience in production. Catch-22. But the best shows are writer run -- e.g. Corner Gas and Slings and Arrows -- and I think that speaks for itself.

Of course, I would say that. Wouldn't I?

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question: but what about the studio? the network pays the license fee, but the studio fronts the production costs, right? so doesn't the studio do a lot of hand-holding on both ends? giving notes, rejecting notes, and acting as a buffer between the showrunner and the network when it comes to network notes... any thoughts?


ps: the wga has some great writer-producer resources including this handbook:
(just aspirational reading on my part)


By Blogger tgrrlily, at 8:56 PM  

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