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Why Television Isn’t a ‘Writers’ Medium’

If common wisdom is to be believed, movies are a directors’ medium, whereas television is a writers’ medium. And, on the face of it, that appears to be true: Movies, after all, can afford the time and money to set up visually spectacular shots that will stay with the viewer in a way that television rarely (if ever) can, leaving television relying on the stories they’re telling in order to win people over. But … a writers‘ medium? Really?

I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time recently listening to the Nerdist Writers Panel podcast, which describes itself as a podcast about “writing, television and the business of writing for television,” and one common thread from all of the many discussions I’ve heard, from writers on shows as varied as Parenthood, Parks and Recreation and Supernatural, is the value of television as a “writers’ medium,” an idea that I can somewhat understand, but can’t quite buy into totally.

I’m not arguing that television doesn’t have some amazing writing on a fairly regular basis; look at shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Justified, The Venture Bros and so on and so on for proof of the amazing work that we’re lucky enough to see on a regular basis. But at the same time, how many television writers can the average person name in the same way that movie directors’ names somehow become part of pop culture conversation currency remarkably easily? Television may our an emphasis on the value of story, but how much value it places on writers, I’m unconvinced by.

What television does, I suspect, is emphasize the entire package of the show – the director is rarely the star in the way that he or she would be in cinema, because stylistic tricks are generally frowned upon in favor of keeping a consistent look and feel to every episode, sure, but the same is really true of the writing; there’s a focus on quality of writing, but not necessarily the individual voice of writers as such. Whatever quirk and authorial voice that’s present isn’t necessarily coming from one particular writer as it is coming from that writer trying to fit into the voice of the show runner heading things up, which for me is an argument against the idea that television is a writers’ medium because each and every writer has to subsume their identity in order to be a “success.”

The real focus of serial television is continuity of experience at all costs, meaning that the true stars become the things that are there all the time, be it the actors or the story in and of itself. Which, don’t get me wrong, can definitely be something that’s attractive to writers, because it’s a focus on their work, but I bristle at the idea that it’s a promotion for the writers’ themselves. Unless you’re Aaron Sorkin, the audience doesn’t know who you are or, really, care – which isn’t their fault, not really, and it’s possibly even a sign that you’ve done your job well – so… a writers’ medium? No. A story medium, definitely, but I think we still have to look towards prose and poetry as the only true writers’ mediums out there, still.


  • Mastadge

    “Unless you’re Aaron Sorkin”

    Or Steven Moffat, or Joss Whedon, or David Simon, or Judd Apatow, or Alan Ball. . .

    TV writers may not enjoy the prestige of Hollywood directors, for the most part, but saying something is a “writers’ medium” is not saying it’s going to make the writer a big name, but that it plays to the writer’s skills.

  • Dolores Haze

    as a multi-disciplinary form of art, television is as much a writer’s medium as movies are a director’s medium. Directors shape the stories of movies, even though others write them and act them out and edit them. Writers shape stories on television, even though others direct and act and edit them. Simple as that. A great television show lives and dies by its writing; a great movie on its directing. 

  • Randy Watson

    The true writer’s medium is books. Meaning they have nearly absolute say in their stories and don’t need to comprise their vision.

    Maybe I’ve seen one too jump the shark moments but I’m sick of being let down by television writing (latest examples: The Walking Dead S2, Dexter S6)

  • Anonymous

    “Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Justified, The Venture Bros.”  Bwahahahaahhahaaha!

  • John Lees

    If you’re a casual viewer of TV, then no, you might not be aware of the writers.  But that’s the same for a casual moviegoer who might not know directors outside of Spielberg and Scorsese.  I watch a lot of TV, and follow writers.  I watched Treme because I knew and respected David Simon’s work on The Wire.  I was dubious about True Blood, but gave it a go because of Alan Ball’s work on Six Feet Under.  I’ve followed Joss Whedon from Buffy to Angel to Firefly and now to The Avengers.  In the UK, Steven Moffat has pretty much created a brand of his own between Doctor Who and his reimaginings of Jekyll and Sherlock.  Also in the UK, Cracker writer Jimmy McGovern has carved a niche for himself where new projects such as The Street or Accused are specifically marketed on TV as “The latest show from Jimmy McGovern.”  I have zero interest in the subject matter of “Luck”, but you can be damn sure I’ll be watching the pilot with Deadwood writer David Milch involved.  Similarly, Vince Gilligan has earned my loyalty for life after Breaking Bad. 

    Saying TV isn’t a writer’s medium is like saying that comics are neither a writer nor an artist’s medium because neither manages to become a mainstream household name.  Just as people who are into comics are into specific writers and artists while casual dabblers are more interested in just the characters, the same applies for television.  TV is called a writer’s medium because the head writer is the guy charged with spearheading the production in the way the director is on a film set.

  • ziza9

    Using a TV term, I believe Graeme has finally jumped the shark.

  • Jacob

    Not yet.

  • kalorama

    To paraphrase Inigo Montoya . . . I don’t think those words (writer’s medium) mean what you think they mean.”

  • kalorama

    He’s had ol’ toothy in his rearview mirror for a while now.

  • Z!

    Um, not many people can name screenplay writers, either. 

    You’re also assuming that “Writer’s Medium” means that television is where writers can achieve the most prestige. I don’t know the context of the comments, but it seems more reasonable to assume that they mean it’s a better medium for writers to work in (you’re able develop the characters and overarching plots as oppose to cramming a Big Idea into Save-The-Cat-Formula and calling it done). 

    This article makes a lot of assumptions that I don’t think are givens. In fact, I vehemently disagree with “success” and “notoriety” being the yardstick of which we measure success. They’re nice to have, sure, but not all successful works are Great and not all Great works are successful.

  • pDUB

    i no longer think graeme is a bad writer, but now i do believe that he exists solely for us to learn from his mistakes.

  • Frequentcontributor

    Yeah, I don’t think that “writer’s medium” is meant to imply that it’s making them all famous, but rather that writers are the main shot-callers on tv productions. As in, the directors and actors are really at the whim of any given script, which makes the writers the boss. Also, it generally applies to the head writer/showrunner, as far as who is in charge. Just as you wouldn’t expect the assistant directors to get as much clout on a movie set, the staff writers are not getting as much recognition as the show runners. But that having been said, I think that the head writers are very much in charge (until they’re cancelled…), making tv very much a medium belonging to writers.

    As for novels being the only “true” writers medium, that’s silly… There’s no one else doing any work, there, but editors, so obviously the writer has no director or actors to compete with. The point is moot.

  • Geoff

    Movies are a director’s medium. Television is a producer’s medium. Theatre is an actor’s medium. The novel is a writer’s medium. That’s all very simplistic and most are very collaborative. Yet it does seem to hold true the more you really look at each.

  • Anonymous

    Apart from pure text work, most story-based entertainment involves various creatives, all contributing to a goal. This is why the vanity credit (a film by…) literally makes me shout obscenities at the screen. Any director taking that is a thief. Remove the script, actors, lighting, even the caterers and see what sort of magic a director can do.

  • Jay

    Directors are just hired hands on most TV shows. The top showrunners are always writers. 

    Your point that the public can’t name the writer? Half the time they can’t name TV stars either, just characters. Oh, and they don’t notice who directed a movie either.

  • Dpcoltx

    Two and a Half Men:
    Season 8: 
    During the meltdown:caught a few glimpses and it seemed business as usual.  Sheen blasted everyone from lorre to the writers.  Due to his nature at the time, it was hard to give it credibility.
    On DVD:  there are more meta jokes than normal, that just fall flat.  usually from Alan, and for some reason, Cryer just can’t pull them off like he normally did.  Could be due to tension on the set, but some of them are so glaring, I wonder if anyone could make them funny.
    Evidence:  after several episodes of Alan moving out and causing catastrophes leading up a house burning down, he moves back in with Charlie. Alan recaps everything, and even reemphasizes how the show got started in the first place, before saying, “you couldn’t write this stuff.”
    Season 9:  
    Kutcher should have been a lock.  I’m not really a fan of his, but in some of his movies that I’ve seen he’s pretty good in them.  His lines and action are, they just don’t blend well.  And its hard to buy into the new setup.  These are all things that a storyteller should have been able to weave together better.  

    Look, its hard to determine a good writer in TV.  From what I’ve heard, and I may be wrong here, but each episode and script can have a main writer for the story, and multiple writers for dialogue. And there’s probably input from a lot of other sources too, knowing the business of TV and movies.  Its harder to find a focal point, especially one for a field that doesn’t get the glamor.  You rarely even hear actors cite script writers, but in movies the director has a hands on approach, sometimes very hands on, given the reputation of some.  So its easier to find a creative focal point.  As you even said, movies and TV are two different beasts.  Truth is, I rarely know directors either.  The easiest focal point is the actors, the faces of the mediums.

    The real question I think you are asking is one different from what I get from the writers podcast you mention.  There point, i think, is that more hinges on their writing in TV than other forms.  I’d still say books beat out TV due to the nature of both, but for the visual, action mediums, yeah, I’d go with TV as the one for writers over movies and plays.  Your point seems to be more directed at which one will get a person fame more easily.

  • Jay Faerber

    TV is a writers’ medium because writers have more control than directors, whereas film is a directors’ medium because the director has much more control than a writer. In a TV series, directors come and go — they’re hired guns (with the exception of producing directors, who have a regular gig on a show). But it’s the writers who control the show. They write the scripts, and they have control over the final edit of the show that is aired.

    Calling TV a writers’ medium has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not the writers involved are “household names” or not. It’s all about who has more creative control.