In This Article Television Authorship

  • Introduction
  • Essential Works
  • Historical Overviews of Authorship in UK and Global Television
  • Early-21st-Century UK and Global Television
  • Beyond the Writer-Producer: Directors, Actors, Below the Line
  • Television Authorship in Convergence Culture
  • Popular Writings

Cinema and Media Studies Television Authorship
by
Leora Hadas
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 November 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0323

Introduction

Unlike the well-established tradition of auteurism in its sibling art cinema, in the case of television, the question of authorship continues to be fraught: subject to contestations not only over who can be called the television author but over whether that author exists at all. The heavily collaborative and standardized nature of most television production has been a long-standing issue for discussions of authorship, which have often argued that the concept is not useful for analyzing television—putting emphasis instead on the polysemic television text—or else focused on the struggle for control and agency between creative practitioners and television networks. Two main strands that coalesced early on in scholarship locate the television author either in the producer or the writer, with additional early work on directors mostly reaching a dead end. Over time, the focus has shifted to invest authorship in a hyphenate writer-producer figure, and in the late 2010s, both academic and popular criticism is often concerned with the figure of the showrunner. While not an official title credit, it is this figure of the individual seen as exercising full creative control of a show that is now often celebrated or indeed critiqued as television’s auteur. In the United States, the study of television authorship can be broadly mapped onto ideas of periodization in television and is bound up with issues of quality, cult, and artistic legitimation. Moments and figures of frequent interest to scholars are the anthology writers of the “golden age”; the late 1970s emergence of MTM and Norman Lear’s work with Tandem Productions as early birds of “quality” television, as well as ideas of studio authorship and company style; the appearance of the showrunner concept in the mid-1990s with Dick Wolf and cult showrunners such as Joss Whedon; and the auteurist branding of HBO from 1999 (The Sopranos) onward, leading into ideas of a “second golden age” led by the showrunner as auteur. Today’s “Peak TV” period is characterized by interest in the position of the author in transmedia television, in questions of representation and diversity in television production, and in the complex relationships between producers and audiences in a digital participatory culture. In the United Kingdom, in the meantime, much scholarship has centered on particular historical “playwrights” in the mold of Dennis Potter, and the question of television authorship is bound up with questions of literary adaptation and high and low culture. Changes in modes of production of television globally are now opening up the field to broader interest in television writers and producers as authors, but research is still scarce.

Essential Works

The relatively short history and contested nature of television authorship research have meant a lack of works that can be classified as overviews or introductions. Pearson 2005 provides a useful if short exception, and Newman and Levine 2011 covers many key concerns of modern research. Shattuc 2005 offers an overview of the industrial structures of television production that provides a background on the practices and conditions of creative workers. Banks 2014 highlights methodological concerns and gives a good sense of the humanities / social sciences disciplinary divide prevalent in studies of television production, while Caldwell 2008 is an ethnographic study that has played a central part in defining and advancing industrial approaches to television authorship. Gray 2010 introduces the view of authorship as para- and intertextual, while Johnson 2012, on television branding, brings the perspective of the channel as television author. Cantor 1971, Newcomb and Alley 1983, and Feuer, et al. 1984 are the three works that can be said to have founded the study of television authorship and have established many of the terms and theorizations that still guide the field in the early 21st century. Cantor 1971 is the first study of American television production, though it takes a more industrial/sociology-of-culture approach. Newcomb and Alley 1983 is the first book-length study to consider the television author and is still influential in its treatment of the writer-producer. Finally, Feuer, et al. 1984 is notable as the study that initially connected authorship with the “quality” TV debate.

  • Banks, Miranda J. “How to Study Makers and Making.” In The SAGE Handbook of Television Studies. Edited by Manuel Alvarado, Milly Buonanno, Herman Gray, and Toby Miller, 117–132. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2014.

    E-mail Citation »

    Considers methodological and disciplinary questions in the study of television production, including the contrast between the approaches of social studies and the humanities to creativity and authorship.

  • Caldwell, John Thornton. Production Culture: Industrial Reflexivity and Critical Practice in Film and Television. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822388968E-mail Citation »

    Arguably the text that has most shaped the production studies approach, Caldwell’s book is based on ethnographic research into above- and below-the-line production processes in the Hollywood film and television industries. His focus is on the self-theorizing of industry professionals, the rituals, and narratives of production work. Chapter 5 lays out Caldwell’s “industrial auteur” theory, discussing collaborative authorship and the contestation and negotiation of authorship status and creative control.

  • Cantor, Muriel. The Hollywood TV Producer: His Work and His Audience. New York: Basic Books, 1971.

    E-mail Citation »

    Cantor’s book is the first academic study of television production. It does not discuss authorship but takes a more sociological perspective to the making of television as a standardized industrial product; however, it is useful for understanding the origins of the consideration of television as a producer’s medium.

  • Feuer, Jane, Paul Kerr, and Tise Vahimagi. MTM “Quality Television.” London: BFI, 1984.

    E-mail Citation »

    This study of the production company is significant for pioneering the “quality-TV” concept and its association with authorship. Researchers looking at different conceptions of where television authorship lies will find that most interest in is chapter 2, which discusses MTM as corporate author and the public image of the studio. Chapter 3 explores the production context of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the interaction between its creators, and network demands.

  • Gray, Jonathan. Show Sold Separately: Spoilers, Promos, and Other Media Paratexts. New York: New York University Press, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    Gray discusses authorship and the author as paratexts that lend legitimation and value to content, including television content. Chapter 3 conceives of television authorship as built through paratexts as a “game” of contesting interpretation between producers and audiences. In chapter 4, Gray continues to discuss authorship and intertextuality and expands on how producers’ previous works serve as intertexts in audience discussion and speculation, using the example of J. J. Abrams.

  • Johnson, Catherine. Branding Television. New York: Routledge, 2012.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203597033E-mail Citation »

    The book discusses the emergence of branding as an industrial logic in television from the 1980s onward, offering a comparative analysis of practices both in the United States and the United Kingdom. Johnson looks at channel branding and role of branding in transmedia. Although the book does not explicitly apply authorship concepts, it is useful for considering channel as author of program or transmedia texts, and the meaning of branding as corporate authorship.

  • Newcomb, Horace, and Robert S. Alley. The Producer’s Medium: Conversations with Creators of American TV. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.

    E-mail Citation »

    This work was the first to consider the creative process of individual producers and propose the writer-producer as the television author. The book is composed of a general theoretical introduction, followed by interviews with writer-producers. Introductions to the interviews further reflect on the producer’s role in the industry and offer an analysis of themes and philosophies in their work. Frequently cited and revisited study, and highly readable.

  • Newman, Michael Z., and Elena Levine. Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status. New York: Routledge, 2011.

    E-mail Citation »

    The core argument of Legitimating Television is that certain forms of television content have been rendered culturally and artistically legitimate, in popular and academic discourse, through the delegitimization and devaluing of others. Chapter 3 particularly focuses on the figure of the showrunner as a cultural legitimator and as a guarantor of value and the complicity of academics in perpetuating these forms of value discourse. An excellent and essential outline of the concept, also suitable for students.

  • Pearson, Roberta. “The Writer/Producer in American Television.” In The Contemporary Television Series. Edited by Michael Hammond and Lucy Mazdon, 11–26. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748619009.003.0002E-mail Citation »

    This essay surveys the history and emergence of the hyphenate as auteur in US television history since the 1980s, in the context of changing relationship with television networks, using a case study of Joss Whedon as a lens. A useful text for scholars seeking to understand changing industrial contexts for TV authorship.

  • Shattuc, Jane. “Television Production: Who Makes American TV?” In A Companion to Television. Edited by Janet Wasko, 142–153. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.

    E-mail Citation »

    This chapter surveys the history of authorship attribution in American TV, as well as different academic approaches to the subject, questioning why some shows are “authored” and not others. A case study of the creative origins of Law and Order follows.

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