Credits seem to be a popular Friday Question topic. Had one over the weekend. And here’s another that's become an entire post.
A show I saw the other day had a credit for "story by" and for "teleplay by" on one of its episodes. What prompts an unusual situation such as that?
If a writer does an outline and the actual script is assigned to another writer, the first writer gets story credit and the second receives teleplay.
When the show reruns and a residual payment is issued, the various credited writers split it, but the teleplay writer receives more.
Back when David Isaacs and I were the head writers of MASH we wrote every outline. It was easier for us to just break the story and write the outline ourselves than explain to the writer what our complicated format was. But we never took story credit. We believed that providing the outline was part of our responsibility as staff writers and the freelance guys shouldn’t get jobbed out of some money and residuals. MTM shows also adhered to that policy. Other shows, like BARNEY MILLER, did not. But I could have had my name of close to fifty more MASH episodes. Still, I don’t regret it. I think it was the right thing to do.
And that’s fine until it comes time for awards. Ethically, you’re not allowed to submit a script with your name on it if you didn’t significantly write that script. I don’t think many Chuck Lorre show scripts do get submitted for that reason, even though their scripts are often way better than the shows that do get nominated.
Where things get real sticky is when different writers are assigned on pilots. The writer who ultimately gets teleplay credit may make more money, but the writer who gets story credit gets at least a shared "created by" credit, and that comes with a weekly royalty. So the arbitration fights are generally over story credit. I’ve been involved in arbitrations where there were as many as five writers. Deciding who is entitled to what can make your head explode. (By the way, the WGA provides a credit manual that clearly defines each credit category. But every script is different and murky.)
Credits provide the only recognition for writers. So it’s important that they be correct and represent each participant’s true contribution. It’s not just me who reads the writing credits on every show. There are at least six of us.