Saturday, May 26, 2018

Determining credits

Credits seem to be a popular Friday Question topic. Here's one that became an entire post. 

Terry asks:

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.

Now the teleplay and story credits on Chuck Lorre shows are essentially a joke. Every episode is room written by the entire staff. There is no outline and no writers’ draft. So credit is just assigned to people and rotated. The names you see on any single episode of one of these shows mean nothing. But the WGA limits the numbers of writers who can receive credit so in fairness to the staff, they take turns receiving credit.

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.


Janet Ybarra said...

This isn't a knock, per se, because I'm sure he did a lot of work and deserved it...but as one of those six who do pay attention to credits, it seemed eventually Alan Alda was EVERYWHERE on MASH. The starring credit, of course, and then very often a written AND directed by....and then he also got a creative consultant credit for a number of years.

I half think that if cloning had been possible in the 70s, we would have seen best boy and craft services credits also by Alda.

I'm half joking but to the observer it seems a little silly for one person to take so much credit, but then again like I said on the other hand I suppose he deserved it.

Maybe you can address this one day as an an FQ.


VP81955 said...

As a "Mom" fan, that's unfortunate, as I can think of a number of scripts -- particularly from some of its more serious episodes -- that don't get Emmy or other award recognition. (It's a series seemingly ignored for awards other than for Allison Janney, though I don't know whether the bias is against multi-cams as a whole or Chuck Lorre in particular.) OTOH, he presumably pays his writers well, and working on one of his shows is a good feather to wear on your resume cap.

Ken, I met one of your old pals yesterday at the Die Laughing Film Festival -- George Wendt, who acted in two of the short films shown. Nice guy, and I'm glad he continues to get plenty of work.

Today at 4, there will be table reads of excerpts from screenplay finalists, including my rom-com "Stand Tall!" It's free, and I'd enjoy meeting you. Learn more at

Mike Bloodworth said...

Thanks Ken. Obviously I wasn't the only person to ask this question. I had always been perplexed by the definition of "teleplay." I thought it had more to do with the format and/or style of a script rather than the writing credits. Another problem solved. And needless to say, since you've already answered Terry's version of this question you don't have to answer mine.

E. Yarber said...

And of course the whole game changes when it comes to theatrical films. When I had a horror movie picked up, I spent a full month in conference with the director, who had lots of ideas of his own and even paid out of his own pocket to have conceptual art made of the climactic sequence he had in mind. If you don't count that I was writing all his revisions myself from his instructions (and who's counting?), he was entitled to at least a co-writing credit for the major contribution he made to the story. However, he considered that part of his job in preparing the film and didn't seek additional recognition (or money).

He was also a highly prolific television director. For those jobs, he was noted for being able to come to the set and get X amount of pages in the can every day, no creative input from him necessary. TV is writer-driven because you need a staff to build continuity through an entire season, and it's physically impossible for one director to film a single-camera hour and prep next week's work at the same time.

When the horror movie collapsed, the next project was a historical film. In that case, the proposed director was willing to begin work with me on the strength of a treatment alone. I much preferred that situation because I wouldn't have to build a wall on my own, then take it apart and reassemble it brick by brick to suit the filmmaker. It's too bad that the second guy couldn't make a deal with the producers, but once again he'd only have been credited for direction.

Janet Ybarra said...

Oh, one more MASH related FQ seeing as I'm watching the SundanceTV marathon. We know so many great actors appeared on the series before they hit big...John Ritter, George Wendt, Joan van Ark, Blythe Dinner, Lawrence Fishburne and many more.

Just wondering, Ken, if you could pass put some muscle in your vocabulary, with a medium of of insight and a smattering of mirth and relay and amusing anecdotes about any of them from your time on the series. Did ya see what I did there???��

Robert Brauer said...

Thanks for the explanation Ken. I always kind of figured that the "story" person came up with the general idea of what was going to happen, while the "teleplay" person did the heavy lifting of actually knocking out the script (which explains why they get paid more).

Hey, sort of a Friday Question: I've been reading Dave Itzkoff's wonderful new biography of Robin Williams, "Robin", and I just got to the part where Robin is going to be cast as Mork on Happy Days.

Imagine my surprise when I read that none other than Roger Rees was originally cast in that role, only to quit a couple of days later (apparently, he felt he couldn't play the part well. Itzkoff quotes him as saying "He (Mork)'s not a real person").

Did Roger ever bring this up when working on Cheers, and possibly lament giving up a chance to play such an iconic character?

Janet Ybarra said...

Hi Ken,

Here are a couple of other FQ ideas, or at least things I'd love to get your thoughts on.

First, what do you think about the phenomenon around cable where more outlets seem to be basically be binge-casting the same few handful of shows

For instance, on any given day you probably can find MASH run all day on WGN, AMC, Sundance, etc. Same goes for NCIS running all day on other networks. LAW AND ORDER, etc.

It seems like there really isn't as much on as one might think.

Second, I was curious as to your review of the various re-run/nostalgia channels (ie MeTV, Antenna, Cozi, Comet, etc.)


Janet Ybarra said...

@Robert Brauer, I hadn't heard about Roger Rees, but early on apparently also the long time character actor John Byner was offered Mork and turned it down. He went on to play the recurring character of Detective Donohue on SOAP.

Robert Brauer said...

@Janet Ybarra, yes, I believe the book mentioned Byner as someone who was offered the part but turned it down. They apparently went to about four or five different actors before getting to Roger Rees, and then went to Robin after auditioning fifty potential Morks.

Bryan Thomas said...

I read the credits on everything, not just writing credits, and I don’t think they do accurately reflect the work people do, sadly. And that is disappointing. The WGAw rules are great but there are writers making contributions who don’t get credits, for example.