Showrunner and Show Bible? Or Cult?

I don’t currently do much heavily collaborative writing, but I’m still very interested in the process of creating very collaborative works. So one of the many stimulating discussions at Monktoberfest was a presentation by two awesome O’Reilly staffers about the future (and past) of authorship. Needless to say, collaborative authoring was a major theme. What particularly jumped out at me in the talk and the discussion afterwards was a nagging fear that any text authored by multiple people would necessarily lack the coherence and vision of the best single-author writing.

I’ve often been very sympathetic to this concern. Watching groups of people get together and try to collaboratively create work is often painful. Those groups that have done best, in my experience, are often those with some sort of objective standard for the work they’re creating. In software, that’s usually “it compiles,” followed (in the best case) by “it passes all the tests.” Where there aren’t objective standards all team members can work with – as is often the case with UI  – the process tends to fall apart. Where there are really detailed objective standards that every contribution can be measured against – HTTP, HTML – open source is often not just competitive, but dominant.

On the flip side, you get no points for thinking of the canonical example of a single designer’s vision guiding the development of software. But Apple is an example that proves the rule – software UIs that are developed without reference to objective standards of good/bad are usually either bad, or run by a not-very-benevolent dictator who has spent decades refining his vision of authorship.

Wikipedia is another very large exception to the “many cooks” argument. It is an exception because most written projects can’t possibly have a rule of thumb so straightforward and yet effective as “neutral point of view,” because most written projects aren’t factual, dry or broken-up-into-small-chunks. In other words, most written projects aren’t encyclopedias and so can’t be written “by rule.”

Or at least that’s what I was thinking during the talk. In response to this, someone commented during the post-talk Q&A1 that essentially all TV shows are collaboratively written, and yet manage to be coherent. In fact, in our new golden age of TV drama they’re often more than coherent- they’re quite good, despite extremely complex plots sprawling over several years of effort. This has stuck in my head ever since because it goes against all my hard-learned instincts.

I really don’t know what the trick is, since I’m not a TV writer. I suspect that in most cases the showrunner does it by (1) having a very clear vision of where the show is going (often not the case in software) and (2) clearly articulating and communicating that vision – i.e. having a good show bible and sticking to it.

If you’re not looking carefully, this looks a lot like what Aaron has rightly called a cult of personality. But I think, after being reminded about showrunners and show bibles, it is important to distinguish the two. It is a fine line, but there is a real different between what Aaron is concerned about and skilled leadership. Maybe a good test is to ask that leader: where is your show bible? What can I read to understand the vision, and help flesh it out like the writer of an episode? If the answer is “follow whatever I’m thinking about this month,” or “I’m too busy leading to write it down”, then you’ve got problems. But if your leadership can explain, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater- that’s a person who has thought seriously about what they’re doing and how you can help them build something bigger and better than you could each do alone, not a cult leader.

  1. if you’re this person, please drop me a note and I’ll credit you! []