It started when Jay Black wrote a post at TV Squad positing the idea that the way to make television better is to apply the auteur theory, heightening the public consciousness of the idea that showrunners are the people whose vision shapes and defines a show. The notion being that just as the new consciousness of directors helped improve American movies in the ’70s, television will improve if the public and critics — and the executives, who eventually have no choice but to follow the public — are more aware of TV as art and showrunners as artists.
Then Kay Reindl replied at Seriocity, taking issue with Black’s points but agreeing that there should be more public awareness of important showrunners and the history of the people who make TV.
What I’ll add here is that the way movies and TV shows are written and created has more in common than we may always realize. The thing about movie writing is that it is not really an art form in and of itself. (There are a few screenwriters, like Charlie Kaufman and Paddy Chayefsky, who can write screenplays that represent their own personal vision that shapes the whole movie. This is incredibly rare.) Movies are usually written to fit the vision of whoever is in control of the project: sometimes it’s the director, sometimes the producer. (The auteur theory was really developed in part to combat the idea, popular in the U.S. and France in the ’40s and ’50s, that the producer was by definition more important than the director and that the most important movies were the big prestigious productions.) The majority of movie scripts have contributions from more than one person, and even the ones that have only one writer are not usually that writer’s personal work, because the writer has been given notes and suggestions by the person in control of the film, and the script will not be “ready” until it is the script the director wants to shoot. (If the director is the writer, the same thing applies, of course. He/she won’t be satisfied with the script unless it’s what he/she wanted as a director.) Attempts to evaluate an individual screenwriter’s work separately from the director or producer almost always go wide of the mark, because the script would not have been the same with a different director or producer.
The same thing applies to television. Except a little more so, because whereas some directors can write all their own movies themselves, almost no showrunner can write every episode of a TV series by his or herself. (Unless it’s one of those BBC things where there are only six episodes to write. Or unless you’re Susan Harris.) So the creator and/or showrunner of a series has to have a writing staff. But while the individual writers can have some input — and as Reindl says, it used to be more common than it is now for showrunners to actually teach their writers how to produce and take a more active role in production (Greg Daniels of The Office is one showrunner who still has a reputation for doing that) — ultimately, every episode that’s written, no matter who write it, is filtered through the sensibility of the showrunner, if only because the showrunner has to approve it, and that means, just as a movie writer is writing to please the director, the TV writer is writing to please the showrunner. Which means that almost anybody who writes for movies or episodic television has to accept having their individuality crushed a little; they’re not supposed to write in their own unique and personal voice, they’re supposed to mimic somebody else’s.
The auteur theory is really just a truism: if something is good, then there’s somebody in charge. But that’s always been true. It’s also true that a lot of bad stuff has somebody in charge, and that’s also part of the theory; we need somebody to blame, too. I doubt TV will get any better if we raise public awareness of auteur showrunners, though. After all, most of the great Hollywood directors did better work before the general public knew they were auteurs; what mattered was that they knew they were in charge, and so did their writers and crews.