A commonplace in the television industry is that "it all begins with the script." In part, this notion recognizes the centrality of writers in the early days of live television, when authors such as Reginald Rose, Paddy Chayevsky and Rod Serling established the medium as an arena for the exploration of character, psychology, and moral complexity in close intimate settings. With the television industry's move to Hollywood in the 1950s, and its increasing reliance on filmed, formulaic, studio factory productions, writers were often reduced to "hack" status, churning out familiar material that was almost interchangeable across genres. This week's western could be reformatted for next week's crime drama. This view oversimplifies, of course, and ignores extraordinary work in television series such as Naked City, The Defenders, Route 66 and others. But it does capture conventional assumptions and expectations.
In the 1970s, with the rise of socially conscious situation comedy often identified with producer Norman Lear and the "quality" comedies associated with MTM Productions, writers once again moved to positions of prominence. Lear himself was a writer-producer, one of the many "hyphenates" who would follow into positions of authority and control. And Grant Tinker, head of MTM, sought out strong writers and encouraged them to create new shows--and new types of shows--for television. Indeed, the legacy of MTM stands strong in today's television industry. Names such as James Brooks, Alan Burns, Steven Bochco, David Milch, and others can trace their careers to that company.
At the present time almost every major producer in American television is also a writer. Writers oversee series development and production, create new programs, and see to the coordination and conceptual coherence of series in progress. Their skills are highly valued and, for the very successful few, extremely highly rewarded. Never the less, the role of the writer is affected by many other issues, and despite new respect and prominence, remains a complex, often conflicted position within the television industry.