Showrunners’ Scripts are More Cognitively Complex

Starling David Hunter, Susan Smith, Shanzeh Shafiq


The term “showrunner” is used in the US entertainment industry to describe the person who is the chief executive and creative officer of a television TV series. The position is very prestigious, often very financially rewarding, and thus highly sought-after. While there are many paths to the role-and even instances of almost overnight success-the vast majority of current showrunners worked their way up over several years from staff writing positions to production-related roles, often across several different series in the process. Conventional wisdom about how to climb the ladder from writer to showrunner strongly emphasizes the importance of both writing and of originality. While there is research linking objective characteristics of pilot episode scripts to success of the subsequent series, we are aware of no studies that consider whether and how scripts written by showrunners differ from those written by staff writers. Towards that end, in this study we compare the scripts written by showrunners with those written by their staff writers for two highly-acclaimed dramatic series from the last decade-The Good Wife (2009) and The Mentalist (2008). Specifically, we test for differences in the “cognitive complexity” of the two groups of scripts. As expected, we find that, on average, scripts written by showrunners exhibited higher cognitive complexity than those written by staff writers. We also found that scripts by writing team members who later became showrunners for original new series had higher cognitive complexity than those written by staff writers who have yet to attain to this role.

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Studies in Media and Communication      ISSN 2325-8071 (Print)   ISSN 2325-808X (Online)

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