The New York Times has a fascinating roundtable discussion with the showrunners of several popular network, cable, and streaming television shows, talking about the impact social media has had—including how social media feedback has changed what they're writing.
The discussion features Shonda Rhimes (Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy), Carlton Cuse (Bates Motel and previously Lost), Robert and Michelle King (The Good Wife), Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire), Scott Buck (Dexter), and Beau Willimon (House of Cards). There's some discussion about how these folks have taken to social media to market their shows, but a lot of the discussion is focused on viewer feedback. Many of these creators say that social media, fans sharing speculation, and fans rewatching episodes have inspired them to create more detailed stories. Sometimes, that feedback also makes them rethink their approach to the stories they're telling:
Cuse You have to have kind of a thick skin and try to maintain some perspective. There are definitely things that I’ve learned in that kind of communion with the audience. Even on “Bates,” for instance, we had certain scenes that we thought were very objective and the audience didn’t consider our storytelling to be a reliable narrator. Some people weren’t sure whether [the scene about] a sex slave in this basement was actually true. It’s amazing sometimes when you do stuff and you think it’s really clear that the audience is going to interpret things in one way and they don’t.
Robert King Sometimes there are lapses of storytelling not even in the script. But when you get to the execution, either in the editing or in the acting, a bead is lost. When you realize when 50 people on social media are misunderstanding that in the same exact way, that’s something we have to correct.
Cuse When you’re telling a story, no matter how rigorous you are with yourself and your collaborators as to the clarity and intention of the story, you’re still in a bubble. The moment that the audience becomes involved, that bubble dissolves. Perception is reality. So, however they perceive it, is actually what it is. I think the key, at least for me, is to allow it to inform, not necessarily to dictate.
Scott Buck A lot of audience members really take possession of the characters to the point that I’ll see messages or e-mails saying Dexter would never do that. It’s like, well, he did it. But if you get multiple messages like that, then you do have to stop and think.
Willimon When Dickens was writing his novels, and they were serialized once a month, he read all the letters that came in. His novels were actually a real dialogue with his audience. He was writing to entertain them, and he got paid by the word, and he wanted them to be pleased. But he also wanted to make sure that they got the story he was trying to tell.
They also discuss the evolving landscape of television and, with the approaching Dexter finale in mind, the challenges of ending a show.
Top image by Esther Vargas.