Collective Authorship

Mapping the Creation: Collective Authorship

When discussing television-series, scholars and literary scholars in particular tend to devote the show to someone, an author. This is more than understandable since this practice dates back over three centuries and has served its users well:

"Since the 18th century, there has been a culturally significant need to fall back on the author for interpretative processes and value judgments of an artistic work based on the creative act, authenticity, individuality, originality, unity of the work and its depth of meaning." (Schönert, 2011: 1)

And even Roland Barthes, who famously declared the author's dead in 1968, could not entirely silent those in favor of what Ole Petras calls a signifying unit [Signifizierende Einheit] (Petras, 2001: 5). The author still remains a valuable source for the "interrelation of his works (oeuvre); as a reference for classification in terms of epoch and canon; and as an important point of reference for the meanings ascribed to works through which the recipient can determine the author's intention and/or author-related contexts relevant to understanding a work" (Schönert, 2011: 2).

So it seems plausible to speak of David Chase's The Sopranos, David Simon's The Wire or Vince Gilligan's Breaking Bad. The creators of the shows serve as the only signifying unit there is, since even the directors change from episode to episode.

State of Research

Obviously, it is not that easy. Chatman and others have already described the problematic position of such an assumption for the medium of film. Cinematic works like feature films and television series are not authored by a single person but are the outcome of a collective authorship (Kamp 1996). Neither David Chase, David Simon nor Vince Gilligan have written their entire shows, story-lines and plots1. They have a staff of dedicated script-writers2. But even if there was a creator who wrote the whole show without the help of others, there are still producers, directors, camera men, editors, sound engineers, graphic designers and many more involved within the production3.

Needless to say that pinning down the creators intention might shed light on some aspects of the show, it does not take into account the creative processes raising within a larger group of people.

"Collective Authorship"

We believe it would be fruitful to accept the diffuse author-situation as it is and accept that all the output of the miscellaneous people involved is channeled through the production instance. We see the studios are those who finalize the series, so we would like to talk about HBO's The Sopranos or AMC's Breaking Bad, because this allows us to reconstruct the origin and temporal aspects of the creative output. And it is through the studios that the various parts of television-series gain their legitimation4.

We think it is reasonable to add that the television-show is not just the episode you see each week, but also everything (mainly 'paratexts') that surrounds the show: covers5, artworks6, web-sites, DVD-Designs, applications for mobile phones7, minisodes8 and others9.



  1. Whenever the script of Breaking Bad is praised in interviews, Gilligan mentions his team of writers in nearly to emphasize the fact that he had the idea but it took the collective to take it to the next level: <>, <> and <http:// www.>.
  2. This is by no means a phenomenon of the 20th century. There have been collaborations of authors before: "During Antiquity and in the Middle Ages, e.g., texts were produced, over and above those created by an author through transcriptions, additions, commentaries and compilations which were attributable to more than one author. Since the late 18th century, popular prose fiction has often been written by anonymous or pseudonymous groups of authors and highbrow literature by authors in cooperation, usually declared" (Schönert, 2011: 16).
  3. Whenever the aspect of collective authorship is brought up in discussions on film, Fassbender's In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden [In a Year of Thirteen Moons, 1978], possibly the one example "where one person is the producer, director, camera operator, sound expert and actor at the same time" (Schmidt, 2013: 17). In television series, HBO's Girls seems to come
    closest to Fassbender, with Lena Dunham being creator, head writer, executive producer, director of several episodes and actor. But even with all the responsibilities she takes on, there are many more people involved without whom the show whould never be the way the audience eventually encounters it.
  4. One question that surfaces regarding the limits of what can be — in a paratextual way — be assigned as belonging to the television-series. We believe that there needs be a line drawn between the media officially generated by the studio and fan-made art.
  5. For instance the official cover for the Shield Season 7: <
  6. As used in advertisements: <>.
  7. AMC's The Cost of Doing Business accompanied the third season of Breaking Bad: <>.
  8. The ones done for Breaking Bad generated much excitement: <>.
  9. In How I Met Your Mother, for instance, the "Bro-Code", which was introduced by Barney Stintson is now available as a book: <>.

Works Cited

  • Barthes, Roland ([1968] 1977). "The Death of the Author." R. B. Image Music Text. London: Fontana, 142–48.
  • Chatman, Seymour (1990). Coming to Terms. The Rhetoric of Narrative in Fiction and Film. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  • Jannidis, Fotis, et al. eds. (1999). Rückkehr des Autors. Zur Erneuerung eines umstrittenen Begriffs. Tübingen: Niemeyer.
  • Petras, Ole (2011). Wie Popmusik bedeutet.Eine synchrone Beschreibung popmusikalischer Zeichenverwendung. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag.
  • Schmidt, Johann N.: "Narration in Film", Paragraph 17. In: Hühn, Peter et al. (eds.): The living Handbook of Narratology. Hamburg: Hamburg University Press. URL < ?title=Narration in Film &oldid=1988> [view date: 24 March 2013]
  • Schönert, Jörg: "Author", Paragraph 44. In: Hühn, Peter et al. (eds.): The living Handbook of Narratology. Hamburg: Hamburg University Press. URL <> [view date: 22 March 2013]


This article was last updated:

02 April 2013


Author of the article: MS