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TV Showrunners and Twitter: Too Much Exposure?

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Until recently, Kurt Sutter ran two ongoing shows: FX’s Sons of Anarchy and his Twitter feed. The former is a drama about the brutal lives of a California biker gang, entering its fourth season on FX this fall. The latter was Sutter’s unfiltered, or at least minimally filtered, stream of consciousness, about his show, the creative process, and his unbridled opinions about the TV business. Over this weekend, Sutter canceled his second show, deleting his Twitter account after his off-the-cuff opinions became news once too often–most recently, for his charge that Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner was responsible for budget-tightening at Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead, because he demanded (and got) too much money from AMC and thus “broke their bank.”

I wouldn’t exactly call Sutter’s departure a twimmolation: he didn’t accidentally tweet something he meant to keep private, like Anthony Weiner, nor did he lose his job over his opinions. In fact, Sutter doesn’t seem to regret his opinions or disown them; he says he’s simply tired of becoming news every time he vents them. (As happened earlier this year when he went on a tirade, which he later called “black humor,” against the Emmys when SOA was snubbed.) Rather, Sutter said that Twitter is not necessarily the best medium for someone “without filters,” like himself.

For those of us who followed Sutter, it’s a shame. His Twitter feed was obscene and pugilistic, but it was also that rare thing—a producer in Hollywood not only being willing to say what he thought about the industry in public, but to name names and shows. Sutter also engaged with fans and critics online, sometimes sparring, sometimes agreeing, but generally with thoughts in mind rather than simply a chip on his shoulder.

Sutter was just one of the more outspoken of a number of TV showrunners who have taken to engaging with their audience on Twitter in the past few years, though: among the more prolific are Dan Harmon (Community), Hart Hanson (Bones), Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy) and Mike Schur (Parks and Recreation, under the Twitter handle “KenTremendous”).

They have different styles, as suits the different styles of their shows: Harmon’s tweets range from absurdist observations to responses to fan praise and criticisms; Schur tends more toward dry humor (and sports tweets); Damon Lindelof is still taking and answering flak for the Lost finale (with good, often self-deprecating humor) over a year later, at one point getting into a (exaggerated for comic effect) “feud” with Geroge R. R. Martin earlier this year.

Like many social media outlets, Twitter has made for a more immediate kind of engagement between creator and audience, but sometimes an unpredictable one. As Sutter has found (and Lindelof did to an extent with the GRRM feud), it’s easy for offhand remarks online to be inflated into TV-news stories (especially since there is not much investigative journalism easier than monitoring one’s Twitter feed).

But while Sutter didn’t cite this as a reason for logging off, a second drawback I wonder about—and I say this as a fan and heavy user of Twitter—is whether too much feedback from the audience, too immediately, can be bad for the creative process. Already, in an age of many outlets for fan demands and discussions, the temptation to write one’s show to placate the Internet must be great; with Twitter—especially if a producer/writer is highly engaged and active—it can also be constant.

A writer should be open to criticism, of course, but one of a writer’s greatest challenges is also knowing when to shut out outside voices and listen to only those in your head. And on a medium like Twitter, those voices can run into the thousands, or even the millions. As I’ve said once before (I may have tweeted it), someday “I never read the tweets” could be the new “I never read reviews.”

It’s a tough balance, because shutting one’s self off may not be the right answer either, and I don’t envy TV creators who have to strike it. (To my best knowledge, Aaron Sorkin is not on Twitter, and given his history of sensitivity to the online peanut gallery, that may be best for all of us.) In any case, I’ll miss Kurt Sutter on Twitter (he’s still on YouTube and on his blog), but if ceasing to provoke us with tweets is the best way for him to keep provoking us with SOA, I’ll take the tradeoff.

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