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When TV meets academia

Mel Flanagan | Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Christine Becker, associate professor of Film, Theater and Television, was one of just 20 professors selected to attend a seminar sponsored by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Foundation last week in Los Angeles.

The exclusive seminar chose professors from across the country through an application process and invited them to the Academy’s headquarters for five days of educational panels, presentations by television executives and behind-the-scenes set visits.

“It appears to be a way to create ties between the television industry and academia,” Becker said. “It’s partly to help us learn more about the industry and partly to help them with outreach into the educational community.”

The Academy emphasized the wealth of opportunities they offer students such as internships or scholarships, as well as advice they give for graduates looking to get into the media industry.

“[There was] advice from the panelists on how to find work in the industry when you’re just starting out,” she said. “Many of the participants enthusiastically recalled their own college experiences and how they carried things they learned in college into their careers.”

Becker, who applied for the seminar last year but was not selected, said the academy chose educators from a variety of institutions and backgrounds.

“About half of the professors taught television production and broadcast production, and the other half of us were television studies – what I would consider myself – or people who teach television history and criticism,” she said.

Participating faculty traveled from institutions across the country, including Penn State, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Ryder University.

Becker said the insight of the television industry members who work behind-the-scenes was the most beneficial experience. While television stars and showrunners, or “above-the-line” players, are likely to provide interviews and discuss their jobs, it is uncommon for “below-the-line” players to do the same.

“The below-the-line panel, with an editor, cinematographer and production designer was really invaluable,” Becker said. “We got to hear them talk about what they do and how they create shows. … It was direct access to industry people we wouldn’t get otherwise.”

Other panel discussions included topics such as how content is created for children’s television and the day-to-day duties of showrunners.

The most fascinating panel featured program executives from each of the five major networks, Becker said, who are tasked with setting up the weekly schedule.

“It was really interesting talking to them,” she said. “Increasingly, audiences are watching shows by other means, and their job is to find ways to keep the schedule in a traditional mode while also considering the fact that people are watching the shows from different means.”

Regardless of their insight, Becker said she was honored the executives attended the conference in the first place.

“These are extremely busy people with high-pressure jobs, and it’s gratifying to see they care enough about the fact that we are teaching the students this information that they would take time out of their day to talk to us,” she said.

Trips outside of the Academy’s facilities to television and film production sets complimented the in-house panels.

The group visited Stargate Studios, a visual effects studio that provides special effects for shows such as “Walking Dead,” and the Warner Bros. production area, where the Academy showed the professors the sets of multi-camera sitcoms such as “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory.”

Becker said she particularly enjoyed a trip to the YouTube hangar, where industry workers are charged with creating professional-looking YouTube videos with high-quality content.

“We got a look at the traditional method of Hollywood and then a glimpse of what the new future of content could potentially be,” she said.

Becker said the seminar helped highlight some connections between traditional media practices and what students are beginning to explore.

“When I ask my students if they watch shows on the time they’re scheduled, they say no,” Becker said. “It’s interesting, knowing that the students I teach, some of whom are going to be the future of the television industry, are doing very different things than the people in the industry are right now.”