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ND Grad set to talk “Prime Time”

Cassie Belek | Monday, November 12, 2007

After graduating from Notre Dame in 1991, Katie O’Connell, senior vice president of drama development at NBC Entertainment, did what so many other Notre Dame graduates do – she moved to Chicago to work at a job that she had interviewed for on campus.

In a few years, however, she decided to make the great leap from health care consulting in the Midwest to show business on the West Coast.

O’Connell returns to campus today to present “Developing Prime-Time Television” as part of the ongoing FTT Talks series. As she describes the development process from the moment a series is pitched to the moment it airs, she will show clips from various series currently on NBC as well as dailies from new pilots now in production.

When O’Connell first moved to Los Angeles, she worked as an assistant at the talent agency Creative Artists Agency. It was an experience that was similar to “Entourage,” she said during a telephone interview Friday. After her stint at the agency, she landed a job as a comedy development executive at CBS, which she said was a difficult jump to make.

Next she was hired to run comedy development at Imagine Television, where she developed the Emmy Award-winning cult comedy “Arrested Development.”

“I’m partial to ‘Arrested Development,'” O’Connell said. “I would say that’s one of my favorites. That was a very fun, rewarding, really great experience.”

O’Connell eventually ended up at NBC, where she developed recent Emmy winner “30 Rock,” as well as new series “Chuck,” “Bionic Woman,” “Life” and “Journeyman.”

O’Connell said her job focuses on everything leading up to the first airing of a series. Once a show has aired six to 13 episodes, the development department steps back and the current department takes over. But O’Connell said it is difficult to watch series she develops, like “Arrested Development,” struggle for ratings.

“It’s just heartbreaking,” she said. “The writers work so hard, and it just shows how hard the business is. And there’s so many external factors that determine whether or not a show is successful, and you can’t predict it. At some point you let go and hope that it connects with the audience.”

While studying at Notre Dame, O’Connell majored in American Studies and lived in Pasquerilla West before moving off campus. She said that her favorite memories of Notre Dame are just hanging out with friends at their apartments.

“It wasn’t sophisticated,” she says. “It was just being together with friends at a moment of time in your life when that’s what you’re supposed to be doing.”

O’Connell was also at Notre Dame for the 1988 National Championship football season.

“There’s nothing that beats fall in South Bend, Indiana and the tradition of football games and that sense of all the alumni coming,” she said. “One of my favorite memories is when we all went down to the Fiesta Bowl when we won the national championship.”

As fond as her memories are of Notre Dame, O’Connell feels that she was at a disadvantage when graduating because the department of film, television and theatre didn’t exist to educate students about the entertainment industry and help them make contacts. However, she also notes that it is possible to make it in the entertainment industry and in development without being an FTT major.

“I think that what I do for a living is storytelling,” she said. “I look back at when I took a Shakespeare class or looked at classic literature. Anything that has to do with storytelling is relevant to what I do today.”

She said her advice for students looking toward the entertainment industry is obvious but important.

“Go to as many movies as you can. Watch as many TV shows as you can,” she said. “If you really want to get into the business, educate yourself. Start to formulate your taste and your opinions.”

“Developing Prime-Time Television” will take place tonight at 7 p.m. at the Browning Cinema in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center. The event is free but ticketed. Call 574-631-2800 or go to the DPAC’s Ticket Office to reserve tickets.