Updated: 01/16/2004

 

Planning a Successful

Career in Television

Carving out a successful career in a competitive field like television takes special talents.   What does it take to get off to a good start and make a go of it? This article is devoted to answering that question.

I have been involved in television for several decades, as an announcer and news anchor, as a producer-director of thousands of hours of TV programming (much of it live), and as a teacher.

In the latter capacity I have watched some of my students work up through the ranks to being executive producers of major TV series. Others found the competition too great, gave up their career goals, and found employment elsewhere.

What has made the difference? Probably seven things:

1. Motivation In any competitive field you must really want to make it. This type of motivation does not waver from week-to-week or month-to-month, but is evidenced by a consistent and single-minded dedication.

2. Personality  Although this is, admittedly, a vague term, it encompasses several things. First, since television is typically a collaborative effort, it means an ability and an unselfish desire work with others to accomplish production goals.

Included in this category is attitude, another term that has many definitions. But in this context we're talking about the general (positive or negative) demeanor of individuals, how they accept assignments, whether they are pleasant to be around and work with, and how they take suggestions or criticism.

Since there is often considerable pressure in TV production, we look for people who can cope with stress and remain cooperative. "Thin skinned" individuals who can't detach themselves from their work and take constructive criticism are in for a "bumpy ride."

3. Knowledge and skills We seek out people who know how to do things and get them done. "Nice, but incompetent" is not a phrase we want to hear about ourselves. We would much rather be told, "Well, I know if anybody can do it, I know you can."

4. Creativity We've been trying to define this concept for centuries. It involves looking at things in new ways and then (in TV production) getting our audience to see and experience them in new ways.

In Hollywood there's a saying that an original idea for a story is one that hasn't been used for at least a couple of months. How many movies have you seen that follow the theme:  boy meets girl; boy loses girl; and boy wins girl back again. Although the idea may be hackneyed, we continue to be entertained by this basic love story concept because the idea is regularly played out in new, creative, and interesting ways— and with interesting new stars.

If Proverbs is right and there is nothing new under the sun, then it becomes a matter of presenting old concepts in creative new ways. In drama this may mean unexpected and unpredictable twists. In traditional production it may mean creative new camera angles, effects, or editing techniques.

One thing for sure: the more thoroughly you understand the medium— the production equipment, and the full range of production techniques available to you, etc .— the better chance you will have at using the medium in exciting new ways — ways that will hold, inform, and entertain an audience.

5. Willingness to sacrifice for your goals Since television, especially broadcast television, is highly competitive with the supply of job applicants normally exceeding the number of job openings, starting salaries are often low. Faced with this, many students quickly abandon dreams of eventually making it in television and opt for better-paying jobs.

Those who are willing to stick with it and "pay their dues" often not only end up making more money than those who dropped out of the competition, but find themselves working in a field that may be a much more exciting and satisfying. For many people doing something they really enjoy throughout their lives is more important than making more money at a profession they dread to face each morning.

There are also certain sacrifices when it comes to life style. If your main goal is to have a predictable, 9-to-5 job with optimum stability, broadcasting will not be your first choice. TV production, especially news and documentary work, can have unpredictable hours. In doing documentary work you may be away from home for days or weeks at a time. In news, you may be called out on a story at any hour of the day or night.

Although some may find this exciting, others feel that it gets in the way of a stable family life. If you go into one of these areas you may want to look for an understanding spouse, one that is at least sympathetic to your goals. News and documentary work have definitely taken a toll on the institution of marriage.

6. An aptitude for working with words and pictures Great composers have an ability to "hear" music in their heads, even before it goes down on paper. Television writers, directors and artists can do the same. They have an aptitude for images and they have an ability to visualize their ideas.

Although television is visual, it is also very much word-based. We have to clearly and succinctly communicate ideas in the form of proposals, scripts, and instructions to cast and crew.

As noted in one of the modules, when an aspiring television student approached David Brinkley in a swank restaurant and boldly asked his advice on the key to success in television news, Brinkley, who by that time had spent more than 40 very successful years in news, reportedly put down his fork, considered the question, and said, "Three things. Learn to write.  Learn to write.  And, learn to write."

We should also add to this, reading. Since TV is a profession that deals in ideas, you must become an avid reader. Current events inform you of ideas that  soon find their way into productions. The "trades" (professional publications) keep you abreast of the latest technology and how its being applied in production work.  In short, read!  Keep up with what's going on.

7. Reliability and an ability to meet deadlines The most important "instrument" in broadcasting is the clock. If you can't be relied upon to get the job done within the assigned time your chances of getting future assignments will rapidly diminish and eventually be nonexistent.

A newscast that's finished a minute after air time is worthless; a production that's finished late will, at the very least, incur added production expenses. The availability of crew members, and production equipment and facilities are generally tightly scheduled. A camera operator or on-air personality may not be available tomorrow for what you didn't get done today. Satellite or studio time may not be available a few minutes after your scheduled finishing time.

To avoid costly overtime expenses in one production facility engineers were instructed to shut down all equipment precisely at the end of the time allotted for the production — even  though it was only minutes away from completion. Late starts, the need to redo segments, etc., had to somehow be made up by the director before the end of the time allotted for the production. Before they learned to plan ahead and stay within the established time limits, more than one director (including this one) saw all the screens in front of them suddenly go black when time ran out.

Collecting Evidence of Competency

Each year hundreds of young people who have just finished a degree in broadcasting or telecommunications appear in front of prospective employers. For each job opening several candidates who are lucky enough to get through the initial screening will be interviewed. Only one will get the job.

Preparation for landing a job in broadcasting must start long before graduation. Specifically, we're talking about such things as work experience, internships, and a solid resume that will probably include a resume reel (a videocassette) of some of your best work.

Work Experience

On-the-job training is costly to an employer. The inevitable mistakes that occur during the learning process are also costly.  Employers would rather play it safe— their reputations are on the line too— and put someone in the job who has already proven themselves on the job. For this reason, experience is ranked at the top of desirable qualifications.

Admittedly, not everyone will be fortunate enough spend one or more summers working at a local TV station. But for those who are able to wangle jobs, even part-time jobs, employment prospects will be better.

Students often ask, "I worked several summers at a fast-food restaurant (or doing other work unrelated to television), should I put that on my resume?" The answer is, "yes," unless you can fully "feather out" a one-page resume with significant professional experience. Showing an employer that you have already held down a job indicates that you've learned to deal with job responsibilities and deadlines, mundane as they might have been.

Internships

The next thing prospective employers look for is internship experience. This not only shows that applicants are probably serious about the field, but that they have already "gotten their feet wet." Internship experience also indicates that the school-to-job transition will probably be easier.

From the students' point of view not only do internships offer valuable, on-the-job experience, but they provide important professional contacts. By keeping in touch with people working in the field you will often know of job openings far in advance of seeing the ads in professional publications.

College Experience

Although not as impressive as "real world" experience, when listing your experience on your resume don't overlook what you have done in college. Have you produced or directed a TV show or a series; have you hosted one or more productions; have you won any awards for productions? Such things may separate you from a dozen or so applicants without such experience.

Resumes

When you first apply for a job in television you will probably be represented solely by a cover letter and a one-page resume. Without dwelling on things like good writing, organization, etc., let's just say that your resume has to be strong enough to outshine the competition and get you in for an interview.

In many professional media areas — public relations, journalism, and television — you will typically be asked for some sort of proof of what you can do. As sincere as they might be, good intentions don't carry too much weight in themselves. In television this generally translates into a "resume reel" of your best work. (You will probably be continually updating your resume reel all of your professional life.)

While in production classes be sure to save particularly good examples of your work. Before graduation while you have access to production equipment you can assemble your best segments into a short resume reel. (Today, we would probably be more accurate in changing "resume reel" to "resume cassette," but we'll stick with the traditional term.)

In putting together your reel, don't save the best to last. Those reviewing a stack of resume reels often don't take the time to view more than an opening cut. Lead off and finish with your most professional-looking work.

Looking for Work in All the Right Places

Many large media corporations publish monthly bulletins of jobs. In addition, there are computer bulletin board and Internet services which list jobs in multiple media areas. There are also several media employment services or agencies. Your school's placement service may have information on these. Broadcasting and Cable Magazine, as well as several other broadcast-related publications, regularly carry ads for jobs.

As a last resort you can use the "shotgun approach" of sending out unsolicited resumes to selected TV stations and production facilities. (Check the latest edition of the Television Factbook for information on the facility you are writing to, including the name of their personnel manager or department head.) You might mention in the cover letter that you will be calling in about a week to see about an interview. That way, they may keep your resume handy so they can refer to it when you call.

Even though you may not hear from many of the people you write to— they are very busy people — they will often keep your resume on file and you may get a call when a job opens up. If you do get called for an interview, make sure to do your "homework"; know everything possible about the facility.

Finally, learn to handle rejection without dejection. While you are striving to break into this competitive field, you'll be competing with many applicants with similar qualifications. Many candidates give up hope and drop out along the way.

If you can stay optimistically persistent, and keep pursuing every possibility the chances are good that eventually you will end up being "the right person, at the right place, at the right time."

Once you get into the field you'll know that you are in the company of others like yourself — men and women who have demonstrated that they have what it takes to make it in a competitive rewarding and oftentimes very exciting field.

Module 69 of the Television Production cybertext covers many of these same topics.



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