What does it take to launch a successful career in a competitive field like broadcast television?
If I can speak personally for a moment, I have been involved in television for several decades -- as an announcer and so-called TV personality, as a producer-director of thousands of hours of TV programming (most of it live), and as a university professor.
In the latter capacity I watched some of my students work up through the ranks to become producers of TV series and feature-length films. Others found the going too rough, abandoned their dream, and found employment elsewhere.
What made the difference? Probably eight 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 consistent and single-minded. In short, you must stay focused on your goal.
2. Personality Although admittedly a vague term, it encompasses several things. First, since television is a collaborative effort, it requires an ability to work with others to accomplish professional goals.
Included in this category is attitude. In this context we're definitely not talking about someone who "has an attitude." Quite the opposite. We're talking about the general demeanor of individuals, how they accept assignments, whether they are pleasant to work with, and how they take suggestions or criticism.
There is often considerable pressure in TV production and 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 Producers and directors look for individuals who know how to solve problems on their own, how to use the technology to its best advantage, and who can be relied upon to "make it work."
Excuses for not getting the job done right and on time are generally viewed as an admission of failure. Keep in mind that TV is a competitive business and employers know they can rather easily replace people who don't meet their expectations.
4. Creativity Although we've been trying to define this for centuries, it involves so-called thinking "outside the box," and looking at things in new ways and getting your audience to see and experience things from a fresh, engaging perspective.
The more thoroughly you understand the television medium the better chance you will have of using it in interesting, creative ways.
5. Willingness to sacrifice for your goals In highly competitive fields the supply of job applicants exceeds the number of job openings. For starting positions this means that employers may offer low starting salaries.
Those who stick it out and "pay their dues" can end up working in a field that is exciting and satisfying. For many people, doing something they enjoy throughout their lives is more important than making more money in a job that they dread to face each morning.
For those whose honed skills are in demand, the financial rewards can eventually be very great.
But, if your main goal is to have a predictable, 9-to-5 job with optimum stability, the field of broadcast television will probably not be a good choice. There is much uncertainty in the field, and the hours you may have to put in can take a toll on a social life and marriage.
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. Some areas of news, such as being a foreign correspondent, can even be dangerous.
6. An aptitude for working with words and pictures Successful television writers, directors, and artists have an aptitude for images and an ability to visualize their ideas.
Although television is largely visual, it's still word-based. We have to be able to clearly communicate ideas to sponsors, cast, and crew in the form of proposals, scripts, and instructions. The ability to effectively write and communicate is directly related to success.
7. Reliability and an ability to meet deadlines 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 disappear.
8. Lifelong learning If you assume that when you get out of school you will know all you need to for lifelong success, here's a news flash: That's not the way it works.
Although formal education is useful and it may enable you to "get in the door," most students say that it's only when they come face-to-face with on-the-job experiences that they really start learning about their profession.
And, it doesn't even end there.
The electronic media change very rapidly. It's the people who keep up with developments as reported by newspapers and "the trades" (professional magazines and journals; see below) that are in the best position to take advantage of the latest developments.
Knowing how to make best use the latest computer technology can give you an important competitive advantage.
Successful news people, for example, tend to be "news addicts" -- constantly reading about current events. If reading newspapers and newsmagazine and "being in the know" doesn't interest you, you should examine your interest in broadcast news.
On-Camera vs. Behind-the-Camera
It seems as if the majority of students who become interested in television as a career want to be seen on camera. But the majority of jobs are behind the camera.
This means that on-camera jobs tend to be extremely competitive and far more difficult to get than production (behind-the-camera) jobs.
Most on-camera jobs are in news. It's not unusual for a news director or personnel manager in a major market (geographic area) to get dozens of resumes a day for an advertised on-camera position. Even when there is no opening, applications may come in on a daily basis. Most of these people have a college degree.
Even small market stations that pay low salaries receive many applications from people who want to gain experience with the hope that can later move up to larger market.
Depending on the station and the union restrictions, it's sometimes possible to start out behind the camera and then move on to an on-camera position. Small stations occasionally provide this opportunity. More than one behind-the-camera person, including a female news anchor at a major network station in Los Angeles, stared out this way.
Whatever your goal, it's best to have an alternative plan. In other words, adequately prepare yourself for a job in a second area. You may have to rely on this to pay the bills while you are waiting for the kind of job you want.
This "Plan B" may be a non-broadcast job. This secondary field should be considered when you decide on your college minor.
There has been much debate lately about whether a college degree is worth the time and money involved.
Although those who question this have some good arguments, there is little doubt that a college degree is not only necessary to "get you in the door" for most desirable jobs, but that starting salaries are much higher. Plus, without a degree your chances for promotion, especially to a supervisory capacity, will be limited.
Although some successful people brag that they made it without a college degree, keep in mind it was much easier a decade or two ago when they probably got their start.
With a host of new college graduates to choose from each year, employers can now easily specify a college degree as a basic requirement. You may find some helpful information on college scholarships, awards, etc., at the Broadcast Education Association Web Page.
What should you major in while in college?
It certainly helps to major in a field that will directly apply to your aspirations: Telecommunications, Broadcasting, TV Production, Broadcast News, etc.
Note the table in the right that unemployment is directly related to education, with high school dropouts constituting almost half of the unemployed and those with college degrees representing only 4% of the unemployed.
Dollars and Cents
And if that isn't enough, keep in mind that there is a strong relationship between education and lifetime income. Statistics indicate that this relationship is growing stronger with each passing year.
In 1979, the average college graduate made 38 percent more than the average high school graduate. Today, the average college graduate makes at least 75 percent more.
Looking at this another way, on average, the lifetime income difference between a high-school graduate and college graduate is now four-million dollar.
Even so, as this article explains, in the last decade a downside to getting a college education has emerged.
The Internet has numerous "Top Ten" lists for schools of broadcasting. However, be aware that these listings may have commercial tie-ins and can be biased.
When choosing a college, look for accreditation, the number and types of courses, the school or division's enrollment, the number and quality of faulty, the size of classes and labs, and, of course, the broadcast equipment and studio facilities. In order to be accredited a school must meet strict quality standards.
Although there are many broadcasting schools that do not meet accreditation standards (some with large advertising budgets), the most academically respected schools are accredited.
Of course good facilities won't do you much good if the labs are too big to give you regular hands-on experience, so the size of both classes and labs should be considered. "Equipment" should include computers and computer programs.
Many schools include on-air experience through school-owned radio and TV stations. For example, the University of Florida, where the author taught before moving to California, has several on-air stations with large local audiences. Most of the instructors had "real world" experience in the field.
You should visit the school you are seriously considering, look at the campus and facilities and talk to some of the students. Sometimes the admissions office will set up an appointment with professors and even let you sit in on a class or two. If you can talk to instructors, ask them about their professional experience in the field.
More and more people with an interest in broadcasting are going on for graduate degrees. A few years ago "US News and World Report" listed the top universities for graduate work in broadcasting. In rank order they are:
Even at the undergraduate level these universities represent some of the most respected schools for pursuing a bachelor's degree in telecommunications (radio-TV, broadcasting).
Telecommunications employers also hire people with advanced degrees in related areas. Two possibilities are a MBA (Masters in Business) or a law degree specializing in Communication Law.
If you don't think you can afford college, you might be surprised after you check out this guide to reasonably priced colleges.
Careers in Broadcast Journalism
A survey of new hires in TV news found that the vast majority (94%) majored in either broadcast news or journalism/mass communication.
Although the percentage would be lower in other areas of TV, majoring in the field at least shows a prospective employer that you have been preparing to go into this field and that it wasn't just a last-minute decision.
For a college minor you might consider Political Science or Sociology if you are interested in TV News. If you eventually want to end up as a producer-director or manager, consider a minor in Business or Management. A minor in Psychology or Social Psychology would be helpful in any of these areas.
A comprehensive guide doing a self innovatory and to choosing a major can be found in Panicked Student's Guide to Choosing a College Major: How to Confidently Pick Your Ideal Path by Dr. Laurence Shatkin.
In Part II of this topic we'll discuss some of the most important aspects of getting a job: internships, resumes, finding openings, handling job interviews and "five knockout factors" that can sink your chances of landing and holding on to a job.
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