Media educators gathered on the Academy plaza
All those young people who really want to direct had better be prepared to answer questions about all aspects of their productions — as many as 2,000 on any given day.
That was one of many valuable pieces of advice given during the "Directing for TV" masterclass of the Television Academy Foundation's annual Media Educators Conference (MEC): guest speaker Dr. Rachel Raimist, a tenured professor turned television director (Queen Sugar), noted that award-winning director Paris Barclay had counted approximately that number one day when he decided to tally how many queries he received on the job.
And, said Raimist's directing colleague Morenike Joela Evans (Grey's Anatomy), "Your job as a director is to really understand the show when you come in. You need to understand the script, what the writers mean. Is everything on the page? Sometimes it's not. It's having a vision and communicating your vision, and executing and making decisions. You have to make decisions confidently."
In just one hour, the enthralled college and university professors learned enough to give their students a head start en route to one of the most coveted careers in television. Educating the educators, to in turn relay industry veterans' insights to their students, is the goal of the annual conference, which is open to media professors throughout the United States.
Held October 25-27 at the Saban Media Center at the Academy's North Hollywood headquarters, this year's MEC presented twelve programs designed to provide the latest information from television insiders. The sessions included the state of the entertainment industry; navigating unscripted television; creative jobs of the future; pitching; audience analytics; war zone documentary-making in Ukraine; the Foundation's archival oral history project The Interviews; and discussions with Roku Media head of content David Eilenberg and Quantum Leap executive producer-cocreator Deborah Pratt. Also on the roster: The "Power of TV" public program about television's role in promoting healthy masculinity.
"[Professors] who come out here want to know what's new, what's relevant," says Foundation executive director Jodi Delaney. "I'm really proud that this conference has evolved to be the answer, to provide that. We're diving in a little deeper with unscripted television, especially because, with all the strikes this year, it has been able to proceed. We want educators and students to have an awareness of that as an option for creative storytelling, to tell important stories that people care about."
The conference provides networking opportunities throughout the three days, with fellow professors and with a wide swath of Academy and other industry members. Faculty attendees receive a one-year academic Academy membership, and the MEC sessions are available for classroom use. Of this year's seventy-six participants, 60 percent were new and nearly 50 percent came from minority-serving institutions. Twelve professors were awarded Alex Trebek Legacy Fellowships, named for the late Jeopardy! host and covering costs such as registration, travel and/or hotel accommodations.
The first session, "The State of the Industry," explored the current climate of the entertainment industry, with insiders from the fields of journalism, media criticism and analysis and online culture, including social media. The panelists cited the resolution of the SAG-AFTRA strike — which had not been resolved at the time of the conference — as the greatest challenge; others include figuring out how to make streaming profitable but doing so without disrupting cable systems and theatrical distribution. Being aware of the data results is important, but so is bringing humanity to coverage, such as how the strike affected the people involved.
There are still opportunities, said Los Angeles Times Company Town reporter Wendy Lee: "Streaming has definitely opened the doors for more global TV. There are a lot of opportunities to tell more local stories that resonate with people globally. And I think also that there still remains an opportunity of really uplifting underrepresented voices."
"At the Frontline of Unscripted," a panel about the making of the Tubi documentary City Under Fire: Inside the War in Ukraine by members of the Vice Media Group team, provided harrowing accounts: director-producer Adam Desiderio and director-correspondent Ben C. Solomon described the risks involved in being embedded for weeks at a time in Bakhmut, Ukraine, in the interests of authentic storytelling.
"We couldn't even put lights on in certain moments," Desiderio recalled. "It was so dangerous that we were following soldiers by holding on to their backs, in pitch black, because there were Russian drones overhead that could spot the light. So when we rolled [camera], there's not a very good picture that you can make from that."
The filmmakers spoke of the need for therapy to decompress from their war experiences. The public program "The Power of TV: Exploring TV's Role in Shaping Healthy Masculinity," also evoked the concept that it's okay for men to be vulnerable; television can help break down negative stereotypes.
"The messages we get around manhood, masculinity, are things that were taught, and get passed down from one generation to the next generation to the next generation," said Ted Bunch, chief development officer of A Call to Men, an organization which promotes respectful manhood through trainings and educational resources. One such message: that women and girls have less value than men and boys.
The Walking Dead showrunner Glen Mazzara, who recruited Bunch to speak to the Writers Guild, thinks television's portrayal of men is improving, particularly in comedy, such as Ted Lasso and Abbott Elementary, rather than In most dramas. "Traditionally, the male role on TV is not to be a caregiver, it's to be a protector," he said. "So on shows like The Walking Dead, the man has to defend the weak women and their children at all costs. But I'm hopeful. I think a lot of this gets led by the audience, and a lot of it gets led by creators wanting to tell those stories. I think it's changing, it's moving in the right direction."
As an example, he noted a TV juggernaut: "When Game of Thrones had rape and sexual assault, they got called out; they were using rape to activate male characters. And they weren't really showing the effect on female characters. They were called out in public, and they stopped doing that. They changed their story lines."
The professors were appreciative and buoyed by their MEC experience. "I thought it was incredibly well done last year, and it was even better this year," said second-time attendee Jeanne McHale Waite, an assistant teaching professor in entertainment and arts management at the Westphal College of Media Arts and Design at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
"In both cases, I've come away with new conceptual [information] that I can think about, develop things about ... and teach in the classroom," added Waite, a documentarian who has won eleven regional Emmy Awards. "I mentor lots of students, and these are things I can tell them. There is state of the art information about software, that's invaluable. And there's the willingness of everyone — panelists, Academy officials, attendees — to share information. There is an openness here."
Also returning from last year was Alexis Duran, an adjunct professor in digital film production in the School of Liberal Arts at San Diego Miramar College. As a short-form documentary producer and a camera operator on reality shows, he was particularly interested in the panels on editing, the Ukraine war documentary and navigating unscripted television. As for The Power of TV program on healthy masculinity, "It was enlightening," he said. "It opened up a new conversation. I feel like I'm going to be looking at films and television from a different perspective, in how it relates to myself or my loved ones or other people I know."
Duran lauded the diversity of participants and schools and was looking forward to getting back in the classroom. "I'm going to come back with a force of energy and excitement and enthusiasm," he said. "That alone can be contagious."
First-time attendee Julia Wilson, dean of the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications at Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia and a consultant in international public affairs, signed on because, "I wanted to learn the latest trends in media, especially digital media and a whole direction of other new technologies that are coming, to share that with my students and my faculty," she said. "I've tried to bring us up to be so that our students are prepared to go out and get a job in today's marketplace. I wanted to learn how they can get their foot in the door and start building relationships for their careers, through internships or mentorship.
"I have been thrilled to be one of the Alex Trebek fellows and to have such an extraordinary opportunity," she added. "I felt empowered to learn from those top industry professionals and to learn cutting-edge media trends and network with people who are Emmy Award-winning talents and the leaders in the industry. I also learned from other media educators from throughout the country. It was extraordinary."