Last summer, she was just another production assistant in the crowd — a fresh-faced history and women’s studies major from the University of California, Davis. Now, Heather David is a story coordinator at E! Entertainment Television.
The 23-year-old would have found that leap nearly impossible had it not been for a student summer internship sponsored by the nonprofit Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation.
“It was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” she says. “They wanted it to be an educational experience as far as coming up with story ideas myself and going out in the field and producing pieces. It proved to be hands on and full of things I could never get in school.”
Benefits of good economy
The timing certainly was right. David came to Hollywood from Moraga, Calif., when unemployment was at a nearly 30-year low.
“I’ve seen the industry through a major strike and multiple crisis situations,” recalls Price Hicks, the foundation’s director of educational programs and services, noting that interns “are benefiting from good times.” About 70% of the interns work within the industry after their internships have ended, not necessarily all of them in L.A.
But it isn’t easy getting to that point. Competition is fierce for the eight-week ATAS Student Internship Program, voted one of the top 10 internships in the U.S. by the Princeton Review’s America’s Top Internships. For the 836 applicants for this year’s program, there were only 32 openings. Last year, it was even tougher: Twenty-eight of roughly 1,000 applicants were selected.
Now in its 31st year, the internship is the television Academy’s oldest program. It even predates creation of the ATAS Foundation. Still, there are other educational and archival programs that the foundation offers — all of which are financed by philanthropic contributions.
The Visiting Professionals Program, for instance, provides colleges and universities with TV professionals to do lectures, workshops and seminars on virtually every area of the television industry.
There’s also the College Television Awards, a national competition that recognizes outstanding student-produced films and videos. The ATAS awards cash prizes to the winners, who are honored at a black-tie gala in Los Angeles each spring, and Eastman Kodak offers product grants.
Other educational efforts include the Start Program, which instructs grade school teachers on how to use TV for educational purposes and social growth.
Tom Sarnoff, a former ATAS chairman who heads up the foundation, notes that “we offer a wealth of knowledge with an expertise in TV and telecommunications, but it’s also about a commitment to the betterment of the community.” The hope is to make scholarly research on the industry easily retrieved “so that future generations will know what the history of TV is like.”
But the ATAS summer internship program is the most visible most visible of the outreach efforts, with opportunities offered in 27 categories of telecommunications work for qualified full-time undergraduate and graduate students pursuing degrees at U.S. colleges and universities. Nearly all tours of duty take place in the Los Angeles area.
Internships provide in-depth exposure to professional TV production facilities, techniques and practices. A $2,500 stipend is paid to interns, each of whom is mentored by a former ATAS intern. Students whose permanent residence is outside Los Angeles County receive an additional $500 for travel and housing expenses.
“Writing is a very big category because everyone knows what writers do,” according to Hicks. “I’d say videotape post-production is less popular since it requires more specific expertise.”
Although Sarnoff says the ATAS attracts summer interns “from every state of the union,” big markets dominate. The top five states from where this year’s crop of interns hailed were California, New York, Texas, Florida and Ohio.
Once students are accepted into the internship program, it’s as though they’ve been admitted to a secret society. Former interns “are very active in our program mentoring students and serving on panels and as judges,” Hicks notes. “We’ve developed an extremely dense network of young people coming into the industry in Hollywood.”
ATAS internship alumni include an executive producer of “Star Trek Voyager,” as well as key placements on “The Sopranos,” Fox Television’s New York news operation and Paramount.
Ralph Berge, vice president of production at Paramount Network Television, was an episodic intern in 1988 with the Polson Co., whose founder was an independent executive producer of TV movies. This summer Berge hosted an intern for Paramount-produced TV sitcoms.
“There’s an absolute commitment not only to return the favor,” he says, “but I think you get something out of every time you host somebody. It reminds you of why you’re in the business. It’s nice to get the perspective of young people who come in bright-eyed about the business. If I’m not hosting somebody myself, I make sure someone else here is because we have enough stuff shooting on the lot.”
When Berge interned, his project was a TV movie called “Go Toward the Light,” co-starring Linda Hamilton and Richard Thomas. Showbiz was in his blood. He used to skip spring break in Florida and instead fly to the West Coast to pick up whatever work he could find while attending the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh.
In hindsight, Berge found the internship program “even more valuable than I thought at the time. It really opens doors. You’re in on meetings with writers and phone calls with the networks. There’s nothing you can learn from a book or school. It gives you real-life experience on a different level than as a (production assistant) or grip.”
After about three months on the job at E!, David parlayed her video p.a. experience into a promotion. Now she stacks rundowns for future shows and produces live shots for a weekly video critic segment. Her goal is to be a news producer in TV or entertainment news.
“It was like baptism by fire,” she says. Recalling interviews with Enrique Iglesias and the Olsen twins, David explains that “you really had to prove yourself and have no time to be star-struck. You just have to pretend that you’re having a regular conversation with someone because you need to get certain elements for the producer and it also helps to put yourself at ease.”
For further information about the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation, contact Steven Klappholz at (818) 754-2817.