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Colleges Ramp Up TV Writing, Production Courses

It’s spring semester 1996, and a small group of graduate screenwriting students at USC School of Cinematic Arts (then called USC School of Cinema-Television) sit in a dimly lit classroom listening as associate professor Pamela Douglas, their instructor for writing episodic television, espouses the benefits of forging a career in television. It’s the only TV course offered by USC at the time.

“You’ll have more creative control,” Douglas says. “There’s more consistency, more jobs, more money. TV is the future.”

But the majority of those students don’t buy it. They’re focused on film, selling their thesis screenplays and vying for a chance at becoming the next Steven Spielberg or, at the very least, Cameron Crowe. Like the rest of the industry back then, they consider TV a second-rate medium, insipid fluff at which to turn up your nose.

Douglas, author of “Writing the TV Drama Series: Third Edition” and “The Future of Television: Your Guide to Creating TV in the New World,” remembers that as a time when networks were looking to cut as wide a swath as possible, operating on what she dubs “the principle of least objectionable programming” where the primary goal was to maximize viewership. There were isolated examples of brilliance like Emmy contenders “ER,” “The X-Files,” “Seinfeld” and “The Larry Sanders Show” but, generally speaking, smallscreen fare was low-rent and uninspiring. Television, as an artistic medium, felt like the Jiffy Pop to gourmet popcorn.

Maybe if you failed as a screenwriter you’d land in TV, but it wasn’t a format you pursued with any passion. Not for a “serious” film student.

Today, of course, television has ballooned in prestige and become a place where high art thrives. Bigscreen snobbery, for the most part, has gone the way of the dinosaur. As a result, film students who once clambered for big screen fame are now chasing careers in TV.

And film schools are taking note, pumping up their curricula with courses ranging from comedy pilot spec writing to TV script analysis to specialty classes in genre writing.

“One of the main hallmarks of our program is that we tend to attract people who want to challenge conventional ways of approaching storytelling and they are going to find more creative ways to do that in television,” says Joe Pichirallo, veteran studio executive, producer and chair of the undergraduate film and television program at Tisch School of the Arts’ Kanbar Institute of Film & Television.

“Everybody needs to understand certain basic principles when it comes to storytelling and filmmaking, but we’ve worked hard to provide more paths for people to learn about television. Our intro to TV writing becomes the prerequisite to go on to specific courses in drama and comedy, and in our upper two years we have a three-semester track called advanced television.

“We also have a TV survey class and a reality TV course. TV provides an opportunity for people that have an independent mindset to express themselves. There are more jobs in TV, people are taking more creative risks and you want to make sure your program is adjusting to that.”

At Loyola Marymount U.’s School of Film and Television students can take art of television and writing episodic drama, as well as a spate of other undergraduate and graduate classes. Boston U.’s department of film and television offers courses titled Television Production Hothouse and Television Studio Production, among several others.

And at USC, students can select the TV thesis track in either drama or comedy and create an entire original series, including pilot, mid-season-episode and bible. Writing majors also have the opportunity to enroll in a multi-camera showrunning class in which they collaborate with the production students to write and produce a half-hour comedy pilot shot on a soundstage in front of a live studio audience.

No longer is Douglas the lone champion of USC’s TV division. She’s now part of a “vibrant” writing for screen and television faculty.

“USC School of Cinematic Arts has always tried to be on the cutting edge, so the idea of developing more of a curriculum in TV is in harmony with the general point of view of the school,” Douglas says. “The writer is the one who has the power in television. Everybody needs that great script, that great pilot, the ability to join a writing staff and know how to do the work. I fought diligently for years to increase the television curriculum and now we have an immense one.”

Whether a writing major pursues a TV thesis or not — and about half do, Douglas says — at the minimum he graduates with a spec episode in hand, though many go on to do more, like write and produce their own Web series or half-hour comedy episodes.

Professor David Isaacs, who won an Emmy for his work on “Cheers” and teaches USC’s yearlong half-hour comedy MFA thesis class, has noticed that as television expands in popularity, so does its sway on the creative impulses of students.

“At the beginning of every class I ask my students, ‘What is your inspiration? What do you love? Why are you here?’” says Isaacs, whose credits also include “Mad Men” and “Frasier.” “When I first started teaching, if I had a class of 10 kids about eight of them would mention a movie and two would say a television show. Now, it’s the other way around. Television is really, truly the inspiration.”

At USC the demand for TV instruction is so strong that there are incoming students who plan to eschew film training entirely, Isaacs says.

“A lot of kids just want TV,” says Isaacs. “They are not here to be film writers, they are here to be TV writers. And there was such a groundswell for that that we broke with the traditional no finished products until second semester rule. (Students) are now writing teleplays in the first semester.”

And while, per Douglas, there still are students who “come to film school with a picture of themselves holding an Oscar,” most understand that a viable career is far more likely to be found in the TV industry.

“More than three-fourths of our graduates in all divisions work in television,” she says. “And that number is rising. Very, very few graduates find careers in feature films. That doesn’t mean that no one succeeds, and certainly there are stars that keep emerging, but there are very few of those people. Everybody has to do television, it’s our mandate. We have no choice because, otherwise, we would be betraying our students and not preparing them adequately for what’s in the world.”

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