What do the popular television shows Frasier, Project Runway, Psych, The Apprentice, and Design Squad have in common? MIT alumni have played vital roles in all of them as writers, producers, performers, or network executives. Best-known among these alums, perhaps, is Dylan Bruno ‘94, who plays an FBI agent on Numb3rs, but others have thrived in television and influenced TV culture as a result.
In Hollywood, an MIT degree is novel yet valuable. “As a writer, I definitely think it’s become one of my commodities,” says Teresa Huang ‘97, who was nicknamed “MIT” when she worked as a staff writer in 2008 on the short-lived series Knight Rider. Huang sought to inject cutting-edge science into the show, scouring Technology Review for new gadgets and technologies. An article about wireless power and recharging, for example, led to a proposed plot point (ultimately unused) in which K.I.T.T., the show’s tricked-out car, needed an urgent remote recharge.
Huang, also an actress who had a recurring role on FX’s The Riches, is committed to making details technically sound as she strikes a balance between artistic license and feasibility. And these days, savvier audiences demand more plausible science–an opportunity for alumni.
“In the future, it won’t be as big a deal for MIT alums to come out to L.A.,” predicts Saladin K. Patterson ‘94, a co-executive producer of the USA Network dramedy Psych. Patterson used his analytical training to get into TV: in 1995, he started scrutinizing popular comedies to understand their structure so he could write viable spec scripts. “There are formulas in television you can learn and exercise,” he says. He soon left a graduate psychology program at Vanderbilt after winning a prestigious Disney/ABC Writing Fellowship–an entrée into Hollywood that offered training and connections. Before long, he was writing for Frasier and then for The Bernie Mac Show and Psych.
Could Reality TV Be Good for You?
Of course, unscripted television is also a hot area. Andrea Wong ‘88, president and CEO of Lifetime Networks, learned that as an executive vice president at ABC in the genre’s early days. She developed such successful shows as The Bachelor and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and brought Dancing with the Stars to the United States. As Lifetime’s head, she wooed the hit reality show Project Runway away from Bravo. The premiere in August 2009 won higher ratings than any other season opener in the series’ history–or in Lifetime’s 25 years of programming.
Alumni also step in front of the reality-TV camera. In 2005, Randal Pinkett, SM ‘98, MBA ‘98, PhD ‘02, won season four of The Apprentice, and his career has flourished because of it. “I wanted to build a platform for my speaking and writing and build my company,” he says to explain why he joined the show. He wound up with so many opportunities that he hired a business affairs manager, PR professionals, a book agent, and a speaker’s bureau to help handle them–and four years later, he still needs their services. These days, he spends 80 percent of his time developing business for his consultancy, BCT Partners. His other activities include serving as a national spokesperson for charitable causes.