Others use television to educate. MIT alumni, professors, and students have been instrumental in the development and production of PBS’s Design Squad, which has won both Peabody and Emmy awards. On the show, teams of teenage contestants work for actual clients to design and build problem-solving products while competing for a $10,000 scholarship. For example, teams have built remote-controlled aquatic pet-rescue vehicles for the New Orleans Fire Department. Filmed near Boston, Design Squad is half entertainment, half engineering outreach to tweens and teens.
“[TV] can certainly offer exposure to the world of engineering in a much more visual and experiential way than you can get otherwise,” says inventor and Design Squad host Nate Ball ‘05, SM ‘07–although it does have its demands. As host, Ball has to exhibit zaniness, enthusiasm, and practicality while working to motivate contestants during frustrating moments. Contestants, who are racing to complete the challenge in 16 hours, must sometimes wait to be filmed. “Whenever we were going on to the next step in the process, they’d have to get that on camera,” says Zach Tribbett ‘12, a third-season contestant from West Chester, PA, who is majoring in math and brain and cognitive sciences. Then they would have to restage the shot from different angles–adding 10 to 60 minutes to a simple procedure.
Online and on-demand videos and DVRs have changed the television landscape, dispersing viewers and shrinking ad revenues. Lifetime’s Wong has responded by reinvigorating the network’s brand, which had become synonymous with women-in-peril movies, with a new programming line-up to attract a broader, younger audience. “It’s important for us to reflect positive, strong women,” she says. Wong has also expanded online, offering community pages, streaming content, and games, which now drive 40 percent of Lifetime’s Web traffic.
Eliot Mack, SM ‘96, hopes the special-effects technology he developed will transform television, just as the alumni-invented Technicolor and Avid digital editing already have. His Previzion system allows real-time camera tracking, compositing, and background rendering so directors can see beyond a green screen to visualize how the final shot will look. Depending on the background’s complexity, Previzion could reduce postproduction effects work by weeks or eliminate it entirely. Mack has refined his technology so that it automatically generates camera tracking data and doesn’t miss a single strand of hair against the backdrop. “Essentially, we’re re-creating the world on the fly,” he says. So far, it has been used on the science fiction TV series V, the forthcoming Tim Burton movie Alice in Wonderland, and the Knight Rider made-for-TV movie.
One thing MIT alumni in Hollywood seem to share is a realistic perspective on the industry. “Being a Hollywood insider is fun, but it’s also scary,” Patterson says. “The nature of Hollywood is that you’re only an insider for so long.” Perhaps that is what makes a PBS show like Design Squad successful: television itself isn’t the goal. “We want there to be a clear message at the end of the show,” says host Ball. “Now turn off the TV and go build stuff.”