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Engineering TV Careers

On screen and off, MIT alumni thrive in television
February 23, 2010

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.

TAKING ON TV Saladin Patterson ’94 on the set of The Bernie Mac Show.

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.

For additional links about alumni in TV, click here.

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.

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.

Changing Technologies

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.”

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