Habits of the Audience

In television the target demographic influences decisions of the format, scheduled distribution and how they anticipate the content to be experienced. As the years went on in children’s television the audiences for different shows changed. In the example of Sesame Street, the viewers of the show began to be predominantly children who were pre-school aged children, much younger than the early elementary school children who were the target during the original run of the show.

Format changes

Viewing habits are much different for children younger than the age of five. More priority is placed on content being watched in one sitting continuously and as a result the format changed. In earlier seasons of Sesame Street the street story ,which is the segment of the show that occurs on the physical Sesame Street was broken up into multiple segments scattered over the course of the entire 1 hour show. The reason for this was that the audience made up of an older demographic.

Scheduling Changes

Considerations for the demo also extend to when the show airs. Pre-schools are starting the school year earlier and earlier and as of now the show premieres late September early October. For a children’s show geared towards that audience if the premiere occurs too far into the school year the show would not be able to assert itself as an aide to parents and teachers during the school year.

Premiering too late leads to a dip in viewership. Competition for viewers is fierce now that the marketplace has identified the value of revenue that comes from ad buyers targeting parents. As a result there are entire channels that are devoted to children’s television and commercials targeting parents and children alike.

Co-Viewing priority

Another major change is the emphasis on co-viewing. As the audience gets younger the way they view content changes. Co-Viewing is when a parent sits down with their child as they watch a show. In terms of educational television co-viewing encourages retention of subjects. In the case of ad-driven children’s television co-viewing is highly valued since parents will be with their kids as they are taking in commercials. An example of a co-viewing strategy is a segment on Sesame Street called Word of the Day a segment involving an A-List Celebrity and a Muppet character. The child identifies with the Muppet and the parent recognizes a celebrity from his or her favorite show.

Final words to the 4th Wall

For my final entry on the 4th Wall I’d like to speak about my personal thoughts about Sesame Street. I was fortunate enough to intern and experience first hand how television is made and how things are changing.

From the shows premiere in November 1969 its goal was to educate and decades later it has become a television corner stone. Adults have Saturday Night Live and kids have Sesame Street. Much like SNL Sesame Street relies on its ability to attract talented people because it was a part of their lives and they felt indebted to it not just as a television show but as an institution. This has allowed it to endure despite the audience growing up and evolving, the losses of such talented people like Jim Henson, Judy Freudberg (Syracuse Alum) and more recently Jerry Nelson the voice of the Count. It’s ability to be resilient and to reinvent itself is what keeps the bull pen of talent deep and why that will never be an issue.

As a child of immigrant parents the show was my first introduction to the English language since both my parents spoke Spanish in the house. It spoke to me because the characters would wink and address the audience and I felt involved in the show. It is a kids show in the purest sense occasionally there is a wink to the parents who are watching the show with their kids in the form of parodies of adult shows like in Sesame Street segment like True Mud, Extreme Home make over and Are you Smarter than an egg.

As it enters season 45 the show looks good for its age and shows no signs of slowing down. What keeps this show young is the audience and the child-like sensibility of the people involved in making it.

See ya later 4th Wall

Reaching out to a growing demo

Recently much has been made in the news of the changing demographic of America, specifically how Latinos are becoming a large portion of the country as a whole. This is not lost to Television. In terms of how Hispanic americans are represented in television we’ve come a long way from Speedy Gonzalez or his cousin slow poke Rodrigues (my personal favorite) .

As a result of the shift in the capture market television networks have developed shows that go after or incorporates this demo in the content. Children’s television has followed this overall trend. In the case of Disney they had incorporated Latino characters into their lineup of live action shows like Lizzy McGuire and Even Stevens in the early 2000s. Prior to that Disney made attempts into the Hispanic market by taking shows being produced for their Spanish language channels in latin America and offering them in cable packages in the United States. When it was clear that there was an audience for this they began creating shows with diverse casts.

Then Dora happened.

No show has been able to come close to being a bilingual children’s juggernaut like Dora the Explorer. Premiering in 2000 it was a success that crossed all demos. The format is bilingual and is geared towards preschoolers something that would have been unheard of ten years earlier

But…

Dora wasn’t the first children’s show to have a major Hispanic character that honor goes to Sesame Street with Luis and Maria. The reason for the casting choice is the original Sesame Street was meant to appeal to inner city kids and be an aide in educational development. A bilingual format was utilized by Sesame Street then and is still used today.

In 1991 Sesame Street had a new Muppet character named Rosita who was bilingual and taught children Spanish words the very similar to how Dora’s format works. Along the way more characters have been added along with my personal favorite Ovejita who works with Murray Monster in the People in Your Neighborhood segment. This change in format much like the change in population dynamics is not a trend but how things will continue to evolve since a multilingual country will need a multilingual children’s content.

Multi-Screen Viewing

Multi Screen Experience

Children’s television like any other production is investing heavily in taking narratives and characters to other, smaller screens. It is very difficult to find a children’s television show that does not have a mobile app, web-based game or game console subscription experience.

Sesame Street is no different in this respect. The organization that for decades has spearheaded the use of the medium of television as an educational tool now it is using smartphones, tablets and game consoles as another way to teach children. Here are two projects I have the opportunity to be involved in.

Xbox Connect

On the first day of my internship I was on set for the filming of the game footage of Grover teaching kids how to count. There were the traditional players in production grips, directors, PAs. However there were also web developers graphics designers. This was done in a small studio with nothing more than a green screen. You see that production methods are going unchanged but one look at the camera you see that there are more things a director has to be mindful of. Behind the director was a team of web developers, programmers and designers from Microsoft. New media was working with old media to bridge the gap in telling a narrative

This was a partnership of the Sesame Workshop and Microsoft. The goal was to produce a season of television not for the traditional airwaves but for a game console. When a parent purchases the game he gets a season pass which aside from the game allows the child to have access to clips and video at anytime using the Xbox console.

The child’s movements is sensed by the Xbox Connect which then translates it into movements in the game. The goal of project is to have characters prompt children to be engaged with the lesson whether its adding or subtracting or recognizing objects in the game.

This is part of the general direction that children’s television has taken. Technology has allowed for content and the consumption of it to be a two way street. This makes feedback and the measuring of feedback for educational purposes possible.

Cookie Calls

Another project I had the opportunity to participate in production was the Cookie Calls Mobile App. It is a mobile app that you purchase in the itunes store that a child may access. In it cookie monster calls the child and interacts with the user in a way that would be unheard of years ago. In the process the child learns counting lesson in hygiene and of course there is the general silliness of Cookie Monster that is beyond entertaining. The parent has the opportunity to schedule phone calls the character makes to the child reminding him of his or her bedtime, why it is good to go out for exercise and in one case the character will call the child making a order for chinese food only to tell the child he had the wrong number. Both these projects are designed around the concept of engagement and the idea that an engaged child will learn faster and retain what he or she learns at a higher rate than a child who is passively experiencing content.

Production Tools

Production Technology

With a production like Sesame Street that has been around for as long as it has been around for years you see the evolution of production techniques and technology used. At its core television like any other form of media is driven by technology. The goal of course is to tell the story the technology allows for it to be told.

Tale of the tape

All you have to do is look at the tape library. In it you will see rows and rows of tapes and if you look close enough you can see a fossil record of the changes that have occurred in production. In a way looking at rows of tapes is like looking at the rings on a tree trunk. You see when old formats were phased out when new ones were adopted and when they would be phased out. The switch from standard definition to HD. Each tape has notes on the camera that was used and how music and sound effects were mixed.

Lean and mean

The more you look at the landscape of production companies you find that the tape is being phased out all together. Whether its P2 Cards or hard drives a tapeless workflow is in the cards for most of television, its not about it going to happen, it is happening. Shows like SNL who used to shoot its shorts on film now works with a set up very similar to what student editors utilize. The tower is being replaced by Adobe Premiere a Mac Book Pro and a hard drive. It’s fast and most production coordinators are happy to see another advantage….it’s cheap.

Interchangeability

There is one sure thing in all this is that no matter what you buy it will have a shelf life of about 3 years before its to be phased out. The industry has taken note by making hardware that can work with multiple types of software and vice versa. This makes the speed of the technology evolving to be unhindered by what occurred with Avid which was that you needed to use a certain machine, software and have a specific type of training. in order to have an opportunity to work in television. This has changed. The development of the perfect tools of the trade will be dictated by team who will be using them

On the Road to …

A working visa

This is a post written for international students like me again.

On my way to obtaining a working visa, I have a few observations about American employment situations. I am going to only list the information relevant to your job hunting to help you better understand who can quality for a H1B visa.

– A bachelor degree or higher;
– A position that requires your unique skills;
– A company who has to sponsor you;
– A salary beyond minimum prevailing wage (the minimum wage depends on your position).

It is easy to understand that with higher salary, the easier you can qualify for your minimum wage. But as an entry-level employee working in the industry, we do not get paid a lot. That poses a trickier question if you own a master degree. If you job only needs a bachelor and you have master, your minimum wage level is pumped to the second level that is almost double what a start-out position is paid. I will use an example here to illustrate my point.
This job position of Market Research Analyst at its lowest wage level requires a salary of $34,070. This is for someone who is essentially entry level. The next wage level shows a minimum of $49,587, which is significantly higher.

Why is the information useful for us? One, it shows us a U.S. M.A. degree for our foreigners is hard to utilize to obtain the working visa unless you get a good salary. Also, not many companies are willing to spend money on us unless they are large corporates and you have the unique skills they want. These should be our directions to job hunting. At last, I summarize my opinions of our directions.

1. Try to find internships in big companies, such as NBC Universal, CBS, ABC, Fox, Sony. It’s hard for them to hire internationals, but once they recognize you, you have a better chance of getting a qualified salary and a position for sponsorship. The experience and simply its name will help you land well in your next move.

2. Work in the office. Most set jobs at the entry level are temporary. You can have amazing experience but you do not have as much time as an office position affords you to establish strong relationships. I was working in our company booth everyday during the American Film Market so that I had the chance to impress my boss. The producers or UPMs who have the right to hire you rarely get impressed by any set PAs unless your try very hard to impress them. Also your office experience can easily move you to the next office.

3. Learn from the best. It is really hard to get into big companies and impress the right people at the right time. While we try to obtain these opportunities, look out for some chance that you might not be paid back immediately, but can establish a good stepping-stone. For example, try to connect with whom excels in the area you are strong in. Take myself for instance. I know Chinese film market and I speak Chinese. Then I should focus on finding out producers with expertise in Chinese market. If I can successfully connect with them, it is very likely that they recognize my specialty and put my strength into good use once opportunity came. Always try to learn from the best of what you are good at. It can make your strengths shine even better.

4. Follow your heart and believe in exception. I believe there’s always an exception in everything. Whether you can get a position depends on how bad you want it. No matter how much information or strategy you get, only by following your heart, you can find your passion, love and an unflinching drive. These can push you through any difficulties and make you exceptional.

International Fellows: Be Picky!

My temporary job as an Office PA finished the day we finished shooting. It was a great experience to tap into the TV show production process. But several things got me thinking:

1) Do I want to work from one production set/crew to another and use up my time left to work in the States?
Definitely not.

2) Do I want to go on the career path of the production secretary, 28, who spends five past year rising from a PA to a Production secretary? Or do I want to go on the path of the production coordinator who repeatedly co-ordinate projects for the same company for the past six years?
Probably not.

3) Am I capable of doing something better than what a PA does? If not, what assistant job can make me go on a better or faster or special path?
Possibly. I do not know. But being an assistant is a realistic job for me.

4) How can I make myself special to my employers? Who are my best potential employers that can give me the best opportunity to learn and grow?
That’s what I need to find out.

When trying to look for a niche in our career, I feel we need to be clear of what our strengths and goals, aforementioned in my previous posts. Personally, my strengths are my Chinese language skill, my own cultural backgrounds apart from some important qualities such as diligence and intelligence. If I am looking to move up faster and get a working visa, I have to look for jobs that require such skill sets. Those are the jobs fit for me. Our American peers do not face deportation if they cannot acquire a H1B working visa in one year; hence, they can hop from a set PA to a part-time job until they find a good full-time spot. If this situation does not apply to us, my only suggestion is to be picky. Being picky means that you need to have a target in your job search. Focus on jobs that need your strengths and make you stand out from others.

I have to say that I am pretty lucky to have met my boss who has a project to be developed in China. He offered to help me with my visa situation and expects me to use my skills and cultural background to work for his project. I am not certain that this can move me to the next level in the film industry, just like I didn’t know where the Office PA lead me to. Maybe after the project is done, I will go back to be where I am now. But I am confident that this is a great opportunity to exploit my advantages and build on those strengths. I hope that I can seize it.

Not all the young graduates are as lucky as I am. For most of my international fellows, once you get your foot in the door and start somewhere in Hollywood, take some time to think about your niche. Be picky. Have a target. It does not mean you do not have to work as hard as you possibly can. It simply means you need to find a spot to let yourself shine.

Dubin is right about making coffee!

The second day on my job of working on the TV show I was really disappointed. After the promising market time and the amazing first day when I got to meet everybody, I was expecting to start doing something more valuable than what a no-brainer can do. We also heard of what PA does; still, I got frustrated.

Early in that morning, the Art Director asked if we had coffee ready and was pretty surprised that we didn’t. I immediately became the “target” and thank god, he’s a super nice person and was simply joke that I got into trouble. Then I learned how to make coffee that morning from Prod Co-coordinator, my direct boss. I went back to my desk and had nothing to do for about the whole morning until the production secretary asked to do grocery shopping. It was the first time I realized the grocery shopping is a PA’s job. Alright. After confirming with her about the long list, I went out to the market across the street. I won’t go into how hard it was for me to roll the fully loaded trolley across street and come back. But when my boss went for a tin of Ginger Ale, he informed me, “You got the diet Ginger Ale, not the regular one.” The worst thing happened in the afternoon when I already felt down. The coordinator told me that a few documents need to go to set. I gathered them and put them on my desk. One moment later in the afternoon, he suddenly looked at those files and complained, “I told you to those files go to set and you put them on your desk. The runner already took the to-set box with him.” I was dumbfounded. I was thinking that you neither told me there’s a to-set box, nor where I should put those papers. But what can I say. I listened and told him I wasn’t aware of such a box and I will remember it next time. I had to catch a bus to go home so I left early with a miserable feeling before the crew wrapped. However, I missed the last bus home on that rainy day and it took me three hours to take other buses and metro lines to go home.

That was my second day of work, disappointing as hell. But in retrospect, it taught me a few very good lessons that reminded me of Professor Dubin’s philosophy.

Relationship. It’s always about relationship. It’s not your talent, your abilities, or your skills that make you stand out, because in such a position you can hardly show those of your talent. Yet, you can approach people nicely and establish a rapport relationship with them. I gathered that being an assistant, the best criterion of your job is to see how much you please whomever you assist. I do not have much experience and I do know much. But the people whom I assist know a lot about what I want to learn. If I make them job easier, they’ll be more likely and readily to teach me.

I adjusted my working ethics and treat every minute task with great attention. I got to work early to make good coffee, did the dishwashing even without being asked to, offered to help the location manager to sort out his files; offered to help the prop manager to do their petty cash envelops, etc. Overall, I established good relationship with everyone working in the office.

What I learned most from the experience is to be realistic and make the best of your situation, especially when you feel your position does not give you much opportunity to learn. Being at the bottom of the food chain is not easy, but keep good relationships and finding out people from whom you can learn is the key to go up.

American Film Market

AFM is a global film market held annually at Santa Monica. It attracts film sellers and purchasers everywhere from the world. Hundreds of film exhibitors open their booths and screen their films at Loew Hotel and other places along the coast of Santa Monica.

I never imagined I would have such a pleasant internship environment. Our company had a couple of film on sale during the market. My main duty was to help the Sales and Distribution VP Francisco schedule meetings, receive clients, making phone calls and monitor our film screenings.

I really enjoyed the experience, as it is a great opportunity to understand how film deals are made during market times. I got to listen to the sales meetings and took down memos for my boss. Additionally, it is the best time to network with people who work in the industry and collect business cards from major companies. Lastly, the most dramatic thing for me is to be able to meet the boss of my company.

He is a reputable producer in Hollywood with quiet a few successful TV shows and comedies under his name. He came in on the second day and I went out to bring a badge/pass to him. Immediately, he is interested in what a Chinese starter is doing in LA. Within five minutes of conversation, I told me about my education, cultural background, what I want to do eventually. I got lucky that it was one of my English-fluent days.

– “What can I do for you?”
– “I’m looking for a job. I want to do production work.”
– “Great. I have a TV show coming up. I’ll hire you within 30 days.” “I also have two projects that I want to shoot in China. I want you to join me too.”

At first, I almost couldn’t believe that everything happened so fast. But I guess someone who once said those words were right. “You just have to be at certain place at certain time.” I think that is called luck. That is probably my silver lining.

But thinking back, I summarize a few things that I think I did pretty well in impressing him.

1). Keep your answer smart, terse and quick. I’ve heard of previous LA assistants told me that people are “snappy” in LA. They always want to move on to the next thing. They always want a fast answer or solution. When he asked you things, just answer the question in the simplest way he might be interested.

2). Know WHEN to show your hard work
Just working hard does not suffice to get you a position in this extremely competitive industry. Hundreds of starters are working hard for their break-in. What is it that makes you different? Well, you need to know when you should show your hard work. I had worked as the development intern in the company for more than a month before I met the biggest boss. I realized on the second day there no matter how hard I worked here in writing script coverage, I am not close to getting hired at all. It’s a small company and I know my strength does not lie in writing English, at last not now. I didn’t turned into a slacker, but I knew I needed to find a better opportunity. After I had the brief conversation with my big boss, he wanted to take notes of things they mentioned in a meeting and send him a memo in email. That was the call. That’s when he wanted to test if this person is smart and hardworking. To be honest, I got home really late every day to ride and transfer buses from Santa Monica back home. But I did my best I could in the memo. Of course, he was happy. This is only one instance. During the market, he gave me little tasks to do here and there. That’s when you know your hard work will be appreciated and evaluated. That’s WHEN you really need to WORK HARD!

When I started working on the pilot TV show in the production company, he told the UPMs, “she is the smartest and most hardworking person.” I did it!

In fact, compared to how hard I worked at SU, what I have done in LA for the company does not equal half of the amount of effort I put in back in school. But I put in my 100% when it’s the best time. We all need to figure out when luck kicks in, do not spare any effort.

P.S. If you are still in school while reading this (which I seriously doubted), I think you don’t need to pick a time to work hard. Diligence is always good because whether or not your professor sees it or your grade shows it, you are the one who benefits from your learning. You gain when you make an effort to learn.

From Internship to Job

In this post I want to focus on how I started when I first got to LA and how I got a paid position. I hope it can give you some perspective in your job hunting.

When we look for jobs, our very first question is usually what I am interested in doing. We go to look for jobs that we want to do. Before I moved to LA from Syracuse, I always knew I wanted to work on-set as a production assistant. It is the best way for me to learn how production works.

However, the reality proved it was not practical for me. When I moved to LA in mid September, a lot of major network internship had already been filled up. It was really my fault that I didn’t look hard enough when in the summer due to many reasons. Another thing is that I didn’t have a car or an American driver’s license back then so production companies were very unlikely to hire me as a PA. I started focusing on finding an office internship first. Opportunity came when I saw a development internship post on Cuse-LA-Production Google Group. It was a chance from alumni network, no doubt. But apart from simply sending the resume and waiting for my luck, I did some research about the company, Motion Picture Corporation of America and made a phone call to the alum who posted the internship information. I talked with him for a while and he sounded very positive and nice. Since I already learnt to write script coverage in our program, it is not very hard for them to train me. In addition, my phone call left him with a good impression (I think), the next day I got the internship.
It’s a free internship, not that awesome. But I got it within one week after I got to LA. I really needed to start somewhere. Two days a week and then I can move to something nicer and bigger on other days. That was my plan.

The first important lesson I learned from the experience is to know your goals but work with the reality. Our professors always say don’t be picky when you first start. I agree with it in that as long as you have room to grow and you work in the realm you want to work, in the case for me, film.

Then life became really tough for me since I moved to settle in a landlady’s house and hopefully that I could get a car and my license in one month. That was in October. That single lady in her 40s with 3 cats apparently had some mental problems that my living condition became very hazardous. No joking. She threatened me once with a male friend of hers and said “get the f* out of my house”. I won’t go into details about that experience. But a very significant lesson came to me that you need time to settle down safely before you go about your career.

What happened next was quite unexpected. It reminds me of an old Chinese saying: “ Where there is gain, there is loss. Vise versa.” At one point, I was stressing myself out so much to settle down that I couldn’t even make it to internship one week. The next week, when I seriously thought that my director boss would not want to hire me to do anything, he called and asked if I wanted to work as an intern for their company at the American Film Market for about ten days. To be honest, if everything worked perfectly as I planned at LA, I would have been doing some other internship during that time. However, due to my difficult living condition, I had the entire time free to work for the company. For me, where there’s loss, there is gain.

That experience totally changed my life in a better direction that I couldn’t imagine. I would elaborate on my experience at the American Film Market in another post. From there, I met the owner and chair of the company who hired me to work on the pilot season of his TV show.

To conclude what I learned during my “dark times”:
1) Work with reality and don’t be picky in the beginning.
2) You need to have a life before you can have a job. Settle safely and treat yourself well.
3) “Silver Lining Playbook”. That’s right. There’s always a sliver lining in your life. Be patient and positive. Life will reward us.