A Day in the Life of a Television Producer

Television producers make sure that television shows run smoothly in all details, and take responsibility for everything from coordinating writers and performers/correspondents right down to overseeing the fact-checking of credit names and titles. “You’re always scrambling up to air time, checking information, and making sure [the show] goes right,” wrote one producer. Having complete responsibility for all facets of on-air production can be a very stressful job, and the successful TV producer has to be tightly organized, able to communicate clearly and succinctly with everyone on and off the set, from actors to directors to writers to technical crew, and they must have a gift for thinking on their feet, ready to come up with creative ideas fast under extraordinary time pressure. Television producers report high excitement and job satisfaction-these are implementors and problem-solvers who are project-oriented and love to see tangible results-despite the physical toll of the work (all report being tired a lot). The public perception of the television industry is one of high-profile personalities, and while it helps for the TV producer to act as a dynamic, motivating force, nearly everything a producer does is known only to those involved with the show itself. “Only other producers can tell a really well-produced show. You never get any fan-mail,” said one fifteen-year veteran producer. Another was quick to add, “It’s not as glamorous as it seems on television,” saying that even the smallest detail must be checked and rechecked before a show goes on the air. A good producer should have enough of an ego to make important decisions and defend them, but should not be afraid of drudge work. Even writing text may be a part of the TV producer’s last-minute job. Most producers rise in the ranks from production assistant positions, so they know what it takes to get a show from concept to broadcast. Producers ultimately take credit for a successful broadcast but also have to take the blame for anything that goes wrong on their watch. Between fellow producers, there is respect but little camaraderie. A number of respondents mentioned that fierce competition-even “backstabbing” behavior-was not only common but virtually expected in the industry. A final word of advice, offered by a producer at a major network: “Work hard and look out for yourself.” For those who can master it, television production is an exciting, difficult job that can be quite financially rewarding.

Paying Your Dues

College course work should include English, journalism, history, political science, and American studies for those interested in going into television news production, and classes in other areas-such as drama, meteorology, or business-for those who wish to enter a specialized area of TV production. A few producers attend graduate school in journalism or film, but it is not expected. Competition for entry-level positions is intense, and many aspiring producers take any available job. In general, candidates should have a wide range of knowledge and a willingness to work hard. Any prior work experience that demonstrates an ability to juggle multiple tasks under stressful circumstances is looked upon favorably by employers. Most dues are actually paid in the form of entry-level positions, such as in production assistant jobs, where duties may be as mundane as proofreading copy for typos and making sure lunch reservations are made. College internships are heavily sought-after because they are a big advantage in securing that first job as production assistant. Aggressive pursuit and completion of more and more demanding tasks distinguishes the PA who rises in rank from one who does not.

Present and Future

Ever since television became a sizable industry in the late 1950s, the position of television producer has been critical to its success. In the past decade, television networks including Fox, Warner Brothers, and Paramount, have been created, and this expansion has spurred competition. Cable is the newest force, particularly those specialized channels devoted exclusively to subjects such as news, sports, nature, cooking, etc., reflecting a trend toward “narrowcasting” in all media. This growing market has created opportunities for smart, aggressive, hard-working applicants in production assistant and assistant producer roles. Understand, however, that this is only a widening of opportunity for entry-level positions. Competition for producers’ positions will continue to be fierce.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

The life of the production assistant is (to paraphrase Thomas Hobbes) “nasty, brutish, and, as often as not, short.” Fierce competition by glamour-seeking upstarts with dreams of high-level schmoozing and long limousines results in low starting salaries and high burnout rates in the first two years. Long hours of grunt work tests a person’s tenacity, and even talented workers are forced to wait for years on end without rewards. Work shifts can be 16 hours or more, and when an emergency arises, PAs are expected to stay and cope until it is resolved. Some may be assigned graveyard shifts, working from midnight to eight in the morning, assembling data for morning newscasts and entering AP wire feeds into computers. PAs rise when positions open. Some can jump two or three steps up the ladder with an exceptional performance; others experience only a rise in salary and no added responsibilities.

FIVE YEARS OUT

Those who’ve lasted five years have moved from PA jobs to assistant producer positions. A number have regular contacts with celebrities, or at least on-air personalities, and many use their writing skills extensively. The first tests of managerial skills generally occur in years four through seven, when assistant producers start to supervise production assistants and interns. Many still do research and proofread copy, but more to ensure they keep their areas of responsibility under control rather than give another potential producer who is working harder an advantage for promotion. Hours can be extremely long, but salaries have risen significantly.

TEN YEARS OUT

Many ten-year veterans have become full-fledged producers, and a few “shooting stars” have worked on several shows. The most difficult feature of the producer’s life now is instability-constant worry about who is gunning for their position, “who’s up and who’s down” in the ratings race, what changes may take place in the network’s programming philosophy, and the demands of on-air talent. Responsibilities rise with salaries, and time commitments remain tremendous.