Listen to the audio for the full interview.
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to work behind the scenes of a television series? According to College Talks & More guest Katie Deutsch, it’s high pressure, long hours, and short deadlines. But she loves her job. Katie came on the show to share her experiences working in the television industry, and how she helps identify people whose experiences can inspire, educate, and entertain others. She believes an individual story can trigger innovation and lasting change.
Katie, why don’t you introduce yourself and tell us about your educational and professional background?
I went to art school at the University of Michigan, and I started off doing graphic design because I come from a family of printers. When you go into the arts, you want to make sure that you can get a job after school. There’s a lot of pressure there, but I didn’t love graphic design like I knew I needed to for a lifelong career. After thinking long and hard and taking some time to myself, I thought about what I loved. I knew I loved photography, but it was a little late to start a major over. I knew that if I focused on video, video is really just 29 photos in a row to make one second of moving image. I focused my attention on video and audio art, and when I graduated from the University of Michigan, I moved to New York, and I started working in a commercial house. A commercial house is basically a fancy term for where they edit commercials. I started to learn about television production and commercial production, and that’s really where my career took off.
What exactly made you decide to work specifically in the television production industry?
I went back and forth between being an artist assistant in New York. That pays very little, and then I started looking at job boards. I was thinking about my skillset, and what I could do and what assistance I can provide someone else. Then I realized that a hot commodity was video editing and knowing software. I said, “You know what? The kids that went to film school, the kids that are communication majors, they know these skills, but so do I.” I started applying to these jobs, and I started to sell myself. I love talking to people, and I love showing my passion. I started going on interviews and learning what people wanted to hear and listening a lot, not just doing the talking. That’s how I started to get more and more television jobs.
You mentioned that after college, you moved to New York. How hard was it to find a job in your field in New York?
It was hard. It was really hard. I’m lucky enough that I had a car in college, and we sold my car and I lived off of that money for a year. It was $10,000, and I made minimum wage. They say that the entertainment industry is like a pyramid. A lot of people go in, and every year a lot of people fall to the wayside. It’s a grind, and you have to keep going, even when it’s so, so hard. The perseverance really becomes your reward. The more people you reach out to and say, “Hey, you got any jobs coming this way.” It’s all freelance. It’s very few staff jobs, so the stability is not there. It’s really about networking, keeping up on your emails, organizing your contacts, knowing who you work well with, and knowing when you’re wrong and changing your behavior and your habits to fit the environment you’re in.
Can you tell us what a story producer does?
A story producer goes through all of the footage that’s taken and we’ll locate the best storylines, the best lines that are said, and physically put the show together. You work with the field team, who’s out in the field filming everything. You can you write questions for the field team. You think of scenes that the field team can shoot. You can say, “Hey, here’s a storyline I want to see more of,” or, “Hey, I heard someone whispering this between scenes. I think it’s something we should follow up on.” It’s really a person that pays attention to all the details in the beginning, puts the show together in the middle, and then finesses it with notes at the end so that when you lock a show and it goes to air every musical, every line that is said, and sometimes you didn’t get to fix that one frame and it makes you give a little strange look, but it’s all yours. And you work with a huge team to do it, but it’s very personal.
Is the field a hard one to get into, and is it competitive?
It’s very competitive, but the competition breeds a community. We have to rely on one another for jobs. If I have a job and someone emails me and says, “Hey, are you busy?” I’ll say, “Yeah, I am.” But then I send it to my friend, or I’ll say, “I am busy, let me see who’s looking.” It’s competitive, because everyone needs a job. There’s so many online groups to make sure people don’t feel isolated, that people are supported. Black Lives Matter is a huge topic of conversation right now, making sure that teams are diverse, making sure that we’re promoting people that look like the community that we live in, breathe in. We can’t make television without people, and the people who make the television need one another. It’s hard, but you should never feel alone.
What is the job market like for people looking to get into media production? And do you have any advice to give listeners who want to work in your field?
Television production took a huge hit because of COVID. Staying inside means there’s no camera person at your door filming the story. That also means the producer is staying home, the sound person staying home, the production assistant staying home. Everyone in production wants you to know to wear your mask, because if you guys don’t wear your masks, we can’t get back to work. Then we can’t make TV. Our whole crew is in protective equipment right now; everyone’s wearing a mask. All of the homes we visit are COVID cleaned. We have a new position on staff, which is called a COVID coordinator, who makes sure that everyone is complying to the new rules and that no one gets sick. If you’re looking for a job, you could possibly go into COVID training and be a COVID coordinator. If you’re really organized and friendly, this could be a good job for you.
People are always looking for PAs (Production Assistants). I think that an office PA or a field PA is a really great first step in the production industry. Things are opening up slowly. I think that it might be harder to get a new job in production coming up, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up – there’s different ways to get into production. You always have to start at the lowest rung to prove that you can follow directions and be respectful, because it’s a long day. Production goes 12 hours, 14 hours sometimes. Who do you want in your corner after 14 hours: the grumpy person or the person that can just roll with the punches? Those first few years are hard, but if you can get through it, you meet a lot of people and you get to be creative every single day.
How do you juggle parenting and working in such a demanding industry?
I have an incredible husband. We share a lot of responsibilities, so I couldn’t necessarily do this exclusively on my own. I think that with single parenthood (I applaud all the single moms out there and single dads) you definitely need help. You can’t do it alone. You either need to hire help with money from your salary or you have a family member help you. I have two children. I have two little girls. One is three and a half and one is nine months old. I’ve been home with my nine month old this whole time. I love spending time with her, but I will be honest – I like being a working mom and I’m okay with that. I like having my job. I also like coming home to my children and spending quality time with them. And yes, there is mom guilt about farming the nitty-gritty out to someone else, but I’m happiest when I’m creative and when I’m working. It’s important for my daughters to see me when I’m happy and when I’m rested.
What types of shows and networks have you worked for?
A lot of food television and a lot of docu-drama. I worked for a food network a good amount of time. I worked on a very popular show called Chopped for three years. I’ve worked on shows for MTV and VH1. I’m currently going back to a show for MTV called Teen Mom OG. I worked on a reunion special a couple of years ago, and now I’m going to go back as a full story producer. I’m pumped about that, because I’m a big fan of the show. It shows how families deal with different problems and how they get through it. It’s been on the air for a really long time so they have a large volume of history that the women have gone through. I think that’s really interesting. I’ve worked on History. I’ve worked on Discovery when I was younger. I got on pilots, so if you’re someone in television who’s looking to get more experience or if you’re looking to get a TV job, the pilots are where you can get a lot of experience. They run usually in the winter months; they’re fast, they’re hard, you’re testing a new concept, but you can really get a lot of experience. You work with a smaller crew, and they happen quickly. January, February, and March is usually pilot season.
How do you coach people during interviews and how can this factor into real life?
When you’re in a television interview, you’re constantly in the present tense. You are always using words with ING at the end (I’m running, I’m walking, I’m working) because when you’re in the interview chair, you’re describing something that the viewer at home is watching. You can’t be in past tense in your description when the person at home is watching you do what you’re describing. How I coach someone during an interview is I listen to them describe a situation, and then I’ll say to them, “You know, I just heard you talk for five minutes. And I think the most important things that you said are A, B and C.” I then give them an example of, “Do you feel that this was true? do you feel that you do feel this way? can you kind of give me a shorter version of your feelings?”
You can’t have a soliloquy every 30 seconds. Television is always about fast, smart, and insights. You really need to boil down all of your feelings and emotions into a quick idea, and I think this really boils down into real life. We’re all trying to express ourselves, whether it’s on social media, in an important meeting, or in a job interview, and you can catch yourself when you’re being a bit long-winded and not to the point. You can always stop yourself and say, “You know what, what I’m trying to say is blank, blank, blank.” You can always button it up, and I’m here to help people focus their message.
Has television streaming changed your career at all?
It definitely has changed the environment, but not specifically my career yet. Netflix, if you’re listening, I would love to be on one of your shows, but Netflix doesn’t specifically hire people like me. I work for production companies, but Netflix is an amazing network to work for because there’s no commercials and they give a lot of creative freedom. I don’t necessarily think you will find me on YouTube, because I don’t necessarily produce that type of content, but I’m definitely interested in social media. I’ve had a lot of friends that are on Facebook watch shows. I think that social media and internet platforms, in general, are definitely the future. I also think that when you’re working on shows that are on social media, a lot of times, especially young people, they want you to produce, shoot, edit, graphics, music. I just described five jobs, and they want that one person to do it. When you’re young and trying to make a name for yourself and trying to network, you’re happy to take on those five jobs and do it for like zero money. What I do as a story producer is usually part of a much larger network, a larger show structure, so I can’t take on five jobs. I have to be very specific about my job, that isn’t to say that I’m not open to new possibilities and branded content, but that’s where I find myself right now.
What is the biggest challenge when it comes to being a producer?
I think the biggest challenge is flexibility, because if you’re in the field you need to be flexible to the stories that you see around you and the people that you’re filming. What you want as a producer, someone can’t always deliver, and you have to be able to pivot on the idea when you’re in post-production and you’re dealing with the footage. The footage isn’t going to change, it’s all recorded on tape. I have to be able to edit, or think about the footage in a different way, over and over and over again. I could watch the same hour of tape, and come up with five different ideas each time, given the problems or notes that I’m given. I have to be flexible to what someone’s saying, because someone’s always going to have a question and I need to have an answer, or else I’m not doing my job.
There is a debate about the poem The Giving Tree written by Shel Silverstein. Should people be selfless and give and give, or should they have boundaries? What made you write the article The Proud Tree: Giving With Boundaries?
I was so sick of reading this book to my children, and I needed to change the words because what I was reading out loud was not what I was feeling in my heart. My grandmother loved this book and she would often read it to me. But as an adult, I read it and I was sad. I didn’t understand why this tree could not stand up for herself. I know that the tree is a metaphor for a mother, and I think it’s really important to model good behavior for your children and to set boundaries and say, “You are not being kind, and this is not all right. If you would like to continue this conversation, you can speak to me in a way that is appropriate.” That’s what made me rewrite that story.
To listen to Katie’s essay The Proud Tree: Giving With Boundaries, visit her book’s page.
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