TV has always been an exciting place to work, and today the potential feels limitless. Some dream of designing dragons for the next Game of Thrones, while others would love to compose the sound design for the next nature documentary. Some would like to write, direct, or work the cameras, while others still don’t quite know what they want to do – just that they have to be a part of the TV world somehow!
There are many different routes into television, so let’s take a look at some of the subjects you can study to start moving in the right direction.
While print journalism faces difficulties due to increased competition from other media, TV news and documentaries remain a trusted and engaging source of information in the internet age. Today, politicians and public figures have an instant, direct mouthpiece to their audience, which makes authoritative reporting and analysis all the more important.
A degree in journalism can lead to a diverse range of TV opportunities. In front of the camera, news reporters and anchors need a deep knowledge of their subject. They need the skills to interrogate the truth – and the people who claim to speak it. If you prefer to work behind the camera, a journalism degree will be highly valuable when you find yourself directing, producing, or researching for news shows and documentaries.
Mass communication and media studies
Communication and media degrees are often two-pronged. On one hand, you get to take a practical look at the techniques and technology involved in television production. You may get to make your own videos as part of getting to grips with the industry tools.
And on the other hand, you participate in a theoretical-historical investigation into the effects of the ‘medium and the message’ on individuals and society. You will look at established and developing theories on how best to decipher the (often deceptively simple) messages we see every day on television and other media.
This kind of understanding is crucial for TV enthusiasts who wish to produce responsible, valuable programming. This theoretical element covers topics such as representation, semiotics, the ‘grammar’ of how shows communicate their message, and the intentional and unintentional effects of various methods of program creation.
A degree in communications and/or media will be beneficial to your critical thinking as a professional in TV or any other industry – and as a consumer and citizen.
Nobody who’s enjoyed a long-running binge-TV series hasn’t thought to themselves -- a least for a moment -- “I’d love to write something like this.”
“Everyone seems to have a TV show in them now,” says T Cooper, creative writing professor and writer on NBC’s “The Blacklist.” “There is incredible freedom in writing for TV, once you learn the structure. It’s a craft first, then an art.”
Writing for television is a whole different deal to writing a novel, a play, or even a movie. And it is a competitive, complex area of the industry in which to make a mark. A good TV writing degree not only provides the tools to make the best of your ideas, but introduces you to the challenges of finding work – whether you want to create the next Sopranos, Saturday Night Live, or Seinfeld.
Some of the most memorable television moments were made so by the music that accompanied them. Whether a scene features a bang-up-to-date hit or an obscure recording that changes the very meaning of the visuals, the songs that appear on TV don’t appear there by accident.
TV music supervisors have the (rather enjoyable) responsibility of maintaining a mental and physical database of screen-worthy songs. They thrive on being able to suggest the right one for the right moment. Sometimes this entails considerable expense to the producers - such as when Mad Men paid $250,000 to show Don Draper listening to the Beatles – which is one reason potential music supervisors may enroll in a music business program before pursuing their dream job.
The latest golden age of TV has been good for composers, too. Royalties for music written explicitly for television leaped by 18% between 2017-18 and are predicted to keep on rising. Just like writing for TV, composing music for TV requires industry-specific knowledge and techniques beyond just raw talent.
Degrees in composing for the screen are becoming more common. They may provide instruction in a combination of TV/film studies, studio and DAW (digital audio workstation) production, and plenty of practical assignments. The ideal course will also provide guidance on navigating the industry, including the sensitive matter of working with directors and producers with very demanding requirements.
You’ve probably noticed TV shows are looking more and more like movies. Not only are TV screens getting bigger, but budgets are soaring...and so are viewer expectations.
It’s perhaps more accurate to say that the gap between TV and movie production is shrinking. Big TV shows are premiering at film festivals while top-end movies are available for home viewing at the same time as -- or even instead of -- getting a cinema release.
Understanding the business and language of film in the age of Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney+ is essential. Just ask Matthew McConaughey, star of television's True Detective, as well as countless movies. He teaches a 'script to screen' program at the University of Texas' Department of Radio-Television-Film and can trace his success to the degree in film studies he earned back in 1993. (Of course, it helps just slightly that he is Matthew McConaughey.)
You could always approach television from the other angle -- from ‘behind the TV.’ The television industry isn’t all about program-making. It’s also about broadcasting in the drier sense: transmitting content through established or emergent infrastructure to reach the audience at the other end. From a management point of view, the economics and technology of running television is a complex affair.
Studying the broader state of digital media can provide valuable context to the business of making an impact with television content. It may help the TV sector to avoid going the way of the record industry next time a new wave of distribution infrastructure takes off.
How do I get into a career?
The television industry is so vast and multifarious that there is no single ‘best way in’. A lot depends on the kind of job you would like to do, and the type of company for whom you would prefer to work: an independent production company, a national broadcaster, or a more specialized editing or effects company, for instance. Many technical and creative roles are freelance and provided on a gig basis.
For these reasons, networking is an important factor in getting a foothold in the industry. When you're starting out, employers may expect you to prove your passion for TV by working as a runner (production assistant) – which involves anything from admin to making the tea to literally running from one department to another to fetch something urgent in the middle of a shoot.
While it may not sound glamorous, being a runner provides a ground-level perspective of how TV production works. And it is a fun way to meet people who may be able to offer you more desirable, higher-responsibility jobs later on. Likewise, a film school or TV degree program provides an instant network of future television professionals with whom to stay in touch. Your teachers will likely be able to provide career advice and connections, too.
So whatever your creative talent, there is very likely a career for you in the world of television. There’s nothing quite like an industry-related academic qualification to develop your understanding of television and to begin building the kind of professional network that will support you throughout a rich and varied career in TV.