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Television, the class act

Among film schools, TV was long a secondary pursuit. But with cable ascending, it's now more like double billing.

December 11, 2005|Merrill Balassone | Times Staff Writer

THERE was a time, and not so long ago, that any talk about television at film school was considered crass -- the low road to a higher calling. Film school was for budding auteurs, not TV hacks.

"Television has always been the redheaded stepchild of virtually any university's film program," said UCLA professor Tom Nunan, who produced the film "Crash" but spent most of his career as a television executive. "It's a hard medium to come out and just embrace right out of the gate. I don't know if it's because [television] is in your bedrooms and living rooms, but there's a lot less glamour in film school studying an appliance in your home versus going to the theater."

Then came "The Sopranos" and other TV shows that pushed the pop culture envelope, not to mention a burgeoning job market in the new cable and digital universe, and a downturn in the movie biz and suddenly studying television didn't seem like a bad option.

Nunan, who has taught television development and production at UCLA for eight years, sees a sea change among many, if not all, of his students.

"I've seen a definite trend toward people converting toward an interest in TV as a career, yet every spring there's that percentage that come in with their nose up into the air wanting to talk about their screenplays," he said. "Not only is there a lot more opportunity in television, but the material you get is much more mature and complex."

Stuart Kelban, who teaches film and television writing at the University of Texas at Austin, noticed that these days many of his students come to class talking about the new television show they discovered rather than raving about a film at the theater.

"My undergrads watch a lot more TV, which used to be a real pejorative, a real insult, but nowadays I don't mind my students watching 'Deadwood' or 'Six Feet Under' or 'The Sopranos,' " Kelban said.

Though the movie box office has been in a prolonged slump, television audiences hit record viewing levels last season with a TV set turned on more than eight hours each day in the average American home, according to a report by Nielsen Media Research. In recent years TV has produced both critically acclaimed and wildly popular shows such as "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives" as well as pop culture phenomena such as "American Idol."

Take USC film students Rob Robol and Trent Olsen who, when they're not gallivanting around red carpets or trading playful barbs with celebrities on their Trojan Vision cable film show, like nothing better than plopping down for some marathon television.

When he first came to USC, Olsen said he was turned off by the reality TV juggernauts. Now a senior, he said he can't stay away from the melodrama of "Desperate Housewives" and shells out for an extensive collection of DVDs, including the short-lived '90s series "American Gothic." Meanwhile, he spent nearly every free moment catching up on "Lost," cramming 25 hours of television in just days before the second season premiered.

"When you get hooked, you can't stop," said Olsen's co-host Robol, who has recently started to contemplate a career in reality television and admits to packing two seasons' worth of "The Shield" into less than two days. "I would prefer seeing a couple of episodes of '24' over a bunch of films."

Small screen, less status

DESPITE its increased cultural relevance and influence, television has historically played second fiddle to the film departments, and academics have been slow to accept television as a true form of art.

To encourage the growing interest in television, UCLA is adding four to six courses to its curriculum in areas including writing, art and business, history, and criticism and theory of the medium, said Barbara Boyle, chair of film, TV and digital media at UCLA.

Erin Hill, a master's student studying television at UCLA, recalls that as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan in 1999, she was skeptical about taking the only television course offered, a class in TV history taught by a young visiting professor because there was no full-time TV faculty at the time.

"I thought, 'This is going to be horrible,' " she said. "No one wanted to teach [the class]. Everyone wanted to teach high film theory or the history of British film. The idea that TV is commercial and not art is ingrained in us. Back then, it was cool to say you didn't watch TV."

These days, Hill said that she would view a film student trashing television as naive or unsophisticated, as would many of her contemporaries. She notes that nearly all of the film professors at UCLA have written journal articles on television and new media.

This newfound interest in television isn't limited to the academic world. "The barriers are dropping more rapidly than we've ever seen them. The industry itself is more integrated than ever," said Elizabeth Daley, dean of USC's School of Cinema-Television. "You had better be prepared to work in TV, cable, feature films, and look into new media and what the Internet is bringing."

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