USC Trojan Vision began regulary scheduled programming on Monday September 15, 1997.
Trojan Vision 10th Anniversary 1998-2008 Retrospective
Article written May 5, 2008
Trojan Vision Celebrates A Decade Of Service
By John Zollinger
When it started 10 years ago, Trojan Vision was short on facilities, personnel and equipment, but long on the dream of what could be. A decade later, the dream has become reality, with the station serving the university, winning national awards and providing hands-on experience that has enabled students to launch their careers.
“With all the incredible things going on at USC, it’s hard to believe there was a time when we didn’t have a showcase like Trojan Vision to bring our content to the world,” said Dean Elizabeth M. Daley. As the executive director of the Annenberg Center for Communication (ACC), Daley spearheaded the drive to initiate the station as an ACC project in the 1997-1998 academic year.
“I remember the first night we went live,” said Don Tillman, the
television industry veteran whom Daley tapped to oversee the
organization and operation of the project. “The kids had worked for
weeks to make the first program flawless, and it was—until the power
went out across campus. Talk about a baptism by fire.”
Under Tillman’s guidance, the eight-member student staff honed their skills that first semester. Making the most of the space on the Carson soundstage that they shared with film students, the crew put together their first program CU@USC, which was distributed on campus via USC’s closed-circuit television system.
Now operating out of state-of-the-art studio and production facilities in the Robert Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts, the current line-up features CU@USC, plus 12 other original produced shows, reflecting a diverse range of programming from news, to sports, to comedies, to dramas, to interview programs and more. Trojan Vision’s reach covers all of the University Park and Health Sciences facilities, and extends to nearly two million households around Southern California and select markets nationwide. The station also disseminates its material through leading higher-education institutions, such as the Research Channel and the Open Student Television Network, in addition to offering a round-the-clock feed via the Trojan Vision Web site.
Student participation in the station has likewise grown exponentially, with Trojan Vision now listing approximately 250 undergraduate and graduates. In addition to the College of Letters, Arts & Sciences, these men and women come from the Annenberg School for Communication, the Marshall School of Business, the Roski School of Fine Arts, the Thornton School of Music and the Viterbi School of Engineering, as well as the School of Cinematic Arts and School of Theatre. In total, some 2,000 students have been involved with the station since it began, producing over 19,000 editions of its programs. Named the “Best College Television Station in the Country” by Spin Magazine in 2005 and 2006, Trojan Vision has also been a four-time winner of the renowned “Telly Award.”
Trojan Vision workers learn everything from production, to management, to advertising and more. Besides the experience they gain through “live-to-air” experience, Trojan Vision also offers the “Practicum in Television Production” course, open to students from all schools. (In the wake of the Annenberg Center reorganization, Trojan Vision has been administered by the School of Cinematic Arts, through which the station provides classes for credit.)
“The depth of knowledge I got at Trojan Vision enabled me to go places in my career that I couldn’t have without that experience,” said J.D. Crowley, (B.A. 2003, critical studies), who parlayed his four years at the station to become the senior supervising producer of promotions at Entertainment Tonight and The Insider.
“This past year I got a job with the Groundlings doing lighting design
for them on their main shows,” said Trojan Vision General Manager
Veronica Acosta, who will graduate this May with a B.A. in critical
studies. “The résumé I submitted was pretty much almost all Trojan
Vision work. My current boss at the Groundlings told me he took a glance
at my résumé and said to himself, ‘very impressive, you’re hired.’”
Trojan Vision has also played a pivotal role in helping members of the USC community—students, professors, researchers and staff members—present their work to the public. Offering services from basic one-camera shoots with minimal editing, to multi-camera productions with sophisticated audio and visual post-production features, Trojan Vision has worked with scores of university groups, including the Department of Public Safety, the Marshall School, the Good Neighbors Campaign, the Shoah Foundation and many others.
“I’ve been in television for nearly 40 years and have seen some really amazing things,” Tillman said. “And top among them is certainly the effort, creativity and dedication these students have invested to make Trojan Vision truly outstanding.”
By Ed Newton • APRIL 13, 1998
The production staff in the cramped control room at Trojan Vision’s operations center on 32nd Street customarily breaks into applause at the end of the evening newscast. It’s as much to relieve the tension of producing a live television show as to congratulate each other about the quality of the broadcast.
Live television can be a dicey proposition. Like any news operation, Trojan Vision, which broadcasts three hours of programming each weekday evening, often works without a net, transmitting reports of the day’s events or Larry King-style interviews without benefit of revision.
“There are no do-overs in live television,” said Marcas Grant, this evening’s co-anchor on the news show, which has just gone out over cable television to a potential audience of about 24,000 on and around the campus.
You get one shot at getting it right.
All right, “60 Minutes” it’s not. On some nights, the glitches come in bunches. A talk show logo that’s supposed to pop up discreetly in the corner of the screen develops a sudden case of elephantiasis, swelling alarmingly on the control room’s main monitor until it blocks out a shot of the show’s guest. A taped news segment runs about two seconds too long, unintentionally revealing a blurry shot of a city street. An anchor tries haltingly to get her lips around a four-syllable word.
“Ugh. Oops. Nooo.” Sometimes, the exclamations in the control room – a dark, rectangular space with banks of monitors and blinking equipment – resound like the mutterings of baseball fans watching their heroes blow it in the bottom of the ninth. But really, it’s not that bad, insist faculty advisers to the student-run television station, which is operated under the auspices of the Annenberg Center. In fact, after only six months of operation, Trojan Vision is starting to gel. It compares – stumbles, glitches and all – to small-market television programming (with audiences of about 100,000) around the country, they say.
And the television station, possibly the only one of its kind in the nation, is starting to produce moments of polish that can vie with anything on commercial television.
Take the half-hour program “In Real Time,” in which camera crews leave the station’s headquarters in the Colburn School of Performing Arts to do asphalt-level documentaries.
“There are segments there, like the show in which they went on runs with the Jefferson Street fire station, that compare with [the CBS documentary show] ’48 Hours,’” said executive director Don Tillman.
The nightly news show is garnering scoops, like an interview with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, on campus to drum up support for a union, or the announcement of a $5 million donation to the Marshall School of Business’ entrepreneurial program. It even had an exclusive interview with Athletic Director Mike Garrett in the midst of some well-publicized personnel problems.
There are about 120 students involved in the operation. All but a small staff of 17 part-timers are volunteers. Some of them are would-be professionals in the television industry, cinema-television or journalism majors who are learning a trade. Others – engineers, or music and business majors – just wanted to partake of the excitement of live television.
“They’re a tremendously bright group of young people,” said Tillman, whose lengthy career as a television executive includes 12 years as general manager of Channel 11, the Los Angeles Fox affiliate. “I’d like to say that we recruited them, but we didn’t. They came to us.”
Collectively they turn out a lively assortment of sports reports, music and video programs, movie reviews, comedy shows and an L.A.-oriented “travel” show, as well as the nightly news and talk shows. They edit tape, write scripts, appear on camera and try to sell ads (so far only public service ads, urging things like preserving the environment and being physically fit).
THE STATION HAS about $1 million worth of equipment jammed into the Trojan Vision suite, including three editing bays, where Avid System machines break taped video and audio into digital pulses that can then be reassembled as finished television shows. The equipment was purchased with funds from the Annenberg Center and with contributions from the Sony Corp.
“I’ve worked at commercial television stations that weren’t as well-equipped as this one,” Tillman said.
There are 310 university-owned television stations in the country, Tillman said. The vast majority are either Public Broadcasting System affiliates with little local programming, student-operated movie and video venues, or, as Tillman puts it, “toys for students to play with while they’re in school.”
Trojan Vision – “none of the above,” Tillman insisted – is unique in that it has been structured as a commercial television station, committed to a set amount of original broadcasting five days a week. Last semester, Trojan Vision churned out 561 hours of television, including 197 hours of live programming.
“It’s an insatiable animal,” Tillman said of the medium. “It eats programming. That’s what I told the students at the beginning. ‘You’re about to unleash an animal. If you don’t feed it, it’ll eat you alive.’”
The student broadcasters seem far from intimidated. Poring over taped images in the editing bays, banging away at computer keyboards in the tight news room or just comparing notes on a broadcast in the hallways, they seem to burn with a blue flame.
Silva Harapeti, who alternates between hosting and producing “CU@USC,” the live talk show, explained how she elicits the unpredictable in her shows: “You meet your guest beforehand, establish some sort of contact,” she said. “But don’t let them know what you’re going to ask. You try to give the guest” – she pauses to relish the phrase – “an unexpected moment.”
On the show’s set, with a blue couch and a blond-wood coffee table, discomfited host Tracey Finley tried desperately to find that unexpected moment in a conversation with an imperturbable, fast-on-his-feet trial lawyer. “When I got out of school, I knew I wanted to be in the courtroom …”
“When we come back,” Finley said, setting up a break, “I want to ask you about law school. All those books, all that reading.”
In the control room, the production staff looked on dispassionately. Director Scott Zabielski, juggling shots from three studio cameras, talked casually with the cameramen doing the broadcast. “Give me a close-up,” Zabielski said. “I want an emotional shot.”
“What’s an emotional shot?” someone asks. “When he cries?” Everybody laughed.
Beth Maharrey, the adviser to the news show, conceded that her charges may be a step or two below most small-market technicians and talent. “We might have a separate crew every night here,” said Maharrey, another broadcasting veteran, whose credits include a stint as acting news director at KCAL-TV.
For one thing, all of the staff at Trojan Vision have school obligations. “It’s tough around midterms or the end of the semester,” Maharrey said.
There’s a fallout because of that. “If you don’t have the same people running the show every night,” she said, “the level of professionalism is going to be less. That’s not the studio’s fault. It’s just the nature of the beast.”
But it’s all part of the learning experience. Let ’em make mistakes, Tillman said. “Better that they make mistakes here than on their first job.”
ANOTHER EVENING a few weeks later: Trojan Vision is starting to look even more like your local television station. “We’re operating in phases,” Tillman said. “The first phase was to get up and running. Then we wanted to expand and perfect the programs. Our third phase is to add more bells and whistles.”
THE LATEST OF THE BELLS and whistles is a CromaKey, a blue screen jammed in one corner of the broadcasting room, on which weather graphics can be projected. The nightly news has a weatherman, Tim “Big Red” Wollack. The forecast is for cold and rain, and Wollack shows up with an umbrella and a wool cap and sings a few bars of “Singin’ in the Rain.”
In the control room, Jake Milstein is tonight’s executive news director. A junior in journalism, Milstein also does the news show’s graphics on his home computer. He’s getting good at broadcasting techniques, like squeezing a “teaser,” a 20-second summary of what’s to come, into the opening credits.
The show has its share of rough spots – unexpected moments of the less-desirable kind. But anchors Martha Guzman and Tim Maestas creditably get through a half-hour of news.
Afterward, somebody asked Milstein to list the high points of Trojan Vision. “The real high point is getting it on the air,” he said. “A lot of people said it would be too hard for us. But we do it every night, and it looks good. Every night is a high point.”