Tales of Television: Vanished Into Electrons

I talk about a great many things online. I’ve been on the Internet since well before there even was a “world wide web,” back in the days of Compuserve, Prodigy, and Delphi, when we exchanged pure text with no graphics or frills. Our conversations were long and varied and the FBI probably still has records of some of them. This website, my main website, has been online since 1997 with a steady flow of personal content and comments. I’m also a writer who has been publishing stories and articles since days of yore. Yet in all that time, in all that writing, I have never talked about my primary career: Television.

I decided it’s time for that embargo to come to an end. I have over thirty years worth of stories of this often bizarre business. Correct that to Business, with a capitol B.

So what is it I’ve done in these past 30+ years? In the final analysis, I’ve arranged electrons into interesting patterns, flung them into the ether, and seen them vanish.

Wow. There’s a lifetime accomplishment to boast about! Every bit of work in over thirty years time has vanished into electrons. But the stories, and the fun I had gathering them, remain, so I’ll put them online where they’ll be… well, um… arranged into interesting patterns of electrons.

Tales of Television: How It Began

As with many things in life, plans change and evolve. In junior high school I wanted to be a computer programmer. By my senior year of high school I was intending to go into aerospace engineering with a glimmer of hope I might get into the NASA space program. That was 1976-77, however, and there wasn’t much of a space program. I talked, somewhat half-heartedly, to the Air Force. They were far less than half-hearted. Not only were they not interested in adding women to their ranks – this was the point where they might tolerate but certainly not encourage women – they certainly weren’t interested in a female with bad eyesight.

The Air Force only had been a thought, not a serious plan. My high school, a small town school in northeast Minnesota, had nothing in the way of guidance programs and there was no Internet to search for “how to get a career in NASA,” so Plan B, or really Plan C, took over when I graduated. Aerospace engineering was a dead career path at that point in time, so I went into electrical engineering instead. Mostly this was because my older brother was an electrical engineer, and my mother pushed me that way. The community college which had the engineering courses leading to the University of Minnesota was nearby, only sixty miles away, so I could live at home, continue to take care of the farm and the farm work, and still go to college.

For two years I was the only female in all my math and physics classes.

None of the men in my classes even really talked to me. That was a little crushing, but I learned later on that was because they were afraid to talk to me! I was that elusive, frightening creature called a ‘female’ and they were unable to work up the gumption to talk to me, much less ask me out on a date. The nature of the intelligent male geek is more widely known now, but then, as an eighteen-year-old girl from a farm, it was a mystery to me.

My breaking point with electrical engineering came during a class on physics dynamics. It was a struggle for me, in large part because I had missed the prerequisite class so I was jumping into the middle of a very complex area. I recall very clearly, however, correcting the teacher on one point in which we were calculating the frame rate of a film camera shooting a man in slow motion on the moon. I may have had trouble with the coefficient of gravity portion of the equation, but I certainly knew the frame rate of a film camera and how to make it do a slo-mo! Then came the day when the teacher asked one of these twenty men in the class, all of whom wore pocket calculators strapped to their belts every day, the name of the fellow sitting next to him. That fellow was absent that day and this other one, who had sat next to him in every class for two straight years, did not know his name. I quit engineering the next day. I needed a bigger, brighter, more dynamic world for myself.

In the middle of all this, on a trip to Los Angeles, I registered my first television script with the Writers Guild. It was a spec script for Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and – dang – it was a good script. The show was cancelled the very next season after a huge revision that did-in my story line. It was a tip-off, however, of where my real interests resided.

From there, I toyed with going into computer special effects for movies. One key problem with that was the field had not yet been invented. Maybe I could have been a pioneer in it, but there was always the problem of making a living to deal with. I then went into a television program at a Minnesota university for a year, and from there on into the Cinema-Television Production program at the University of Southern California (now called the School of Cinematic Arts). That’s right, the George Lucas/Star Wars film school. Never aim small. USC isn’t in Beverly Hills, though my apartment did have a ce-ment pond, and I drove a Firebird, not a truck. Still, the farm girl headed for Hollywood.

Day One, Class One, the teacher drew a dollar sign on the board and said, “That’s it. That’s the whole lesson.” It was a very pragmatic school who turned out people who really work in the Business. Artsy was fine, if it was marketable. It fit my Heinlein-based sensibilities quite well.

I got my first paid gig in television only a few months after starting at USC. It was videotaping a computer conference. I was, again, the only female in a room with nearly two hundred geek men. This bunch, however, had several “high-functioning geeks” (that’s what my husband, a computer guy, calls himself) and at every break I was surrounded by men fascinated by me and the television equipment. Funny thing was, I had studied so much higher math and computer science, I could pretty well follow what they were talking about in the conference. Still, once I had television truly in hand, that was that. Whatever form it took – writing, producing, directing, or anything else – I was in.

More Tales of Television…