What led you to become a Communication Studies major?
I came to UCLA, “fresh off the boat” from the Midwest, intending to be an MP/TV major. In the Spring quarter of my Freshman year I took Jeff Cole’s Comm 10. He’s a superb lecturer, as we all know, and I was really awoken, intellectually, by the subject matter. The way Jeff teaches it, it’s very seductive. You think every class is going to be as fun and illuminating as Comm 10. So I applied for the Comm major at the end of my freshman year (which in itself was another plus, relative to MP/TV) and got in. I thought I could always apply to MP/TV the next year, and switch if I got in, but I was nervous about whether I would be accepted, and also not so sanguine about the MP/TV major’s Fine Arts prerequisite requirements (e.g. foreign language) so I stuck with Comm. Now there were times down the road—usually when taking some upper-division psych or sociology course—when I looked back a bit ruefully on Comm 10, as if I had been “baited and switched.” I wasn’t aware that it was mostly a theoretical and abstract liberal arts major, and there weren’t going to be any other classes where we watched great episodes of popular sitcoms. It’s like the punchline of the old tv-business joke: “that was the pilot, this is the series.”
Which courses and/or professors influenced you to go CS?
As I said, Jeff Cole was such a great teacher and that class was so fun, I sort of got seduced into it. The next class I took was Geoff Cowan’s Comm 101; of course he is also a terrific teacher and again, the subject matter was compelling, even if it was a tough course with a lot to learn. Even Comm 100, which was dryer and not nearly as “fun” was nevertheless very intriguing to me. (You’ve got to love any course that has “the Structure of Scientific Revolutions” as a core text. IMO, that should be required reading for any college student.) So, by then I was a ways down the road and decided to stick with it.
Which courses/professors most inspired/gave you a valuable learning experience?
Paul Rosenthal was sensational—his course in Legal Communication, Comm 170, was fascinating and very memorable for me. I still remember how he described the law itself: “the only time that the collective power of the entire society is brought to bear on the individual.” That’s heavy. Neil Malamuth had a casual style and a gentle sense of humor that I really enjoyed. Waldo Phelps was a giant, of course, and everybody loved him. I really miss that guy.
Steve Doyle’s Speech 1 and Marde Gregory’s Speech 2 were important in my own development, too. Marde was very tough but in just the right way––it was a dry run for the “no excuses” environment you experience in the business world. Diana Meehan taught political communication(Comm 160, why do I still remember the course numbers?!) from a cultural perspective—as myth and ritual—and I still think it’s the most illuminating way to understand American political behavior, much more so, to me, than the social science perspectives that dominated the Poli Sci department. I wish Diana had written more about that subject—she was uniquely brilliant. Answering this question makes me want to go dig up my course notes—which I still have. (See “Hoarders.”)
Patrice French, who was very eccentric, taught Comm 102, “The Code of Human Communication,” and Karen Malmuth and I would sit together and for the first eight weeks look at each other like we were lost in a psychological thriller—we just didn’t get it. But then one day—luckily before the final—I really did “get it” and I thought it was one of the most brilliant courses I ever took. For you Star Trek fans, her final was like the “Kobayashi Maru.” I felt a sense of triumph when I walked out of there, having really “grokked” what she was saying about language and meaning.
There was some serendipity for me at times too. During my time in the major I was especially looking forward to Theater Arts 106A—the History of the American Motion Picture. I couldn’t wait to sit down and enjoy Citizen Kane and all of my favorites, but I applied a few times and couldn’t get into the course. Come to think of it, I could almost never get into any Theater Arts course. Then the quarter I finally got in, the professor, Nick Browne, decided that the whole course for that term would focus on silent film exclusively. I was so disappointed and depressed—eight hours of screenings a week, of movies that I was sure I would loathe. Instead it was mesmerizing and really opened my eyes to some amazing works of art. Sunrise, (F.W. Murnau, 1927) to me, is still one of the most emotionally affecting films ever made.
How do you see Communication Studies as an important area of study?
Well, let’s see. Right now in our society, we have the sharpest political divisions in my lifetime, and maybe for the last 150 years. Rachel Maddow is shouting one thing at 9:00 and Shawn Hannity is shouting the opposite. The internet has shattered the dominant paradigm (see, there goes Comm 100) and given individuals unprecedented access to mass audiences. Teenagers are sending 500 text messages a day and cell phones permeate every country, even ones that didn’t have land lines before. Home entertainment has gone from three broadcast networks and vinyl LPs in the 1970s to 1000 networks, millions of internet channels and websites, dvds, cds, digital media in dozens of formats and, most recently, HD and 3-D. Social networks have us all in a 24-7 low-intensity party-line call and class reunion, all wrapped up into one. The South Park creators are on a hit list of Radical Islam. The questions, problems, implications etc. of all of this are so profound…I almost don’t know what other field could be more relevant to what’s going on today.
Has Communication Studies played a pivotal role in your career development?
For me, extremely so, on a number of levels. First, the relationships I developed in the major itself—with teachers like Geoff Cowan and Marde Gregory—led to internships and jobs while I was still in school. Those, in turn, wired me into new and fruitful relationships and connections. I got valuable experience and a bit of a head start. (And I also wasn’t intimidated, as I think I would have been if I had come to the industry from a school someplace else.) Secondly, the discipline of thinking about communication, messages, audiences, and media helped prepare me for the explosive growth and change in our field over the last 25 years.
The major had taught me to see the forest and not just the trees, and that was pretty damn valuable in a period of radical change. I was thinking about the bigger picture. That was an advantage. I knew, for instance, that it was “game over” in the primetime, network television business, even as I was in the middle of it, working during the time that it peaked, economically, in the late 80s. I saw the explosion of channels coming, the narrowcasting, the end of old-fashioned “broadcast standards,” and the sunset of the FCC’s traditional rules—the fairness doctrine, the “equal time” provision, etc. It was useful to see that all coming, and position myself accordingly, instead of becoming one of those folks who was left behind.
What do you think the role of Communication Studies should be at UCLA/In the broader scheme of academia/in the world?
First of all, I would say I don’t know, and don’t claim to. I just don’t have the expertise that the scholars do who actually do their work there.
But, being immersed in the field, and with many of us often just keeping afloat in our day-to-day jobs, it is reassuring to know that people with some intelligence and perspective are taking a disinterested look at what is going on, without financial motivations and with some public interest perspective. What is the effect of the media we are creating on society? On children? On the underprivileged? On the rest of the world? What can media do to help society? I wish Diana Meehan had been advising George W. Bush on Iraq, explaining how culture and symbolism play a role in our respective societies, and how those cultures’ myths and rituals differ. Or for that matter, Paul Rosenthal had been explaining to Bill Clinton what the consequences would be of completely deregulated media, especially in news.
How in particular has Communication Studies empowered you in your personal life?
The simplest things I learned changed my life very profoundly. As a freshman from the Midwest, I think I had a very provincial view of the world and a concept of one reality--mine. When you start learning essential communication premises such as the idea that different people interpret the same message differently, and you learn not to judge narrow-mindedly all the time but to analyze and understand, that is pretty profound. That can help you in intimate relationships and friendships in general, in our multi-cultural society and world.
How in particular has Communication Studies enabled you in your professional aspirations?
Well, I could make a list a mile long. To pick one example, Speech 1 and Speech 2: to be evaluated and critiqued in public speaking and learn how to get better was a blessing, and something terribly useful in my life. In my field, you are always pitching, and the people who learn how to pitch most compellingly do very well indeed. Conversely, weak pitches, even of good ideas by talented people, often fail to get a green light.
That’s a minor example, but to take the 30,000-foot view (sorry for the cliché), I think those of us who were in the major were very lucky. We can understand audiences, evaluate research (and know when it’s bullshit), understand industry trends, contemplate how different mediums do different things, analyze products, and do lots of things that others can’t do too well. I am still amazed at how few creative people in our industry actually understand what research is, for instance, and how it can best be used, and what its limits and weaknesses can be. And yet the life and death of their creative work is often determined by it.
So maybe the final irony is that this very theoretical, liberal arts major is, in the end, very practical if you end up in a media career.
Interview conducted with Dee Bridgewater.
1983-84 White House Fellow, Office of Cabinet Affairs, The White House (President Ronald Reagan)
1984-89 NBC Programming Department, Comedy:
1984-85 Associate (management trainee), Comedy Development
1985 Manager, Current Comedy Programs
1986 Director, Current Comedy Programs
1986-88 Vice President, Current Comedy Programs
1988-89 Vice President, Comedy Development: part of team assigned to Golden Girls, Alf, A Different World; oversaw, at various times, Cosby, Family Ties, Cheers, Golden Girls, Alf, Night Court, A Different World, Facts of Life, Silver Spoons, Diff'rent Strokes, Molly Dodd, Empty Nest
1989-1992 Principal and Executive Producer, Grantwood Productions, 20th Century Fox developed and executive produced Drexell's Class, half-hour comedy on Fox starring Dabney Coleman, Brittany Murphy, Jason Biggs
1992-96 President of Programming, Channel One Network; Executive Producer,
Channel One News
1996-98 President, Walt Disney Television and Touchstone Television, The Walt Disney Company oversaw Home Improvement, Ellen, Boy Meets World, Unhappily Ever After, The Wonderful World of Disney
1998-2000 head of programming and development, Digital Entertainment Network (internet video startup) developed original, made-for-the-web scripted comedies and dramas, news, reality, and news and information programming
2001-2003 Chief Programming Officer, CNN oversaw programming and development for CNN
2004-2009 President of Programming, Current Media (Current TV and current.com) oversaw the launch of an original content network dedicated to news and information for young adults, including 30% user-generated content
2009-present consultant to Current Media and CNN on programming