By Buki Elegbede
Every third week in May is graduation for students all across the country. Every year, each graduating class receives their golden ticket to the real world. After working in the real world of television for the better part of a decade, if there is one great lesson I can share with my fellow Millennials coming into the field it’s this: Television is a tough business! I don’t think it’s ever been as tough on young upstarts than it is at this current time. This statement is only made more apparent when Oprah Winfrey was cited as saying she would not have made it in this industry if she was starting out today.
From the changes in traditional TV and production, to high turnover rates and everything “viral” in-between, it seems the once narrow doors for young people to break into the industry have completely shut. And yet, there is still hope for the future.
Full disclosure, I was “that kid” who, instead of fantasizing about girls, would day dream about being adopted by Oprah Winfrey and Charlie Rose to learn the art of the interview from the two people I considered to be masters. That was my goal, and I had a plan. When I left college I “knew” when I turned 25 I would have a nationally syndicated talk show, at least 2 Emmys and be on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter or Vanity Fair. But as I enter the sixth month of my 27th year, I don’t have a nationally syndicated talk show, I don’t have an Emmy to speak of, and last I checked, I don’t have any messages in my inbox from Vanity Fair or THR. Not yet anyway.
Many Millennials face this rude awakening when they get into the field. It’s true what they say about us, “we want it, and we want it NOW.” The caveat here is although that statement is very true, the majority of Millennials are ready and willing to put in the work to make it happen. However, the shake up in the way television is viewed has a direct correlation to the success, or lack thereof, of young people entering the business.
The advent of Netflix, Hulu and Prime have created more competition in an already crowded media landscape. This leads to the assumption that more jobs are for the taking. Not so fast; because of the decrease in normal television viewing and increase in other platform viewing, the big brand networks have made drastic cuts to their staffs. Laying off huge portions of departments to keep the purse strings tight and the board members happy. The freshman networks/platforms, although popular, still don’t make as much money as the big brands, meaning they have small staffs of “jack of all trades,” or the people performing multiple jobs for one paycheck.
What does that mean for us Millennials? The once coveted entry level positions are now requiring at least five years of experience to qualify for the job. Five years is something recent grads don’t have. What’s a Millennial to do?
Intern? It was drilled into our heads all through junior and senior year. We were told the internship is key, and although there is still a chance to acquire a job through interning, “that is highly unlikely at this point,” said one network HR rep. The internship scene has changed dramatically in the last five years. The traditional method of working for school credit has been shaken up by countless lawsuits from disgruntled interns claiming mistreatment and labor violations. Practically every network from ABC to FOX and every production from Charlie Rose to Wendy Williams have been or are being sued by a class of interns. Once thought of as assets, now interns are seen as liabilities. In response, many companies have dramatically cut back or dissolved the internship programs altogether. Most notable, was media giant Conde Nast, who in 2013 announced it was canceling its highly sought after internship program.
I don’t want to take anything away from interning because the fact remains that it’s still a great way to get your foot in the door to some major places and, with a little hard work, can lead to other positions. Through interning, I was able to secure several jobs and make connections with people I still work and play with to this day. My advice for the interning group is to be very selective and choose the program that, may not land you a job, but steer you in the direction (career-wise) you want to go and can land you the contacts and connections this business was built on.
For as much as the traditional industry and the traditional routes to success have changed in my short time working, this change has brought about new and exciting opportunities for Millennials looking to reach for the stars, or an Emmy. To quote Milton Berle, “If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.” Thanks to internet sites like YouTube and the prolific access to production equipment, more and more Millennials are getting their hands dirty and starting their own production companies and creating their own content.
This is the route I took with my series, “What Am I Doing with My Life.” I was looking to change positions from corporate TV back to production, but in every interview it was insinuated that I was either too qualified for the position or they didn’t see a fit for me as I had been out of the production world for three years. I felt discouraged and angry, “Did I make the biggest mistake of my life taking a corporate job when my ultimate goal is to follow in Oprah's and Charlie’s footsteps?” I thought to myself.
After a short week of self-loathing, I made an action plan, did some “Google-ing” and found a tremendous amount of programs, fellowships and classes for creating your own content. Fast-forward one year later and my show is being broadcast on public access television, nominated for a BFree “Wow Factor” award, and eligible to submit for a New York Emmy.
Although we “know it all” Millennials still have so much more to learn as we grow in this industry, having the opportunity to make your own way in this business is an exciting enterprise that should not be overlooked. More and more of us are looking to nontraditional ways to break into the media world like taking jobs at social media content based companies which, up until five years ago, did not exist; riding the “viral video” wave which seems like it’s here to stay.
Television is a tough business. I learned, like most Millennials will, that it’s not just going to take a day dream to get you to where you want to be. It’s going to take hard work, sacrifice and stamina. It will take some time. More time than we hoped it would, but if we can learn anything from the older generations who were once in our shoes, it can be done.
- Buki Elegbede is a Production Manager for the Marketing Department at CBS and Journalist/Executive Producer for Once Upon A Dream Production