BY Chandrea Miller
In spring 2020, from the Today Show to Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, live in-studio television shows across the nation were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
USC’s official campus television station, Trojan Vision, was no exception.
“When students found out it was being shut down, there were tears,” said USC School of Cinematic Arts Adjunct Assistant Professor Kathleen Dowdey. “Students were breaking down.”
Dowdey teaches CPTR 409-Practicum in Television Production which is a course that offers 2 or 4 units and works directly with Trojan Vision to produce television shows. The productions are shot live on two soundstages inside the Robert Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts, a fully digital filmmaking training center at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts–the only one of its kind in the world located at a university.
Dowdey’s fellow SCA Trojan Vision instructor and Adjunct Assistant Professor, Brian Roberts, who was overseeing two shows for the university television station during the 2020 spring semester including The Breakdown and The Watercooler, was there when the cancellation announcement came down.
“This can’t be the end,” Roberts said. “You can’t roll color bars and put on a note on the television saying we couldn’t finish.”
Roberts is known for his directing work on The Drew Carey Show, Everybody Loves Raymond, and The Hughley’s. Roberts knows what it’s like to produce shows during unprecedented circumstances—he was working on The Hughley’s during the 9/11 attacks.
“They are now faced with the equivalent of 9/11, meets World War II, meets a pandemic,” Roberts said. “And in the face of all of this, you still have to get a show on the air.”
Right away, Roberts jumped on the online videoconferencing system, Zoom–“I realized quickly that it looks just like a TV,” he said.
Professor Roberts put together a PowerPoint presentation for his students on how to produce a live in-studio show, minus one thing—the studio.
“I said, ‘Throw away everything you know and now I’m going to show you how it works,’” Roberts said. “Film and Television is a solution-oriented business and if you don’t get into that mindset, you can kiss a career in television goodbye.”
Not only did students have to get up to speed with the new software, they had to rebuild their live in-studio shows from scratch.
“We were all in kindergarten again at the same time,” said Roberts. “Shows like Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert have unlimited resources and budgets–we had just us.”
The 2020 spring semester students who had been assigned to technical in-studio positions such as camera operators and audio technicians were repurposed and reassigned to creative positions. They were tasked to make graphics, a station ID, show open, and even commercials—all elements that had been left behind at the physical studio.
“The students were excited, they said, ‘Let us make a new show that’s ours,’” Dowdey said. “In my mind, anything that makes students more creative is golden.”
Students had to learn to execute a live television show in unprecedented ways: the chat transformed into a virtual teleprompter, screen sharing was utilized for scripts and Zoom box screens served as live camera lenses.”
Within two weeks, the shows did go on.
And now Trojan Vision TV is prepared to do it all over again this fall, but this time with all new shows. For the first time since the TV station debuted on September 15, 1997, programming will be completely revamped.
“It’s such an exciting time for our fall season line-up,” said Trojan Vision Campus Outreach General Manager Sophia Mazzella. “They will be learning ahead of the curve, in real-time, what the future of TV is looking like.”
The new Trojan Vision shows will follow an original sketch format with a mix of live performances and pre-taped packages.
“We’ve had set shows that have been going on for years, as long as Trojan Vision has been around,” Mazzella said. “But because of all of the changes this semester due to COVID-19, we will be producing new shows that will actually give students more freedom to put what they want on TV–they will have more control over the creative and production side of things.”
Mazzella said the student-run television station which is open to all schools and all students will include a wide variety of segments from finance to live music.
“We already have some students from USC’s Marshall School of Business and School of Architecture who have signed on,” Mazzella said.
She was also was quick to point out that many USC students are, in a sense, already creating live TV shows in their own homes.
“Right now, everyone is projecting themselves and bringing people into their own homes via a variety of teleconferencing platforms,” Mazzella said. “Trojan Vision TV is undeniably a valuable tool to help our entire USC student body to improve how they present themselves online and on-camera.”
In addition, the campus television station can offer something else: connection.
“The ways I used to interact with people on campus, we don’t have that anymore,” Mazzella said. “It becomes all the more important to get involved in activities like Trojan Vision Television where students can come together and connect as a community.”
Mazzella said that Trojan Vision’s community connection is arguably stronger than almost any other activity offered at USC because of its widespread multi-disciplinary reach.
“I joined my freshman year and met so many people from other schools whom I otherwise would have never met,” Mazzella said. “There’s so many clubs and so many different groups students can join, but only Trojan Vision TV is open to every kind of interest, discipline and major—it’s a vast and diverse community that students will be connected to for the rest of their lives.”
Mazzella said that whether creating TV is a passion or just a side hobby—the life lesson it offers is immensely valuable for all USC students.
“It’s such a blessing to learn that the show must go on and to figure out ways to be adaptable,” Mazzella said. “And now that we find ourselves in this unprecedented situation, it’s even more essential to be ready to adapt and really put on a show.”
Trojan Vision Television plans to produce three weekly live television shows this fall semester. The deadline to join is September 4, 2020.
For more information go to Trojanvison@usc.edu.