The Media’s Turn – Arlene Wilkinson, Television Producer
I’ve always been enthralled with broadcast journalism, taking a story and through writing, editing and well thought out commentary a production team can tell a tale with a depth that sometimes the written word can’t portray. It’s hard work.
Several years ago I worked with producer Arlene Wilkinson, who was producing a show for the John Walsh show, “Prescription for Addiction,” that would feature one of my clients (her team won a PRISM award for the piece).
Even on my end the show was no easy feat, but I clearly remember calling Arlene at what would be midnight her time to leave a message, and she answered the phone. I would have expected her to be annoyed and exhausted, and she may have been a little bit of both, but she was very clear when I expressed my surprise that she was in the office at midnight that these hours were the nature of her job and she was excited about the show they were creating. We’ve stayed in touch ever since.
Arlene has an incredible wealth of experience on the talk show circuit. She began her 10 year television career as an intern and production assistant for the “Ricki Lake” show. In 2000, she was part of the production team that launched Oscar nominated actress Queen Latifah’s foray into daytime television the “Queen Latifah” show. Arlene has been a valued member in many start-ups and pilots such as NBC Universal’s “John Walsh” show and “Jane Pauley” show, Emmy-nominated “Dr. Phil” and Emmy winning “Tyra Banks” show.
Arlene has worked on pilots for comedian Paul Mooney and Lisa Nichols of “The Secret” fame. In 2007, Arlene produced for two seasons at the NAACP nominated “Judge Mathis” court show. Recently, she jumped in to the word of casting working on the BBC Worldwide Production/SOAPNET ’s new reality series “Bank of Mom and Dad” which premiered in Fall 2009. Her experience has enabled her her to work with celebrities, newsmakers, and everyday people to bring compelling stories to television.
In the fall of 2009, Arlene launched her own production company – Funny Chick Productions! – in which she will produce and create her own original television projects, which currently include a game show, a web-site, and a reality project.
RK: You’ve had an exciting career in broadcast journalism. What drove you to work behind the camera as opposed to print?
AW: I’d like to say there was some master plan but my career in television was a compete fluke. I have a degree in corporate communications and I would have probably gone into PR but I needed an internship to graduate. I applied everywhere and received an offer to intern at a the one and only Ricki Lake show (Go Ricki!, Go Ricki!). I loved it. This combined my love of television, dealing with people and making things happen. Working in television production is a tough gig but it’s in my blood! I can’t really see myself doing anything else.
Working for talk shows that delve into some very serious topics, I imagine (and know from working with you) that being sensitive to emotional situations can be draining. How do manage the challenge of developing a great show while being sensitive to vulnerable guests?
I’ve worked with many hosts (Jane Pauley, John Walsh, and Dr. Phil) that deal with topics ranging from physical abuse, drug addiction, infidelity, murder, rape, etc. I try to be upfront and honest with the guests. I’m very clear about the topic of the show. It’s a tough juggling act! With sensitive issues I treat the guests with respect and hand hold them through the process. I’m clear about what a potential guests role or place is in the show.
If we speak with someone on the phone about the show and they aren’t comfortable with everything involved – I won’t book them. I see the guests as a peer expert to the audience. The guest’s life experiences (good or bad) will help someone watching them at home. As hard as it can be I’ve also learned to leave the job at the office. It hard but I learned to compartmentalize and never take the office home with me. That can be hard to do…there are guests whose stories and faces I will never forget.
Do you have any favorite stories that you worked on that you’d like to share?
There are too many to share for many different reasons. However, during my time at Tyra working on her “So what” size acceptance show was not only challenging but empowering. It was a simple phrase and concept but it helped a lot of women deal with their self esteem and learn to love themselves. However, there have been so many faces and stories that have either made me laugh or cry depending on the day. I always hope that bringing that particular guest or story to the general audience helps people in some way.
Have social media tools like Twitter and Facebook impacted television production for you?
It’s a great aid in doing my job. If I need an additional guest I can put the word out on these sites and friends and family can help me get booked. I’ve searched for and booked guests off of Facebook, Twitter and Myspace (the granddaddy of social networking sites). Recently while working in casting for a reality show my co-workers were able to start trending topics on the subject of the show we are working on. Even just tweeting a link to our casting email or Web page is great! Facebook I’ve been using since it was just for college kids. Now, my friends grandmother’s have Facebook pages. It’s amazing, can you believe that Oprah and Barbara Walters are now tweeting!
What qualities/traits do you value when working with a publicist? What attributes have deterred you from working with a PR practitioner?
I love it when a PR person is understanding and can compromise! I love when the publicist understands that I’m trying to help them promote their client or product. Sometimes I’ll have to call multiple times with different requests that my bosses might have to make them happy. Trust me if I can get a product or person that you are pitching onto the show I’m working on it makes my job easier. What deters me from working with someone if they are too pushy. You may have a great client and/or product but if it doesn’t work for the format of my show – it doesn’t work! Nothing will turn me off more if you consistently call and push the same client on me when I’ve told you why it won’t work!
What can a PR person do to help producers obtain the information they need for a good story?
A PR person should know the format and type of show I’m working on. Do your homework!!!! Research whether the person and/or product you are pitching me would fit the demographic of my show. It always amazed me when I produced for Dr. Phil who 99% of the time deals with serious issues. I would get pitched a beauty product! When I worked with the great Rachel Kay J. You did your research! A good PR professional has to think like a television producer! Come to the table with some thoughts about how your client can be a viable part of my show. Lay out what guests, video, pictures and/or audio would be available to me.
What should PR people know about you before sending you a pitch? If I called you on the phone with a story idea, what would you tell me?
Many times, when I receive a call from a PR professional I’m in a time crunch for completing another show and /or segment. I always appreciate a PR professional ability to understand that. I would tell you that I’m on deadline and would like an email from you with the press release attached. In the email let me know how you see your client fitting in with my show. So, that during our next conversation we can cut to the chase and kick around ideas both of us may have about whether or not I can use your client in the show.