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Emmy-Winning Producer Linda Midgett Takes an Unconventional Path to Success

by Michael J. Solender

Emmy-Winning Producer  Linda Midgett Takes an Unconventional Path to Success

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Picture by Michael Solender

March 9, 2010

Growing up on North Carolina’s Crystal Coast, Linda Midgett did not envision her father’s job as a harbor pilot playing a pivotal role in launching her career as a documentary filmmaker and television producer. Filming and interviewing her father and other family members working the port at Morehead City turned out to be precisely the initial production experience that eventually led to her Emmy-winning role work as the co-executive producer of the acclaimed daytime television series, “Starting Over.”

Now living in south Charlotte’s Lansdowne neighborhood, Midgett returned to North Carolina in 2005 after college and career stops in Chicago, Atlanta, and Los Angeles over the past two decades. We met recently to discuss the state of reality TV, the intense pressure of writing for real-time TV news, what makes a good TV producer, and the joys of connecting with an audience in a meaningful way.

Initially a piano major at college, Midgett said she didn’t feel the passion for performing after her freshman year at Wheaton College, outside of Chicago. She instead turned to her love of language and writing and became a Literature major. This choice, it turns out, has served her well.

Producer as writer

Midgett points to her ability to synthesize information and convey ideas with screen images as a key element in achieving success as a producer. “Many people don’t realize how much writing is involved in producing,” remarked Midgett. “Being a strong writer isn’t even enough, you have to understand how the words are going to sound on air and carry the story forward.”

After interning at a Chicago-based magazine while at college, Midgett moved to Atlanta upon graduation and worked as a freelance writer. Her clients were mainly of the corporate variety and she wrote instructional and training videos. “One of my colleagues had a great interest in producing videos for children’s television and the direct retail market for children’s videos,” recalled Midgett. “This was at the time when those children’s videos featuring large earthmovers and tractors were in vogue. We were naïve and thought we could create a similar product and in fact produced a video entitled ‘Ports and Pilots.’ It was all about the role of harbor pilots and how they helped large ships navigate into port.” Midgett’s lifelong exposure to the seaport through her father, his job as a harbor pilot, and other family member’s jobs at the local port, made this a natural go-to project for her and one with an instant connection.

Midgett received a crash course on video production with that project. She arranged for camera personnel, pre- and post-production, writing, video editing, and more. “I remember sitting out in the middle of the harbor on a boat with a cameraman thinking to myself, ‘Wow. People actually get paid to do this.’ I was hooked from then on.”

After breaking even financially on the project, she never looked back. Her career in television production was born. Midgett is quick to point out however that she considers herself first and foremost a writer, then a producer, not the other way around which seems more common in the industry.

“I learned some very valuable lessons as a news writer working at CNN International,” noted Midgett who made the move there after working with an independent production company supporting Georgia PBS children’s programming. “There is intense pressure and constant deadlines in writing real-time news. My copy was in our anchor’s mouths and on air practically in real-time. I understand deadlines. I came to learn how copy sounds on the air is considerably different than how it looks on the page.”

Throughout our conversation, the "producer as writer" was a theme that Midgett returned to again and again. “I have reviewed hundreds and hundreds of scripts,” said Midgett, “Over time I have developed a sense for how a story will sound, how it will come across on air. Each show has its own voice, its own feel and pace. Understanding documentary scripts, the voice, and pacing is something I have just learned by doing hundreds of hours of programming over the years. I have certainly learned aspects of it from all of my mentors and bosses, but it's been more of a cumulative knowledge.”

She explained that scripts for television or scripted documentaries are split down the middle of a single page with the left-hand side designated for anything visual, and the right side is for anything audio, which includes narration, music hits, natural sound from the footage, etc. “You really have to combine the two to get a sense for how it will come across on TV,” Midgett noted.

Midgett’s work at CNN led to writing and production opportunities with other cable network projects including work with A&E and The History Channel. Her work has also included writing and production credit for the Weather Channel’s acclaimed series, “Storm Stories (http://stormstories.com/)”.

Jon Murray is regarded by many as a pioneer in the development of American reality TV. He was the co-creator of MTV’s “The Real World” in 1992. Murray is but one of the industry heavyweights that Midgett has been fortunate enough to work with and learn from. It was her association with Murray in the production company he started with his partner Mary Bunim, where Midgett acknowledged she stepped into the big leagues of reality television programming.

It was at Bunim-Murray where Midgett’s talents and hard work paid off with accolades and recognition most producers in the business can only dream of. There she was co-executive producer of the hit day-time reality series, “Starting Over” that ran from 2003-2007.

“Working at Bunim-Murray was a tremendous experience for me. Jon Murray is a master storyteller and was a great mentor to me, as was Millee Taggart, the executive producer on ‘Starting Over.’ Jon is the grandfather of American reality television, and I credit him for teaching me how to produce reality television. Millee I credit for really pushing my storytelling skills,” said Midgett.

The show followed the lives of a small group of women facing everyday challenges from relationship issues to financial hardships. The women were housed in a single home over the course of the season and received advice and counseling from “life coaches.” Hugely popular with its daytime audience, the show was recognized with three Daytime Emmy Awards over the course of its four year run.

“There were many aspects of the Emmy experience that were gratifying,” said Midgett, “We all worked incredibly hard, 90- to 100-hour weeks were common as the show was shooting essentially 24 hours. That our work was recognized was truly special.”

Midgett went on to say the reason she thought the show was so popular was that it resonated with its audience in a genuine and sincere way. “We helped people, no question about it,” she said. “The series had a good heart. It was a show with a heart and soul that women could identify with and draw from into their daily lives.”

Back to Carolina

Hollywood’s frenetic pace was not conducive to starting and raising a family for Midgett. In 2005, she and her husband John Otzenberger chose Charlotte for the next chapter in their busy lives. Midgett has a sister here and wanted her children to grow up around family. Her husband, a psychologist who specializes in working with adolescent boys, saw Charlotte as a good market for his practice.

Midgett has continued to work for The History Channel since moving to Charlotte and has had various other projects present themselves since her move. “Clearly, I miss some opportunities being here as opposed to Hollywood, but those are tradeoffs I made willingly,” said Midgett. “There are opportunities for me and I am fortunate to have been sought out for some exciting projects.”

One locally-based project that Midgett had extensive involvement in was a documentary that garnered national recognition. Midgett was approached in 2007 about a project that was being co-sponsored by Charlotte’s Junior League. They wanted to create a 30-minute video that focused on mental health challenges facing teens in a way that de-stigmatized these issues and encouraged affected youths to seek help.

Through My Eyes” was the documentary film that resulted. As the title suggests, the film follows several area teens, each with a different mental health challenges including depression, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, and learning difficulties. With Midgett overseeing the project, the film was made in a community partnership among the Mecklenburg County Area Mental Health Authority, the Health Department, MeckCARES, the Junior League of Charlotte, and WTVI.

“This was a project that was on the opposite end of the continuum from where I was working in Hollywood given the budgetary constraints,” said Midgett. “Yet it was extremely satisfying to help the people involved see their passion and vision for the project realized.”

The film was so successful that it received a SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration) Voice Award. The award honors writers and producers of entertainment programming in television and film who incorporate dignified, respectful, and accurate portrayals of individuals with mental health issues into film and television productions.

According to Mecklenburg County Area Mental Health Services, the film was shown locally on WTVI and is shown to ninth graders as part of the recently introduced mental health curriculum at CMS. “I’m really proud of our work on that project. It is touching to know that these types of projects have such a positive impact.” said Midgett.

In speaking about the future of reality programming, Midget commented that she doesn’t believe the full impact of social networking has been tapped into from a content perspective for TV. She noted with amazement how teens and young adults access content through PDAs and iPhones, remarking that the ubiquity of digital information and social networking will likely play a major role in entertaining us well into the future.

So what is her favorite reality show? “It’s hard for me to relax and watch reality programming without being critical,” Midgett says. “But I have to admit, “Top Chef” is really well done and entertaining.”

Don’t touch that dial: another Midgett-produced show is likely on its way to your TV soon.

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