How A Group of Teenagers Taught Me How a Television Show Should Be Made

Watch the series premiere of "The Reel Teens" on Fox 53 April 9th at 9:00am and then meet the young people behind the show at The Reel Teens Premiere Party!

First, a confession. I spent most of the 1990s working as a writer/producer on shows for teens at NBC. But this Saturday April 9, 2016 at 9 a.m. on Fox 53, a new show will premiere called “The Reel Teens” which is the show I am proudest of. It is made in front of and behind the camera by seventeen real teenagers from schools around the Pittsburgh region. On the show, these young people go to a Tolin Special Effects and see how monsters are made for movies and TV shows. They visit a musical festival and the studio of a hip hop group to discover how technology has changed the way we make music. They even get rare access to take their cameras inside Google to learn how teamwork and creative problem solving skills that they use when producing the show gives them skills to work at innovative companies like Google in the future.

Along the way, they make us laugh, introduce us to exciting people and places in Pittsburgh, and show us–mistakes and all—how they are learning to make a TV show in a way which is as engaging as most shows you’ll see on television. These students have received mentorship throughout the entire process from teaching artists and industry professionals including myself. But, the truth is we have learned more from them than we ever could have imagined.

Who are The Reel Teens?

The Reel Teens began as part of the Steeltown Entertainment Project’s Youth and Media program which was born right alongside the Remake Learning (then called “Kids & Creativity”). Recognizing that today’s young people, sometimes called “digital natives,” learn differently in a world where they are on screens seven hours a day and hold in their pocket the ability to Google any information in the world they choose. Taking inspiration from Fred Rogers, a Pittsburgh innovator who used the new technology of his day (television) to improve the lives of young people, we set out to empower to use today’s creative technologies to be the makers of content, not just consumers.

For the past two years, some Youth and Media participants have become part of the Teen Film Crew, a team of emerging professionals that has been getting paid to make videos for Pittsburgh non-profits. They come to us from a wide variety of high school including PPS Allderdice and CAPA, Urban Pathways, Propel, Montour, Woodland Hills, and Seneca Valley to name a few. They all have their stories, but they came together each Wednesday afternoon to work together on shared projects.

They’ve made videos for Amachi Pittsburgh which works with kids whose parents are incarnated, Arts for Autism, the “Off The Record” fundraiser for the food bank; the students made a video about the Learn and Earn Summer Youth Employment Initiative with Jerome Bettis where NFL Films filmed our kids filming him. That last video got a shout out on ESPN and was retweeted by the Mayor. And over these past few months, they got the opportunity to make their own TV show.

Teens making their own television show?

As the teens gathered in the conference room that first day, I couldn’t help but smile as they walked past the Fred-A-Saurus, a dinosaur wearing a Fred Rogers sweater outside of the Fred Rogers Company next door to Steeltown on Pittsburgh’s South Side. Even Fred Rogers had worked at NBC for several years before he came back to Pittsburgh to help start public television. And he did his puppets on the Josie Carrey show for years as a floor manager before he got his own show. Oh, and he was an adult.

I should point out that these kids were not alone. We had our teaching artists who have been mentoring them all along, Jordan, Kris, James, and Haji. Haji had been one of our students and now, five years later, is a teacher–pretty impressive and even more so that he was a refugee from Somalia who did not speak English until he was 13. We also brought in, two Emmy Award winning producers, Michael Bartley and Tonia Caruso, who had produced thousands of shows between them, to help mentor the kids.

It seemed like a crazy idea to give teens their own show, but these young people were unafraid. And they had ambitious goals. They wanted to shoot pieces around town that they thought were cool—the Strip Music Festival, a mobile sculpting workshop in the old Carrie Furnace site, a special effects house where a former Teen Film Crew member was now working, oh, and they wanted to go to Google. I tried to explain to them that getting access to the biggest company in the world was probably not feasible as even “real TV journalists” could not get in. The kids shrugged it off, and started talking about skits they wanted to do. I pointed out that even SNL could not get half their skits to work most of the time. They were undeterred.

We brought in top industry professionals to give them tips including cinematographer Mark Knobil who has shot everything from “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” to National Geographic specials; sound designer Chris Strollo who has worked on films like “Foxcatcher” and “Perks of Being A Wallflower”; Curtis Fuqua who has been everything from a stunt performer on “Olympus Has Fallen” to a teamster on the upcoming “Fences” HBO movie Denzel Washington is directing; and “Two and a Half Men” and “Mom” director Jamie Widdoes who we Elders all recognize as “Hoover”, the president of the Delta House in “Animal House”—a movie none of our teen film crew have even seen.

“The Elders” is what the Teen Film Crew calls those of us who are helping them to make the show. The only time the cameras were turned off was a meeting early on, when Jordan and Kris, and Brett who have worked with them since the early days of the Teen Film Crew, informed us that the kids wanted to speak with us. At the meeting, the students voiced their concerns about not wanting to be “puppets” as they insisted on not wanting to do anything that was fake and just trying to imitate adults hosting a show.

Had we created a monster? They were still in high school, but their instincts were pretty good. We had presented them with a few titles— “Entertainment Pittsburgh” or “Content Creators” which did not sound quite right. It was the kids who came up with “Reel Teens”—reel as in a film reel. I wondered how they even knew what film was, given the digital world they have grown up in.

So, the kids worked under our tutelage to plan out the first shoot which would be at the Strip Music Festival. They divided into groups and would take turns working camera, sound, lighting, production manager, being hosts, and many of the jobs those not familiar with the industry would not even know existed. Georgia, one of the teens from Montour, knew some members of the band “Nevada Color” who were headlining the festival and so she was able to get them to set up some interviews. Michael and Tonia went over with them beforehand what a typical shoot entailed. There was an equipment check and they were off.

The First Episode

I guess it wasn’t until the first shoot that I realized the difference between this TV show and the ones I had worked on for NBC and other networks. Most of the crew on “The Reel Teens” did not yet have their driver’s licenses, and so the “producers” and “directors” on the episode had to be driven to the Strip or take a bus.

Wanting to give the kids a little space, I waited to meet them at the second location, Klavon’s Ice Cream Shop. I slid into a booth at this old-fashioned ice cream parlor and asked the student producers and directors how the morning went.

Like in some bad sitcom, I got a variety of answers from “good” to “okay” to “we learned a lot.” Uh oh. Exactly what happened? I heard about how they were going to interview the first band in a bar—and well, the bar owner was a little nervous about having them around in the first place as they were all underage. Then, they had plugged in the lights and other equipment. Poof! All the lights went out—for the whole bar. There had been some yelling. They tried to apologize. A band was waiting to go on. So, they just got out of there.

They recovered though, and ended up doing some man on the street interviews and “set ups” which Michael Bartley had taught them. You know, “Hi, I’m Georgia.” “And I’m Alex.” And then chiming in together… “And we are down at the Strip District Music Festival….” Although getting that out on the fly surrounded by throngs at the festival proved harder than they thought.

Eventually, the five members of the next band they were interviewing arrived. This time, everything was set up. They took a deep breath, and Georgia asked— “How has technology affected the music scene?” The band talked to her about how all things are possible nowadays with social media. It’s funny. The Elders were part of a generation, which was shocked when “downloading” killed the music industry in their early part of the millennium. We realized these kids don’t even know what it is like to live in a world without Spotify. We realized that we could tell ourselves that we were teaching them how to make television. But, the truth is most of them have been posted videos on You Tube for half their lives—which was exactly how long YouTube has been in existence.

 The first day’s shoot ended okay, and the second group has now arranged for the whole Teen Film Crew to visit TolinFX. There, they all start to feel like professionals. Steve Tolin tells Josh how he had plans to go to New York or LA after he graduated the Art Institute, but he managed to start get jobs here—working on big movies like “Dark Knight”, “Jack Reacher”, and now “The Outsiders”. Steve talks about his own background when he was a kid, putting together monster masks in his kitchen. The teens interviewed Jazmin about her journey going from Westinghouse as a part of our Youth & Media Program to the Teen Film Crew to now getting paid to do her passion—making things– working as a special effects artist for Tolin Fx.

At the end of the visit, Steve demonstrated his patented Squib FX system which safely allows it to look Josh is being “shot” for the cameras with blood splattering everywhere. The kids loved it. As they called wrap, we noticed that these kids were getting good.

Just as we get a minute to breath, we get word from Google. They are considering the teens request to film there. But first, Patrick, a Global PR team member based in D.C., wants to talk to them via Google Hangout. The following Wednesday, the kids assemble in the conference room. Everyone is beyond nervous. Patrick’s face appears on the screen.

He is a cool guy and explains to the kids that they get these requests from reporters all the time. Before he can get have them come, he needs to know more about the story about why the kids want to go there—what is the story they want to tell. The four kids in the front in the Google group now feel a bit like they are in a firing line.

Sha’Ronda speaks first saying how she has heard about the unique work environment at Google, and thinks it would be a great place to work.

Patrick confirms that they do work hard at that, but asks what else makes them want to visit Google.

Gaige says he has been into computer programming since he was a kid, and it is his life’s dream to work at Google.

Patrick is supportive but moves on to Zabian, the most recent Reel Teen who has joined us from Pittsburgh’s Performing Arts School CAPA.

Z, as we all call her, says what she wants to know is how Google, the biggest company in the world, is giving back to the community. And not just this community, but they live in a global world, and what are they doing for communities around the world.

We all hold our breath, and then Patrick smiles. “You’re in.” He goes on to talk about how Google does see itself as a company that takes the communities they are in—locally and internationally—very seriously. He talks with the kids for a half hour, discussing everything from favorite books to whether Google really has “napping pods” that one of the kids has heard about. In the beginning of the discussion of going to Google, many of the kids felt like Google was only a place where geniuses worked. That it was out of reach for kids like them. But Patrick assures them that the teamwork and creative problem solving skills they are learning doing this TV show, are exactly the type of skills they will need to work at places like Google, and other companies like Google that don’t even exist yet. After all, Google was just being born along the same time that many of these “Reel Teens” were being born. And the problems Google has had to tackle, like how to organize 30 billion items that one could purchase online in a way that is smart for users, are problems, no one else has ever had to solve. As Patrick signs off, The Reel Teens start making their plans to film at Google, and we all wonder what we have gotten ourselves into…

To see all this and more, watch “The Reel Teens” on Fox 53 on Saturday April 9th. Or visit

Published April 08, 2016