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What’s It Like to Be a TV Producer? The Job Shadow Knows

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sixteen-year-old Kevin Fernley spent a day last week touring studio sets, doing lunch and brainstorming ideas for a TV program with Scott St. John, executive producer of the reality shows “Street Smarts” and “Change of Heart.”

Not bad for a kid whose previous Hollywood connections were the lighting guy for Jay Leno’s “The Tonight Show” and the woman who serves cafe mocha to the cast of NBC’s “Friends.”

Fernley and 50 other students from the Burbank Unified School District got prime face time last Wednesday with Warner Bros. producers, vice presidents, animators and crew as part of a nationwide job-shadowing program that kicked off this month.

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“This is so awesome,” said Fernley, a gum-chomping junior at John Burroughs High School, who hopes to become a show business photographer.

He glanced at the studio’s downtown back lot and grinned. “Not many people get to do this,” he said.

Across the country, more than 1 million students and 100,000 businesses will participate in Job Shadowing 2002.

School officials and business leaders match students with mentors for a day on the job.

Teens gain a better understanding of available career options, said Stuart Shapiro, executive director of the job shadow coalition.

“The program has a phenomenal impact,” Shapiro said. “Kids might choose a career based on their job shadow experience.”

They might also land summer jobs or internships and make contacts that last a lifetime. This is what Fernley hoped to do during his day of following St. John.

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“Contacts,” Fernley said, pausing, “they’re a ticket into the entertainment industry.”

Knowing this, Fernley and his classmates fidgeted as they met their mentors near the Warner Bros. commissary, where George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston dine.

Some were so nervous that their heads hung low and they barely spoke a word. Others, like Fernley, treated the studio insiders as if they were favorite uncles.

“You should let me take this for a spin,” Fernley joked as St. John drove a WB golf cart from the main lot and along Olive Avenue to a high-rise housing Telepictures Productions, a Warner Bros. subsidiary that produces the reality shows.

The two even looked similar: thin build, long eyelashes and closely-cropped hair. But Fernley dressed in creaseless khakis with a burgundy button shirt while his mentor wore rumpled shorts, a lime green shirt and orange-and-black flip-flops.

Once on the 10th floor, St. John took his protege on a tour past offices overlooking the San Fernando Valley, licorice-laden candy carts and shelves stuffed with “lawyer books that nobody ever reads,” the mentor joked.

St. John led the teenager into his office, decorated with a headless mannequin in a hula skirt, a “Jenny Jones” cookie jar and 50 plastic baby dolls hanging on the wall behind his desk.

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“Bubble gum?” St. John said, digging into a jar of Double Bubble.

“Yes, please,” Fernley replied in his most professional voice.

Then they got down to business. St. John called in John Quinn, a development associate, to pitch the teenager an idea for an unscripted TV show.

“This is big,” Quinn said, diving into details of the project involving formerly incarcerated, nonviolent criminals finding their true loves.

“Honestly, it’s a good idea,” Fernley said. “I bet you could go to Kentucky and find lots of people for the show.”

“Now, you make [Quinn] feel uncomfortable,” St. John half-jokingly advised his protege. “You say, ‘I’ll get back to you.’”

Or, Fernley offered, “I can say, ‘We’ll do lunch.’”

St. John smiled. How quickly they learn.

Then it was off to the gritty set of “Street Smarts” at Victory Studios in Glendale, where Fernley met Frank Nicotero, host of the late-night show.

It was on the set, surrounded by a gray platform, faux brick and steel and microphones dangling from the ceiling, where Fernley learned about contestant selection and location filming, where he joked with the men as if they were equals and where he had an epiphany.

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“I like how everyone is relaxed and having fun,” Fernley said. “I don’t want to wear suits and work 9-to-5 in a cubicle.... I might want to be an executive producer.”

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