Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

Meg Morrison and 4 other grads redefine the conventional TV career

Few people can handle pressure like Meg Morrison (Radio and Television '04). With her ball teed up, she glances down the 282-yard fairway while former Edmonton Oiler Jason Strudwick and Buffalo Sabres first-round draft pick Mark Pysyk watch from nearby. So does a production crew, cameras rolling.

"Are you guys scared?" Morrison asks "Struds," her co-host, and Pysyk, her guest for this episode of the Pro-Am Golf Show. She plants her feet and tightens her grip on the driver. It's a cloudy July day in 2015 and she's wearing a light sweater; her long hair gathers over her right shoulder as she fixes her gaze on the ball.

"I'm intimidated by someone who wears a cardigan to play golf," says Strudwick.

Ignoring the jab, Morrison smiles, coolly traces an arc with her club, and connects, hard - sending her ball into a water hazard. She allows for only a moment of disappointment. "Chip and a putt," she says cheerily. "Could still make par."

The trio carries on, cameras in tow to film the rest of the twelfth and final episode of the third season. Owned, produced and hosted by Morrison, the Pro-Am Golf Show airs weekly on CTV in the summer on a Saturday morning slot she purchased with her own funds. The network pays her nothing. For income, Morrison sold ads, secured sponsorships and fees from the host courses, in this case Trestle Creek Golf Resort, 45 minutes west of Edmonton.

This isn't conventional television, but it's about as conventional as a new approach to a TV career gets.

Critics call this the medium's golden age for its exceptional storytelling. Cable company executives might call it the decline of an empire.

Advertising revenues have fallen steadily since 2011, reported Statistics Canada last August. Profits were also down, as were cable subscriptions, with viewers turning to online streaming services such as Netflix or to free internet content. As fallout, job and spending cuts killed the Omni newscast at Rogers, Bell said good-bye to well-known anchors and reporters on CTV and TSN, and Shaw said it would consolidate news production, also trimming staff.

Where does this leave those who are still entranced by the magic of television? Like Morrison, it means having to be more versatile and entrepreneurial than ever. Where the industry sees challenges, some students and new grads are seeing- or creating - opportunities. Despite the pressure, they're finding ways to draw the eyes of the world toward themselves and what they create.

Channel R: Reality sets in

Liam Johnson training as a news videographer are a natural fit for the world of reality television. Photo courtesy of Sean White.Liam Johnson (Radio and Television '15) thrives on the unexpected, even when it means the difference between life and death during an average day on the job.

Throughout winter and spring, Johnson was media manager and field assistant on Discovery channel's Highway Thru Hell, a reality show that tracks a heavy-duty towing company on notoriously dangerous Canadian roads.

Among his responsibilities: send footage to Vancouver for editing, some camera work, shoot stills, keep the crew safe in traffic and try to stay out of harm's way in conditions that send semis into the ditch.

"When RCMP are telling you to be off the roads, we're driving right into that," says Johnson.

For Johnson, the show - with an average audience of 723,000 in 2015 - was a step toward his true passion: news videography. Reality TV and video reportage, a strong component of the program at NAIT, are similar in terms of being unscripted, says Perry Thomas (Radio and Television '85), one of Johnson's instructors.

"For those kinds of shows, [students] need news training. When you're trained to shoot news you're trained to recognize a story or what is interesting, and you're also trained to be fast and shoot stuff as it's happening," says Thomas.

For Johnson, that can mean middle-of-the-night wakeups to cover crashes or rappelling down steep embankments to get footage. It can mean dull hours spent waiting in a motel room in Hope, B.C., where the TransCanada highway forks into three roads - and potential crash sites - including the feared and revered Coquihalla.

In one way or another, all of this describes the freelancer's life. Johnson was a contractor on Highway, keeping an eye out for the next gig. Twenty years old and without a family to help support, he finds the uncertainty as exciting as it is stressful. He also knows variety will come of it, and therefore growth. As he works toward landing an elusive job in news, he sees that as an investment.

"With the way the industry is going, it's definitely important to broaden your skills.

Channel S: Social media is the message

Tyson Dolynny hopes to put his skills to work in another form of broadcasting - social media.Tyson Dolynny (Radio and Television '16) has always had the means of production within reach. YouTube was born in 2005, long before the 19-year-old hit his teens. So a career in traditional television hasn't been a priority for the recent social media intern for NAIT's marketing and communications department.

Besides, Dolynny points out, "There are veterans out of work. I'm just a 19-year-old kid coming out of a program trying to get a job."

That perspective also owes to his DIY success. Growing up in Cold Lake, Dolynny made highlight reels and interview videos for the local Junior B hockey team's Jumbotron and YouTube channel.

He parlayed that into a Facebook page titled All Things Hockey Fights, brawls curated from across the web (8,000 likes and counting), which he uses to promote his Yak-City Gaming YouTube channel. There, he records himself playing and talking about sports video games for more than 1,200 subscribers, and has landed one video on the sports coverage site sbnation.com, had one featured on msn.com as a top video, and two more on the TSN site, BarDown.

He credits the visual storytelling and intensive social media training he learned at NAIT for helping him earn the exposure.

Besides attracting attention, Yak-City Gaming also generates a modest income: about $20 a month through advertisements. Compared to PewDiePie, the Swedish gamer and comedian who earned about $12 million last year making videos for YouTube, "it's absolute peanuts," admits Dolynny.

But he expects the sites - which he sees as a legitimate form of broadcasting - to pay off in other ways. They're portfolio pieces for what he hopes will grow into his own content creation and social media management company.

"That's my goal: run Facebook or Twitter for people who either don't have time or don't have the experience. I would form a network in an area, say, east central Alberta."

In the meantime, he's happy to leave TV to the veterans. "I'm scared of it, almost," says Dolynny.
"I don't want to get into it and have it die when I'm counting on it."

Channel C: Content is king

Brandon Rhiness is fuelling his renewed enthusiasm for filmmaking with crowdfunding.Naturally, Brandon Rhiness (Radio and Television '00) was scared when he was laid off last year as a machinist. Rather than fret about what to do next, however, he decided to focus on what he'd been doing on the side already. He'd write.

"I've always thought, 'If I didn't have a job, imagine how much work I could get done,'" says Rhiness.

For five years, he and a business partner have owned and operated Higher Universe, a publishing house for the comic books they make and sell locally and online, with Rhiness doing most of the writing. But Rhiness had also made films in the past and was eager to do more. Now, he had the luxury of time, if not money.

Indiegogo fixed that. Last fall, Rhiness used the crowdfunding website to raise $4,000 to pay a cast of 12 and an experienced crew of more than a half-dozen to make I'm in Love with a Dead Girl, a 10-minute film about "a weird, lonely guy" who digs up a girl whose indifference he explains as shyness, explains Rhiness. "Things don't go well for him in the end."

Shot over two days in and around Edmonton and written, directed, edited and produced by Rhiness, the film premiered at Edmonton's Garneau Theatre in April then hit YouTube - a springboard, the filmmaker hopes, to the fall film festival circuit.

He has no financial expectations of the film (after paying the actors and crew he had to finance the rest out of pocket) other than to help fund future ventures through sales at the premiere. In a way, its value is as a creative exercise to establish credibility with audiences and with actors and crew members he paid with crowdfunding proceeds. "I want to be professional," he says.

It should also prove useful in driving traffic back to thehigheruniverse.com, where he hopes visitors might be enticed to buy comic books.

"If we get big at one, we'll get big at the other. The more content we create, it can only work to our benefit," says Rhiness, who acknowledges that the company has yet to turn a profit and that there is no firm business model in place to do it.

That's not uncommon. Not only is profitability hard to achieve but programs like Radio and Television are still figuring out how to prepare students to make it on their own. While today's industry can expect grads to act like entrepreneurs, their studies focus instead on a comprehensive skill set that makes them integral to shrinking production shops that can require a single person to take a story from an idea through production and ultimately to publishing or broadcast.

"We're still operating on a model that business people will hire our students to be creative," says Thomas.

Fortunately, financing comic-book publishing taught Rhiness to live frugally. He feels he has time to wait on the money. "I'm not going to be homeless," he says. "I'll be able to eat, so I'll be ok."

Channel N: News you can use

Global Edmonton health reporter Su-Ling Goh believes viewers still value the 6 o'clock newscast.Su-Ling Goh (Radio and Television '98) enjoys a career that many students, not to mention members of her graduating class, might envy.

After graduating, she landed a job at A-Channel Edmonton (today's City TV) as a videographer before moving to Calgary to eventually host Global's Inside Entertainment and interview celebrities on location in Hollywood and Cannes.

"The early highlights [in my career] were about meeting movie stars," says the 43-year-old health reporter at Global Edmonton and member of the program advisory committee that helps shape curriculum for the NAIT program. "Now those highlights have evolved to meeting real people who have overcome these incredible challenges, and actually making a difference in this world by telling these stories."

That's not the only change for Goh. When she started in 1997, "I didn't even have an email account," she says. Today, she uses a Twitter account (with more than 5,000 followers) to promote stories she tells on TV. Those stories are saved for the 6 o'clock news, a format Goh believes "still has some legs, at least for a few more years," because of the production quality, viewers' habits and the familiar and trusted journalists.

Perry Thomas wonders for how many years, given changes in those habits and expectations. "For a lot of Millenials and people in their 30s, they're not going to wait until 6 o'clock to find out what happened with that fire downtown," says the NAIT television instructor. They'll look online for real-time coverage, making the newscast a highlight reel of the day's best web stories. "We're changing our program to adopt that strategy," says Thomas.

Veterans such as Goh - unnerved by recent job cuts - are adapting, too. "We are all trying to diversify," she says.

Long-time reporters are learning to post videos online, writing more for the web and thinking about tailoring stories to the internet, all of which have been core to the NAIT program for eight years. A position has been created at the station to cater to the online audience, she adds: new digital journalists divide their time equally between broadcast and online. She sees that possibility for her own job, too, and she's fine with it. New grads, she suggests, need to accept the same.

When asked about prospects for today's students, Goh hesitates. Industry consolidation has eliminated some of the smaller markets where newbies have traditionally cut their teeth. "It's even harder to get a job in this business than when I started." Today, job placement rates a year out of school sit at just over 88 per cent, down from 93 four years ago but up from 78 per cent in 2013/14.

Still, she doesn't want to discourage. Getting the chance to grab sound-bites from George Clooney or Julia Roberts is only one kind of reward in this industry. "It's a job like no other. You are going out and meeting people and telling stories that could possibly educate or inspire people," says Goh.

"I hope it lasts."

Channel M: The Meg Morrison way

Meg Morrison films the last episode of Pro-Am Golf Show, which she owns and hosts, with Buffalo Sabres Mark Pysyk (centre) and former co-host Jason Strudwick.Golf is and isn't all business for Meg Morrison. She's played since she was little, when dad and mom took the family out for nine holes on Friday nights. It's always had a special place in her life.

Now golf is largely responsible for her livelihood. A few months after 2015's last episode of the Pro-Am Golf Show, Morrison is busy organizing the 2016 season, set to air its first of 12 episodes in June (with curler Marc Kennedy as co-host; Strudwick got a gig on CityTV's Dinner TV).

She spent the winter securing sponsors and golf courses and, for her efforts as owner of Gem Productions, the fourth season has already turned a profit.

In fact, unlike many production companies, Morrison has never lost money.

"I never thought I would own my own production company," says the 31-year-old. "It was never a goal of mine." (Also surprisingly, she studied the radio side of the business but refocused after a practicum with a TV production company.)

This resourcefulness falls in line with what Cheryl Dalmer (Radio and Television '79) has seen of NAIT's current media production students. "We're seeing that, with this generation, they're very entrepreneurial. That's a big switch," says the instructor with Digital Media and IT, a program that includes digital cinema. They're also seeking a kind of personal satisfaction their parents might have been comfortable sacrificing, she adds.

"They're looking for a different kind of lifestyle than my generation - they're looking for balance."

For Morrison, mom to a four-year-old girl, summers can be hectic. In addition to producing the Pro-Am Golf Show, she supplements her income by filling in on the sports anchor desk when regulars go on vacation (a job she loves for the adrenaline rush of live broadcasting).

But by season's end, she looks forward to spending plenty of time with family in the winter - when not preparing for next season, that is. For her, though, dealing with the pressures of working to be watched are acceptable costs of doing business her way. Television, for her, is a tool she's used to shape the lifestyle she wants.

There are moments that pressure gets uncomfortable, says Morrison. Her putting skills on season 3 of the show suffered for it. "It was horrible," she says. "Because all the work landed on my shoulders with owning it, producing it and hosting it, I would line up for a putt but I would be thinking, 'OK, if this goes in I gotta throw to a commercial. If not, I have to sink it, then go to a commercial and, oh, don't forget to say the sponsor name.'"

Not for a moment, though, does Morrison ever lose sight of the fact that, as far as life goes in the golden age of television, she's made it. "For any golfer, they're sitting at their desk on a Friday afternoon going, 'Oh my goodness, I want to be on a golf course right now.' Well, I get to do it and I get to be paid for it."


Subscribe to receive more great stories every month

Find out more news about NAIT, stories about our alumni and their impact on their communities, and useful how-to content featuring our experts.