Logo: University of Southern California

Interview with "24" Executive Producer Howard Gordon

Select group of Viterbi students attend an intimate discussion on how engineering is depicted in popular media
Lisa Heckaman
February 17, 2011 —

A select group of undergraduate Viterbi students were invited to an "armchair interview" with television veteran Howard Gordon on Feb. 15. It was rare opportunity to hear from the entertainment industry veteran about the depiction of engineers in the media – both positive and negative. Approximately 40 students, from freshmen to seniors, attended, eager to hear about innovation and creativity.

Gordon,  executive producer of the hit TV series “24,” winner of the 2006 Emmy for Best Drama Series, is an author, father, board member, and Princeton graduate.  He spoke enthusiastically about his career and how the entertainment industry portrays engineers. The series “24,” he said, was a pro-technology show -- but many viewers had little understanding of the engineering behind the technology
Lucy Hood, executive director of the Institute for Communication Technology Management at the Marshall School of Business, acted as moderator. Hood is no stranger to entertainment - she was formerly president of Fox Mobile Entertainment. The panel also included Dean Yannis C. Yortsos of the Viterbi School.

Dean Yannis  Yortsos,  Howard Gordon, and Lucy Hood

 With conversational and easy going dialogue, Gordon said that the development of technology was a major factor in dealing with various entertainment environments.

 "We were fighting distractions daily with regards to technology – games, DVD’s, Facebook. The content has not changed, only the medium used to relay the message,” said Gordon. “No matter the device used to tell the story, content remains king.”
Gordon referenced this theme many times during the dining table discussion, reassuring the students that if there is a good compelling story on the table, the technical distractions are merely identifiers of an always changing entertainment landscape. Gordon noted that cost structure has changed, and creating content is cheaper, which opens up the door for uncertainty.
Communicating how technology functions and works for audiences is not an easy task, Gordon told the students. Identifying and creating characters to which  a broad audience can relate is an art. Interchangeable parts from a variety of disciplines need to join forces to create a compelling story that can captivate audiences and garner appropriate ratings to sustain a show..
When Hood opened up the discussion to the students, she took a poll to determine which shows they were watching now, and on which platform.
A student blurted out, “During the summer, or now?” Others mentioned "Glee," "Castle," "Bones," "CSI," "The Office," and naturally, re-runs of "24" as top series they are watching. Many students view content on Hulu, network websites, and on YouTube instead of on television where the content is first distributed. The consensus among the students was that they watch less than five hours of TV per week, and most rely on digital and social media sites to access content.
The interactive forum sparked questions and comments from Viterbi students including senior Evan Lee (EE ‘11). Leigh is doing research to bridge the gap between digital information and the physical world focusing on gestural interfaces; his senior design project deals with finger tracking and reality augmentation.

Hood and Gordon discuss advancements in technology

Gordon asked how the functioning would work. “Once you can track fingers, you can use a glove to control computer keys and applications as opposed to the hardware of a mouse and keyboard…and according to minority report, it makes sense,” Leigh said.  
Yortsos said that the Viterbi games program also references gestural technology. He commented on the perception and image of engineers in society.  “There is a new Barbie doll, a computer science girl that is the first engineering Barbie Doll with a positive message regarding engineering and computer science,” he added. “The National Academy is putting an initiative together called 'Changing the Conversation,' with the goal of accurately portraying engineering to society. Engineers contribute to society in very interesting and enabling ways. The are not nerdy and geeky, but interesting people that do great things,” said Yortsos. "The character of Chloe O'Brien in Gordon’s 24-series did an excellent job of incorporating these concepts.”
Junior David Hodge (CS ‘12) said that in mainstream media, with the exception of the 24 series, that “engineers in the media don’t get much attention, I would think because they aren’t very dramatic.”  Gordon said that as an engineer, innovator, story teller and professor, “you need to be able to communicate the ideas you have effectively, and in a way that is appealing to a variety of disciplines.”
Hood agreed that broad characters are more entertaining.  Being able to understand complex concepts within a story is compelling, she said, even though it’s a field you might not know much about.
Yortsos added that engineering concepts in the media are supported by various national initiatives.
“I am someone who needs deadlines,” Gordon added. “I just published my first a novel, Gideon’s War, and the humbling experience taught me that more than ever. technology is changing the landscape of all media platforms and audience consumption is growing.  The accessibility is getting easier and cheaper," said Gordon. "I found that my eBooks are outselling my hard copies.”
Gordon noted that the Borders franchise is closing, and that will initiate a trend as to how people are reading and watching. “The publishing group is an interesting field, Gordon told the group.  “The people that I have worked with are scared about the future of their business, so the content distribution business is in flux.  There will always be a new device, new medium to convey the message.” Attentive students were advised by Gordon to be ready to adapt to change, advance with technology and understand that technology is the driver.
CTM is one of the world's foremost institutes in the telecommunications sector, with a unique combination of business and consumer insights. CTM is based at USC's Marshall School of Business, at the intersection of Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Corporate partners include AT&T, Verizon, Qualcomm, Cisco, HP, Motorola, Ogilvy & Mather, Fox and Disney. CTM offers business leaders cutting edge multinational research, executive strategy conferences, as well as senior leadership education
To purchase a copy of Gideon's War, visit  http://www.howardmgordon.com/
The Daily Trojan also featured Gordon's visit. To read their story, click on the logo.