When your college is seen by 50 million people – Last Chance U Q&A

Podcast by Daniel Barwick

Never seen Last Chance U? No surprise there – the average reader of this blog just isn’t the market for that TV Show. The show is so popular among certain demographics that is has literally re-shaped television worldwide, which you can read about here. If you haven’t seen this show, watch this trailer before going ANY further!:

You can read about the show on Wikipedia here.

The exact viewership of this show isn’t known, because Netflix doesn’t publish that information. But our inside info suggest that about 50 million people will see this show about Independence Community College in the next year or so, and because the show stays on Netflix’s platform for years, the number will probably ultimately reach into the hundreds of millions.

Prefer to listen to a podcast on this subject? Click below. Otherwise, just scroll to keep reading.

Last chance U Q&A

How did the project actually start?

I can’t say exactly when the first conversations actually occurred, although it was in the early spring of 2017. I think that some folks at Last Chance U reached out to some members of our athletic staff to gauge interest. There was a lot of interest on our part and it became probably obvious early on that higher-level buy-in was necessary. So I got looped in at a fairly early stage, and we talked with them several times over a period of at least a month to figure out exactly what the project would require from us. From the very earliest conversations, it seems like a very good fit. The director, producers, and logistics people were good listeners, and they did their best to answer our questions. Last Chance U let us know exactly what they needed, and it was pretty simple. They basically wanted almost nothing from us except for access for filming. They would pay us $30,000 for allowing them access, which was intended to reimburse us for the additional work they know this will create for our athletic and media staff.

At a certain point, it was obvious that all of us having the discussion felt that this was a project that could be taken to the next level, which means our Board of Trustees. I contacted the trustees and described the project. Their reactions were cautious but positive, and so we held a one-hour open forum with all employees to get input and feedback regarding Last Chance U. Here is a summary of the feedback:

Positives mentioned:

  • Tremendous opportunity for college and community
  • Very positive for football recruiting
  • Very positive for general athletic recruiting
  • Lots of great stuff at the school to show
  • People may “behave better” with cameras around

Concerns mentioned:

  • Title of program does not reflect ICC’s focus on academic quality
  • No clear benefit to academics
  • Will school resources be diverted to athletics?
  • No control over final product
  • Will teachers receive advance notice if filming is proposed for their classroom?
  • If athletic recruiting is improved, does this have a negative impact on the academic level of the average incoming student?
  • By definition, telling entertaining stories about our students will require a protagonist (presumably the student) – who is the antagonist?

Why did the college engage in this project?

There really wasn’t a single reason, because I think each area of the college had its own motivations.

However, the final decision belonged to the Trustees, and they were quite clear about their motives, which were the same as mine: we believed that there was no other way to bring the lovely town of independence, Kansas to tens of millions of people. The viewership of the show is enormous, and of course because the shows stays available on Netflix for years, the viewership only grows over time. Independence is a fantastic place – a small, safe, charming town with a rich history and nice people. But the same can be said about many towns, and most of them never break out of the noise. The show seemed to be a way to do what our Chamber of Commerce simply didn’t have the budget to do: to advertise the positive attributes of the town to a very large audience.

The school would presumably derive benefits, but those are difficult to predict, and of course it’s even more difficult to predict the net effect on the school when anything negative that happens as a result of the show is put into the equation.

Were there any negative effects?

Yes, absolutely. It would be interesting to see others compile a list of drawbacks, just to compare those lists against mine. So I can only answer the question from my point of view, and I think it’s important to remember that we’re actually at a very early stage of a very long-term project. As I write this, the show has only been out for about half a year; our second season with the show is being filmed and has therefore not been released, and I’m assuming that the show will be available on Netflix for years to come. So I can only describe the effects up to this point, and said that it would be premature to think that these comprise the totality of the effects.

The negative effects up to this point seem pretty clear:

  1. The attention the show has focused on athletics has increased the overall tension between athletics and other areas. That’s not just with in the college – I would say that’s true also of the relationship between those outside of the college who support athletics and those outside of the college who support other areas.
  2. There are a considerable number of people, both locally and elsewhere, who, as part of their system of values or their religious beliefs, were offended by the profanity. Many of them have not hesitated to express their feelings about this, both privately and publicly.
  3. There were educators who did not approve of the methods used by the head coach in the show, and they made their opinions known, some publicly, some privately.
  4. The show made the college (or higher education in general) an easier target for critics, who knew that their criticism would reach a wider audience if they focused on Last Chance U. For example, those who had always opposed athletics in the community now found a new reason to argue that athletics “mattered” too much. I’ve heard this point made frequently, even though football hasn’t mattered enough to create significant shifts in resource allocation. As another example, a Kansas website devoted to transparency published an editorial about the show asking, who is paying for all of this?, with the underlying assumption that public resources were being wasted.  I had to laugh at that one – the actual answer to the question was readily obtainable, and was already available in the public record. Whatever the purpose of the editorial was, it wasn’t actually to answer the question posed by the editorial. (I suspect in that case even the author knew how lazy the piece seemed – it was the only editorial I have ever seen that periodical publish that was unattributed to an author!) As another example, about four months after the show aired, higher education’s leading trade journal published a pretty boring hit piece about the college regarding an ordinary personnel matter. Personnel matters exist everywhere and wouldn’t normally be the subject of the lead story, but the young, ambitious author of the story astutely recognized that if she could actually invent a connection between the employment problems of an English teacher and a hit Netflix show about football, the story would be more widely read. So that’s just what she did. The beauty of that particular approach is that, in the case of personnel matters, the college cannot offer any information without liability, and thus cannot dispute the account offered in the story. Basically, I would say that Last Chance U encourages sort of parasitic journalistic corruption, which I noted in both local and national publications.

Do they really film whatever they want?

They do have full access, although this is a bit different in practice than it is in principle. In practice, they are very considerate, and if we have some substantial objections to something being filmed, they don’t film. That certainly doesn’t happen often – in two years of filming, I can only offhand remember two things that I had to decline to be filmed doing. One was when we received correspondence from the NJCAA and had to discuss the correspondence. The rules of the NJCAA do not allow us to publicly comment on the NJCAA itself. So I just explain to the film crew that there was a prohibition on that type of conversation being filmed, and they stepped out of the office. The other time was when community member had told the director that I was a decent shot with a handgun – under what circumstances he told the director that I have no idea – and so they asked me if I would show them any guns that I had. I personally feel that guns are such a hot button issue that I thought that it would be a mistake to be photographed with a gun. They accepted that.

The major exception to their access is the classroom. Our agreement with them is that filming a teacher in the classroom requires the express consent of both the teacher and student. That has worked out well – in the two seasons that the show has been filmed I haven’t received a single complaint from a teacher that their class was filmed inappropriately.

I should probably add that any individual person, whether an employee or student, who was incidentally filmed and did not wish to appear in the show, could simply state that and his/her face would be blurred.

Were you afraid?

Yes, in the sense that we knew upfront we would have no creative control over the final product, which is not a nice feeling. I remember in our employee open forum, when one of the theater people pointed out that all stories need a villain, and how did I know that I would not be cast as the villain? My reply was that I trusted the director to tell the story accurately enough so that none of us would be portrayed as fundamentally different people then we actually are.

Knowing what you know now, would you do this all over again?

Absolutely! 100%. I’ve never seen a single project worth doing that didn’t ruffle some feathers and didn’t require some tough calls. This project gave opportunities of a lifetime to students and employees alike. And it did indeed bring the beautiful town of Independence to tens (and eventually hundreds) of millions of people. Did it provide a uniformly positive view of independence? No. But as a result, the view it provided was more authentic than a glossy promotional piece. I’ll choose widely-seen authenticity over barely-seen puff pieces any day.

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