Executive Producer and School of Communication alumna Heidi Palarz knows the value of a good story. The pioneer for women in sports television production and multiple award winner shared her advice and wisdom with Northwestern students at Performance Hall February 7. The talk and Q&A was sponsored by the Office of External Programs, Internships, and Career Services (EPICS).
Palarz, who was hired by the NBA at age 22 as a production assistant, went on to become the first female producer for NBA Entertainment, the league’s production outfit. She won an Emmy for her Los Angeles Clippers broadcast in 1993.
At the time of her hire, she said, the NBA was still trying best utilize content as a promotion and marketing tool. “Now, we take for granted the halftime shows or pregame shows showing how (star NFL quarterback) Tom Brady gets ready for a game, but that was completely new when I came on the scene.”
She said because the LA Clippers were Los Angeles’ distant-second team to the Lakers, she worked on telling players’ stories.
“No one knew the players,” she said. “So, I focused on telling their stories. One player dressed so well… and we showed him and his huge closet. Another was trying to lose weight. And the more you got to know them, the more you rooted for them. And when they made the playoffs for the first time, it was much more emotional for the audience. I included some of that in the live broadcast and it won the Emmy.”
Palarz joked that even at the Emmy Awards ceremony, no one could believe the Clippers beat out the Lakers.
Palarz said she came to Northwestern thinking she wanted to be a doctor. But, then inspired by her love of sports and pop culture, she decided to take a different route and transferred to the School of Communication.
“I went to the football stadium and asked if I could work for sports information and they let me,” she said. “Then I went on to be a sports writer at the Daily (Northwestern).”
She added that stints doing internships for Chicago TV affiliates taught her she didn’t want to be a sports journalist, but she did love working behind the scenes in television. “I realized slowly that maybe I could make a career out of this.”
Palarz has won five Emmys for her work, and has produced distinctive and diverse content for ESPN, Showtime Networks, the Game Show Network and The Paley Center for Media. Palarz starting her career in sports helped her hone her storytelling skills, work quickly, and make decisions on the fly.
She cautioned students not to be afraid to take risks and fail, especially in television.
“At any one time, I might be working on 30 projects, but only one of them will actually get made,” she said. “You can look at it like there’s 29 failures, but that’s really not how it works. Ask any Oscar-winning actor or producer, and they’ll have projects that failed or scripts that didn’t get made.”
During the question and answer session, Daisy Kramer, an RTVF senior, asked Palarz what it was like being the first female producer at NBA Entertainment, especially in light of the recent Time’s Up and #MeToo movements that have rocked the entertainment industry as women demand workplaces free of sexual harassment.
“Being the only woman at the NBA for years, I had a positive experience,” Palarz said. “It’s been interesting to hear all these stories from other women, but for me, I didn’t have any specific event that defined my time at the NBA. I did have to work super hard. I was always aware I was the only female, and I did have to work harder to prove I belonged there.”
Kramer said she appreciated the event and enjoyed hearing Palarz’s career advice. “I am very interested in her experience as a woman in media,” she said. “I’d like to do television development, too — scripted television — and it was interesting to hear how she navigated her career.”
– Cara Lockwood