Drew Barrow ’07 has one of those job titles that means nothing to most viewers watching the production credits scroll past at the end of a television program: unit manager for The National Geographic Channels. But to those involved in making Border Wars or Clash of the Americas or hundreds of other programs, he is central, a kind of valve through which their work must pass.
“As a unit manager I see every single cog in a production,” Barrow said. “I work closely with everybody involved, learning how a show is developed, produced, shot, edited, marketed and delivered.”
Like most cable channels, National Geographic contracts with third-party production companies to create shows for its four channels. Once a company has the go-ahead for a particular program, a unit manager, like Barrow, is assigned as a liaison between it and National Geographic.
“For each hour of programming,” he said, “I have a list of about 70 different deliverables—everything from written and video blogs to the master tape of the show—that the company is responsible for giving us. I receive those things and, if something is not up to National Geographic quality, I send it back. If it seems OK, I send it on to a specific department, and they take a closer look.”
While much of the work is managerial, some of it calls on Barrow’s visual media creativity.
“I work pretty closely with executive producers, development reps and the executive in charge of production. Once a show is approved and handed to our team, I’m often asked my opinion on the show and am allowed to express any areas of interest or concern. From there, executive producers and I coordinate the process of reviewing cuts for each show, and so I learn how each show is tailored.”
And it’s not just any program that Barrow sees tailored. It’s a National Geographic program. He’s learning how, to earn that brand, programs must be crafted to meet three standards: technical excellence, authenticity and neutrality. About the latter, he said:
“Our shows reveal important things about the world in a way that tries to be informative. My internship with Brian Fuller at Calvin taught me that it’s impossible for any filmmaker or videographer to remain 100 percent neutral. But at National Geographic I’m seeing how to make informing a priority.”
Still, The National Geographic Channels are businesses, and “there’s always the temptation to do shows that are motivated more by entertainment value than educational value,” Barrow said. “I’ve had a couple of instances where I’ve said, about a proposed program, ‘I have trouble with this. I don’t think this is a National Geographic show.’ And the great thing is that here, people will listen to me.”
He hopes to have a bigger say in program content in the future. In a mentoring relationship at National Geographic he’s exploring what it would take to become an executive producer. He also thinks about owning his own production company.
“I don’t know exactly what kind of storytelling I’ll do some day. But I do think it’s important; it’s how we learn from one generation to the next. And I feel called to do it. ‘Vocation’ is the most important word I learned at Calvin. Storytelling in visual media is what I want to be doing, what I’m supposed to be doing. Three years into it, I’m just getting my feet wet.”