December 26, 2012

Small screen, big ideals: Charlotte producer Linda Midgett takes work with a social conscience to television

TV producer Linda Midgett has tied her work to a faith journey that helped win her an Emmy.

Some of us do good in life. Some of us do well. A few of us do both, giving and getting joy in full measure. Linda Midgett has found herself in that group.

Through marriage to clinical psychologist John Otzenberger, a move to Charlotte and the raising of a young son and daughter, she has dwelt in the world of the gently probing camera and pointed question.

She has tied that work to a faith journey that helped win her an Emmy and inspired “The Line,” a documentary about Americans struggling to stay above the poverty line. She’ll set forth next month to shoot motorcyclists who’ll cap an arduous five-day trip with work at an orphanage in Peru.

“If one thing defines me, it’s the need to start projects,” she says. “If I have a week off, I have to start a project, even if it’s just organizing my closets.

“I love it when I can’t sleep at night, because I’m thinking, ‘How will we do this?’ about a show. It terrifies me. It makes me anxious. But I love it!”

A change in direction

Life wasn’t supposed to go this way for the girl from Morehead City, who was born into the family of “surfmen” that has saved lives along the North Carolina coast for more than a century.

Midgett went to Wheaton College, a Christian institution near Chicago, as a piano performance major. But “there was such a difference between me and the other ‘conservies,’ as we called them. All the talk about diminished fifths and triads didn’t interest me.”

She had written since fifth grade, when she started a Judy Blume-style novel, so she switched to literature. That degree led to freelance jobs, some for video scripts where dialogue went on the right and visual cues on the left. She was doing a training tape for Blimpie employees when she realized she could think visually.

But her first epiphany came on the deck of a boat on the Atlantic Ocean.

“The sun is warm, and it’s a beautiful blue-sky day,” she recalls. “I’m thinking, ‘This is a job. People pay you to go out and interview other people? I’m in!’ It was like I had walked into Willy Wonka’s candy store and never had to leave.”

The job she was doing then – filming the children’s video “Ports and Pilots” – did not make her a millionaire, as she had half-seriously hoped it might. But she never has left the business.

She financed “Ports and Pilots” with family help, landed at CNN in Atlanta, worked at Chicago news stations after husband John went there to earn a doctoral degree in 1998. Her script about Civil War ghosts for the A&E series “The Unexplained” got her a full-time gig there, and she supervised production of “Storm Stories” for the Weather Channel.

Then, in 2003, she started over with “Starting Over,” the reality series that won her and other producers an Emmy.

“We put women trying to change their lives in a house with two life coaches,” she says. “We had to figure out how to take an internal process and externalize it for television.

“They had real pain, a real need to face their fears. Some of it was profound, some of it not so much: We had a woman on a high diving board who took two hours to dive off. But it was unique, and our core audience liked those women.”

The two sides of Linda

The quickest way to understand Midgett may to be to enter the music room of her south Charlotte home. On the floor sits a polished grand piano. On the wall hangs a painting she and John bought on a whim for $150, with a screaming Picasso-esque figure surrounded by dollar signs and scribbled verbiage. Order and precision meet freedom and wildness.

“When I figure everything out in a show, when I’ve solved all the problems, I’m done,” she says. “I need a challenge.”

“Kickstart” will offer one. She and Neale Bayly, a British-born author-biker in Charlotte, will collaborate on episodes of the series that Speed Channel will air in 2013. In the first one, Bayly will lead ardent motorcyclists to a mountain orphanage in Peru, which he helps support with U.S.-based gifts. (A BMW training facility in Spartanburg will provide instruction and 500-pound bikes.)

“Linda is relentless in her passion and enthusiasm for ‘Kickstart,’ as witnessed by the number of network rejections we had before Speed – at least 12, if I recall,” he says.

“She has turned down many work-related opportunities to keep working with me on this show. In her own words, ‘There’s just something about this I can’t let go.’ Many people would have given up a long time ago, but she has never stopped fighting for this.”

Bayly calls himself “crazy Uncle Neale” to the Otzenberger kids. He’s broken ribs and a collarbone and torn muscles and ligaments crashing and training during the past two years. “I’ve needed someone cheerleading at times,” he says. “Linda is always there.”

A woman of conscience

You hear that often about Midgett, who’s a shepherd – a listening board for people who are struggling – at Christ Central Church in north Charlotte.

“She’s very present,” says friend Julia Chitester, who met her through the church and is a fan of Midgett’s cooking. (Specialties: Pepperoni pizza and Cajun dishes from husband John’s Louisiana heritage.)

“You feel interesting when you’re with her; I’ve gone through hard things, and she’s been there for me: You don’t go off her radar, when you’re her friend. But what makes her a brilliant producer is that she finds everyone’s lives interesting. You see that in ‘The Line.’ ”

Midgett made that documentary for Sojourners, a national group with the motto “Faith in action for social justice.” Its main story is about a former banker in Page County, Va., who now feeds his family through food pantries.

“I went to film a man at his ‘apartment’ in an extended stay hotel,” she says. “I was picturing my first college apartment, with shabby furniture and a couple of pictures to make it homey. But there were whole families with kids staying in one room there. He had nothing but the clothes on his back – and that was a step up for him. I shot the footage and went back to the car in tears.”

She has started a production company, Midgett Productions, to satisfy entrepreneurial urges set aside in her 20s.

“It’s incredibly competitive in this day and age to get sponsors, and it’s easier to do something derivative than something new,” she observes. “But that’s not what I want to do.”

What does she want? Maybe something that’s fun and fulfilling at once, like “Starting Over.”

“That show was entertaining, but it had genuine heart,” she says. “The programming I want to do will employ both.”

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