Alumna Deborah Cohen Kosofsky turned her natural curiosity and love of writing into a 30-year career in television. Since 2003, she has served as a producer for the Today show.
by Kristin Tennant
Time is of the essence. Deborah Cohen Kosofsky, AB ’79, an Emmy-winning producer at NBC’s Today show (http://today.msnbc.msn.com/), understands this fast-paced reality better than most.
Story ideas fly across her desk and through her mind, demanding further investigation. Breaking news forces the production team to change course. Segments are planned, produced and viewed live by an average six million daily. And the moment Today goes off the air for the morning, Kosofsky begins looking ahead to the next day’s show. There isn’t a moment to lose.
“The show is a well-oiled machine, but it’s like a locomotive going 100 miles per hour,” Kosofsky says. “Staying on top of it requires a balance between planning ahead and being flexible enough to handle whatever is thrown your way.”
While Kosofsky has mastered this breathtaking pace over her 30-year career in television, she also has developed the skill of holding time loosely, balancing careful planning with an attitude of openness and adventure. “Don’t look at life as a timeline,” she tells her three high school and college-aged children. “What’s the rush? And why does life have to unfold in a perfect line? There’s no right path. Make your own path — one that follows something you’re passionate about.”
Kosofsky’s own path has twisted and turned, but always with purpose, following her own two passions: family and the television industry.
“I went to Washington University with no set idea of a career path,” Kosofsky says. “I was just naturally curious. Taking a class with an inspiring professor [like Jim Fox] can really have a life-altering impact.”
Her love for television is rooted in a newspaper journalism course she took as a freshman at Washington University. St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Jim Fox, who became Kosofsky’s mentor and friend for years to come, taught the course.
“I went to Washington University with no set idea of a career path,” she says. “I was just naturally curious. Taking a class with an inspiring professor [like Jim Fox] can really have a life-altering impact.”
The following semester, Fox helped Kosofsky arrange an internship at the P-D. During her sophomore year, she began working for the university’s independent student newspaper, Student Life, serving as co-editor-in-chief her senior year. Those opportunities, along with Washington University’s supportive, engaging, liberal arts atmosphere, served her well, she says.
“Communications wasn’t a major when I went to school. Preparing for a career like mine was just about the basics: read, write, think.”
Kosofsky possessed all of those skills, but wasn’t sure how she would apply them after graduation. As she finished her senior year, her father gave her sage advice: Do what she loved. “He said, ‘It’s great to be curious about the world, and to be a good writer. Try to find a career that incorporates both of those passions,’” she recalls.
That career, in essence, found her. Shortly after Kosofsky graduated, a friend who was working for ABC in New York called to see if she was interested in a job coordinating transportation for the guests of Good Morning America. “I thought, ‘Sure, why not?’ and took the job,” she says.
This ready-for-anything attitude continued to serve Kosofsky well — not just at her job at Good Morning America, but also later when she moved to Boston to continue building her television career.
“I absolutely fell in love with TV — it was a mad love affair and has been ever since,” she says. “I love that it’s live. I love that we’re talking about issues that are interesting to me. And I love that we’re making a positive impact on people’s lives, helping them get through the day a bit easier.”
During her stay in Boston, Kosofsky developed another great love: She met her husband, and they eventually started their family. While mothering three children, Kosofsky continued nurturing a variety of television projects as a freelance producer.
She also began teaching “Producing for TV” and “Writing for TV” at Boston University. Kosofsky says teaching the writing aspect was easy, but instructing students to be producers was a challenge.
“I’m always asking myself: ‘Are we delivering what is needed? Are we doing a good job telling that story?’” Kosofsky says.
“The students needed to learn how to be thorough and meticulous,” she says. “Kids today sometimes miss that — they think the computer will save them.” In class, Kosofsky stressed the importance of not taking the viewer’s time for granted. She feels a genuine sense of responsibility to share information that’s accurate, fair and as unbiased as possible — and that also does some good. “I’m always asking myself: ‘Are we delivering what is needed? Are we doing a good job telling that story?’” she says.
“I also had to teach what makes a good segment. Producers have to know their audience, understand what they want to see, and understand how to present it,” Kosofsky continues. “You want to make your audience think: ‘I have to watch that.’ It’s about keeping the viewer committed to staying with you.”
Understanding her audience and how to draw them in were among the very skills that landed Kosofsky her position with the Today show in 2003. As a supervising producer, Kosofsky maintains two roles: booking all the chefs for the food-related segments and producing human-interest segments about health, parenting and other topics.
Her day starts early, meeting the morning’s guests at the studio, making sure the graphics and audio editors have everything they need, and finally checking in with Matt Lauer or Meredith Vieira, two of the show’s talent, to ask if they have any questions about Kosofsky’s segment. As the piece is being shot, Kosofsky stands behind the director, helping to ensure everything comes together smoothly.
“Then I start to write my segment for the next day,” she says. “I’m responsible for everything from start to finish — the pre-interview, the script, the type of visuals needed.”
According to Kosofsky, the days are long. “But it is so much fun,” she says. “I still pinch myself every day over the fact that I get to walk through the doors of the Today show studio as an employee.”
Kosofsky says the Today team members — particularly Lauer, Vieira, Al Roker and Ann Curry — are what make her career so enjoyable and the show such a success. “They’re unbeatable,” she says. “What you see on the air is exactly what they’re like when the cameras are off. They truly like each other and completely embrace the staff. It’s all about teamwork and being a family. It’s really a magical combination.”
Much like Kosofsky’s life — a magical combination of the right talents and passions, the right timing and opportunities, and the right people and relationships.
“I have a very supportive husband, and my kids were older when I started at the Today show,” she says. “I was able to tell them: ‘You will always come first, but I’m working because this gives me great fulfillment.’ My most precious gift is spending time with my children, yet I want to work in this field for as many years as anyone will let me!”
Kristin Tennant is a freelance writer based in Urbana, Ill.