High School News Team to Cover Mock Election Day Coverage in Real Time

Network Device Interface standard from NewTek allows Penn-Trafford High School student news team to incorporate live, multi-camera streams into TriCaster-based production.

For broadcasters of any level of experience, Election Day coverage presents a unique set of challenges, requiring everyone on the team to think on their feet and prepare for any eventuality. And the complexity of live, on-site and remote coverage only multiplies the stress.

This is all something that Penn-Trafford High School News Reporter, Dylan Cleland, knows all too well as he stands before the camera holding his microphone with an unsteady hand. Cleland is positioned just1 425 a few feet from a long line of voting booths, and he’s ready to do a live report covering his school’s mock election, held a day before America’s official Election Day. In his earpiece, Cleland hears news anchor, Michael Sciulli throwing to him. His heart begins to race.

“Election Monday is in full swing and our reporter, Dylan Cleland, is live in the school library. Dylan?”

As Cleland speaks, teenage voters begin to filter in and out of the voting booths located in the high school’s library. Cleland stares into the camera and begins his live report.

For the next five hours, the video production crew at Penn-Trafford, a school of approximately 1,300 students twenty miles east of Pittsburgh, will produce live coverage of the school’s mock-election. But this is no amateur presentation. With a smartly-dressed anchor seated on a chroma-key set, animated graphics cycling through the background showing the latest election results, and live reporters in the field, Penn-Trafford’s election coverage could rival some local broadcast outlets.

Cleland’s opening report from the school library goes flawlessly. Keeping steady eye contact with the tripod-mounted iPad across the room, he gives early polling data, interviews a few students who just finished voting, gets analysis from one of Penn-Trafford’s Social Studies teachers. As he talks, he begins to breathe easier. He’s hitting his stride.

Throughout the day, Cleland’s live reports continue without a hitch, despite the fact that it’s only been three school days since the TV production crew at Penn-Trafford made the decision to produce the day-long election coverage.

But why the short turnaround? It turns out that the lack of lead time wasn’t a result of poor planning, but rather a fortuitous technological breakthrough. A few days earlier, Penn-Trafford’s film and TV Production teacher, Steve Vinton, working with Gil Brezler, one of the school district’s IT Specialists, first learned about a new technology called Network Device Interface, or NDI, a royalty-free standard developed by NewTek.

3 425NDI allows video production groups to incorporate audio and video sources into video productions from anywhere on a local IP network, rather than just what’s physically patched into an SDI video router. Any NDI-enabled device on the network can see and access content from all other devices, allowing more sources than ever before to be used for live production.

This technology made it possible for the video classes at Penn-Trafford to send video wirelessly through the school’s network to its TriCaster 460, an all-purpose, 4-camera video production system developed by NewTek – the same company that developed NDI. From creating live and on-demand programs to engaging social and second-screen experiences, the TriCaster 460 is a fast, easy and affordable tool for creating multi-platform productions.

The moment the students were made aware of NDI and the opportunity it afforded them, they leaped into action, deciding to use the new, breakthrough technology to produce live cut-ins of the school’s mock election, coming up in a few days.

TriCaster and NDI

For several years, the television production classes at Penn-Trafford have been using their TriCaster 460 to produce regularly-scheduled school newscasts. But a scant three days before the school’s mock election, thanks to Vinton and Brezler, the production students discovered they were able to utilize NewTek’s NDI to go live from anywhere in the school district. For the students at Penn-Trafford, discovering NDI was a liberating experience.5 425

As election anchor Sciulli explained, “Fifth Period Thursday, I walked into class, and Mr. Vinton said, ‘You’ve got to check this out. Look at this. We can have a live camera from anywhere in the school. By Monday, we’re using NDI to produce our live broadcast of the mock election from the school’s library and Media Center. It was amazing.”

According to Vinton, producing the election coverage was largely the student’s idea. “I just got out of their way,” he says. “They custom built their graphics and intros, and created a Twitter account so we could have exit polling data. We pulled that feed off a computer via NDI through the TriCaster. We were able to incorporate actual, real-time exit-polling data. It was amazing.”

Vinton explained that the resourced to buy the TriCaster came from a grant the school won from West Penn Power. “The purchase of the TriCaster 460 allowed us to implement a whole new set of classes specifically for television production,” said Vinton. “Now we produce live morning announcements every day, and a live, bi-weekly news show that airs during the middle of the day with news packages about things that are going on at the high school.”

Doing Their Video Homework

Once the decision was made to produce live election coverage, the video crew at Penn-Trafford immediately got busy, putting in long hours to make sure the technology would work for them. “We stayed after school on Thursday,” Penn-Trafford senior Matt Simkovic, who served as technical director for the election broadcasts, tells me. “On Friday, we got a little experience by taking one of our iPads outside the school and doing a live weather report. That went well, so we stayed late on Friday to check out the signal from the library. It fell together really nicely, and that made it easy for everyone to feel like the equipment was going to be reliable. Monday morning, we just went with it, and the election coverage went pretty well.”

6 425Thanks to TriCaster and NDI, the election coverage continued throughout the day, giving Penn-Trafford media students a taste of the tumultuous world of live news coverage. Three iPads were stationed in the school’s library, allowing Cleland and his reporting counterpart, Trent Somes, to go live from anywhere in the expansive room. Countless interviews were conducted, despite the fact that the school’s library and Media Center is located at the opposite end of the school from the production studio.

“I was peeking up at the monitor and it was looking really good,” says anchor, Michael Sciulli. “I was thinking, ‘This is actually happening like it should.”

When the final bell of the school day rang, everyone agreed that the election coverage had been an unqualified success. “In my seven years of teaching, I’ve never seen students get excited or be so engaged like they were for this mock election coverage,” Vinton says. “They were energized. They were enthusiastic. It was incredible.”

Beating the Learning Curve

While NDI was key in distributing the program’s signal, Vinton credits the school’s TriCaster with being the key element in engaging the students in the art of television production. According to Vinton, one of the biggest challenges in teaching television production to high school students is familiarizing them with the equipment, adding that new students have a tendency to stare at the racks of equipment and monitor walls like deer in the headlights. “At first, they see all the lights and the buttons and freeze, but then, once you break it down for them, and explain inputs and outputs, they’re usually contributing after four or five practice sessions.” Both the staff and students at Penn-Trafford agree that TriCaster has been the perfect choice to ease the learning process, combining a powerful production tool with intuitive, simple-to-learn operation.

“It’s easy,” Penn-Trafford senior Simkovic tells me. “The TriCaster does exactly what you need it to do, when you need it. There was a clip in our election coverage where we needed to do a split screen with two different camera feeds side-by-side. I was able to set that up and execute it on the fly.”7 425

It’s a sentiment teacher Vinton echoes. “The TriCaster has proven to be easy for students to pick up, which is important in a high school environment. Its layout is fairly straightforward. We start our seniors training on the TriCaster at the beginning of the school year, and within a few weeks, we’ve got a couple of people who are ready to step right in.”

Vinton added that in just a few short months the students had become production experts, conceiving, designing and executing their own election coverage. Pretty heady stuff for a bunch of 17-year-old students.

A Mind-Boggling World of Possibilities for the Future?

Coming off the groups use of the TriCaster and the NDI technology that let to Penn-Trafford’s unmitigated election coverage success, Vinton and his young video charges are already planning their next venture: producing live reports from anywhere inside the high school, as well as almost anywhere on their high school campus. And with the school district’s extensive IP network, cameras can also be plugged in at any of the school district’s other schools or facilities and seamlessly folded into productions at the high school. The possibilities boggle the mind.

“NDI has changed everything for us,” Vinton says. “And we’re only scratching the surface. My mind races with all the things we can incorporate into our curriculum, into my classes, and into our projects. It’s going to be incredible how we can use this new technology to tell a better story, report from here or there. I can’t wait until we can actually go off this property and do live hits from buildings.”