Starting a Video Production Department

Many school video programs take the route of providing a morning “news program,” which usually consists of the day’s announcements and brief reports of school news and other current events.

This installment will discuss the basic requirements of such an endeavor. Next month will be an overview of what type of content can be included. Our August installment will focus on equipment and technology needs followed in September and October by an overview of polishing your production with sets, graphics and advanced techniques. The final article in November will include ideas for branching out beyond news-style programs.

The most important part of an educational video production program of any type is building a team of students and faculty that can both work well together and learn from each other.

Some schools integrate their video production offering as part of the elective curriculum, giving students grades and credits for participating. Another approach is to run it as an extracurricular activity, with students volunteering their time for the production. Finally, some schools combine video production with their gifted education or other programs. Whatever method selected, it’s important to find responsible and hard-working students, especially when considering the final product will be reaching the entire student body at a minimum and potentially the community at large if you eventually broadcast over the Internet or public access. There is little room for immaturity or pranks that could cause embarrassment to the students, school or district.

That said, any educational program is first and foremost a learning outlet. Throughout the process and production, there are bound to be mistakes. It’s vital to not dwell on errors but rather see them as learning opportunities for preventing such a slipup in the future. This is important for both students and advisers to understand.

Morning news programs can be staffed with also little as three students or, potentially, any larger number. For larger teams, rotations can be established allowing students to work in different on-air and behind-the-scenes positions according to a set schedule.  Depending on the skill set available, it may be advisable to further break these rotations into on-air (anchoring and reporting), production (camera operators, directors) and content positions (script writers and producers).

Some students may express interest in one or two areas but not be interested in others. While it is important to enforce the idea of teamwork and sharing of less desirable jobs, placing students in positions they are not skilled or have a true interest in may cause your production to suffer.

If a group is particularly large, it’s best to limit the number of students who participate in each day’s production. Every person present in the production area should have a specific job – extra bodies add to confusion and break down the lines of communication.

At any age level, video production programs should include adequate adviser oversight. This ensures not only proper behavior and use of equipment but also important instructional opportunities. If possible, supervision of the program can be divided among multiple faculty members, either on a rotating basis or specific staffers supervising production, content gathering and other areas.

Many advisers find themselves thrust into the video production program with little or no background in television production. This creates an interesting challenge but also many great opportunities for faculty to learn from themselves, available resources and the students in the program.

If the school allows it, it is very beneficial to have both a “practical” and “classroom” portion of the program. The practical side provides the real-life production experience in the studio, control room and field while the classroom time includes the opportunity to learn television production techniques, theory and ethics, backed with a textbook or other printed resources if possible. The amount of classroom time can vary from daily to weekly, though any amount of formal instruction can only further benefit students. 

If possible, visit a local television station or video production company and use the opportunity to ask questions and get advice. Such visits also provide a great way to make connections in the local television scene, which can lead to future advice, resources, guest lecturers and possibly equipment donations. However, it is important to realize television stations are often deluged with donation requests, so focus on building a professional, beneficial relationship that lays the foundation for being first on the donation lists.

Finding a location for the production can be an interesting challenge. Often the only space available is a corner of a classroom, though some schools are being built with designated studio and control room spaces. If a real studio isn’t available, a classroom can be more than adequate.

Though most productions don’t require a huge amount of space and don’t necessarily need a separate studio area and control area, there are benefits for having two adjoining rooms for these purposes. Most obvious is the need for a quiet area for your “studio,” though this isn’t necessarily a requirement. If a separate room isn’t available, one possibility may be to purchase or build portable dividers than can muffle any noise from the control room area.

It’s important to remember, however, that separate rooms require cables to be run safely between each other. Remember any production areas may require additional security and locks, especially if there is a large amount of expensive equipment.

Procuring equipment is often the most challenging aspect of launching a video production program at the educational level. By its nature, most video equipment is expensive, often prohibitively so. Buying second hand equipment via the Internet or electronics store is one way to cut costs. In addition, be sure to do a comprehensive inventory of any equipment your school system may own, including searching little-used storage areas; often this can lead to forgotten equipment that, while antiquated, can be put to use.

A willingness to use older equipment and find creative ways to use production tools is vital to any production with a limited budget. Having a state-of-the-art control room and studio isn’t possible for many schools in today’s economy. The  important focus should be on providing a quality production that is useful to viewers and provides students with a good learning opportunity.

It is possible to hold fundraisers to purchase equipment, though the amounts needed can make this frustrating. Unfortunately, school productions are almost always blocked from selling commercial time due to commercialization concerns from administrators and administrators.  (see Contacting the Community elsewhere in this issue)

Using older equipment can also beneficial in that any new acquisitions can be viewed as “replacements” rather than “new,” which can make it easier to get budget approval.

Usually the best way to procure funding for your program is to start out with simple, low-cost equipment and prove the educational value to the administration and school board. Prepare budget requests well in advance and be sure to be very specific in why each piece of equipment is needed. It’s also a good idea to research higher pricing options available and be prepared to show that lower cost options have been found.

Don’t be discouraged if your initial productions are just a single camera pointed at a student. School productions don’t need fancy music, animations or camera angles to be beneficial and useful. In addition, as upgrades and improvements are made, it will keep things fresh and exciting for your production team and viewers.

One final point to consider is whether you truly have the resources, equipment, students and content to produce a daily newscast. Some schools elect to produce weekly or even monthly newscasts, which are considerably less draining on your team. In addition, reducing the number and frequency of shows also makes it possible for productions to be pre-taped and edited, if such equipment is available.

As you embark on creating a video production program for your school, don’t let the challenges discourage you. It’s a daunting task – no one would ever deny that – but it also opens provides you and your students with so many chances to learn a wide range of technical, writing and teamwork skills and provide your student body with a new and exciting way to stay informed of school news and events.

In next month’s installment, we’ll discuss Content for your news broadcast.

Michael P. Hill is a Web specialist and graphics designer for FX Group, a leading set design, fabrication and installation firm located in Orlando, Fla. He has launched three video production programs at the middle school, high school and college level.