By Brian Leopold
Election Day 2016. Polling places jammed with harried voters, anxiously awaiting the opportunity to exercise their rights as citizens and vote for the candidate of their choice. For broadcasters, Election Day can be its own special kind of hell, testing resources, testing nerves, requiring everyone on the team to think on their feet and prepare for any eventuality. Election Day can make or break a young reporter’s career, something Dylan Cleland knows all too well as he stands before the camera grasping his microphone with an unsteady hand.
Cleland is standing just a few feet from a long line of voting booths, ready to do a live report from a local polling station. His throat is dry, his tongue thick. It’s the first live report of the day, and so many things could go wrong.
In his earpiece, Cleland hears 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?”
Wait. Election Monday? School library?
What’s Going on Here?
As Cleland speaks, voters begin to filter out of the voting booths in the background, and it turns out that all of them are teenagers. The long, neat rows of bookcases lining the room belie the fact that this polling station is indeed housed inside a high school library. From the looks of reporter Cleland, he’s a teenager himself, an eager, fresh-faced young man. Undaunted, Cleland stares into the camera lens and begins his live report. Penn-Trafford High School’s Mock-Election Day coverage is underway.
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, held a day before America’s official Election Day. But this is no laughable 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 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 on the student’s part, 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, was able to get the school’s network configured to take advantage of an incredible new technology created by NewTek. This technology made it possible for the video classes at Penn-Trafford to send video wirelessly through the school’s network to the TriCaster. The moment the students were made aware of this new opportunity, 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. So, what is this incredible technology?
TriCaster and NDI
It’s called NDI (Network Device Interface), a technological innovation that allows TriCaster users to incorporate audio and video sources into video productions from anywhere on a local IP network. For several years, the television production classes at Penn-Trafford have been using a TriCaster 460 to produce their 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 an eye-opening experience.
As election anchor, Sciulli tells me. “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. Then, Monday, at the same time, we’re doing a live broadcast of the mock election from the school’s library and Media Center using NDI. 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 made their graphics, they custom made their intros. They created a Twitter account so we could have exit polling data, and 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.”
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.”
Thanks 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 planned and executed, 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 be.”
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 engaged like they were for this mock election coverage,” Vinton says. “They were energized. They were enthusiastic. It was incredible.”
Beating the Learning Curve
In addition to energizing students, Vinton says one of the biggest challenges of teaching television production to high school students is familiarizing them with the equipment. According to Vinton, 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.” And both the staff and students at Penn-Trafford agree that TriCaster is the perfect choice to bridge this gap, 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 to. There was a clip in our election coverage where we needed to do a split screen, with two different camera feeds side-by-side, and I was able to set that up and execute it on the fly.”
It’s a sentiment teacher Vinton echoes. “The TriCaster is easy for students to pick up, which is important in a high school environment. It’s easy to teach. The TriCaster’s layout is fairly straightforward, although it can get as complicated as you want it to get, but it’s relatively straightforward, and the students pick it up quickly. We start our seniors training on the TriCaster at the beginning of the school year, and I would say, within a few weeks, we’ve got a couple of people who are ready to step in on the switcher.”
And just a few months later, the students have become production experts, conceiving, designing and executing their own election coverage. Pretty heady stuff for a bunch of 17-year-olds.
A Mind-Boggling World of Possibilities for the Future?
Coming off the unmitigated success of Penn-Trafford’s election coverage, Vinton and his young video charges can hardly wait to take on their next challenge using NDI. Next semester, the technology will allow Penn-Trafford students to produce live reports from anywhere inside the high school, and 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 another building.”
Taking the TriCaster Beyond High School
But what lies in the future for the many students who engineered Penn-Trafford’s election coverage? Quite a bit, as a matter of fact. As you might expect, the rush of excitement following the school’s successful election coverage faded quickly on campus, replaced by trepidation about end-of-semester exams, discussion of the next opponent facing the Warriors’ basketball squad, who’s dating who, and the many other oh-so-engaging elements of high school life. But for the members of the video team, the lasting effects of Election Monday will linger well beyond November at Penn-Trafford. For many, the Election Day project served as an affirmation of their determination to pursue a career in media. Thanks to their experience in video production classes, several members of the team are planning to take their love of video production to the next level and pursue a college degree. Take reporter Dylan Cleland for example.
“I’ve been accepted to four college broadcasting programs,” Cleland tells me. “And now, it’s just a matter of picking the one that feels like the best fit for me.”
Matt Simkovic is also planning to pursue a career in broadcasting, and like Cleland, he’s been investigating which colleges on his hit list use a TriCaster to produce their broadcasts. Sitting in Penn-Trafford’s broadcast control facility, Simkovic tells me, “Being here in this room has been the best four years of my life. And I only see things getting better from here.”
By the time the next presidential election rolls around, the video crew at Penn-Trafford will likely be readying themselves to join the workforce and become true broadcast professionals. And thanks to the experience they’re getting today using NDI and their TriCaster, they’ll be well prepared to take on the challenges of a career in media.
TriCaster Advanced IP Workflow integration and training for Penn-Trafford High School were provided by Production Consulting Group of Wexford, PA.
Key Equipment & Software Used in Penn-Trafford High School’s Television Production Facility
- NewTek TriCaster 460 running Advanced Edition 2 software
- (4) JVC 650U cameras
- Mackie 1202-vlz3 Audio Board
- Studio lighting package includes ETC Color Source 20 Light board, ETC Desire D40 & D60 Vivid LED Fixtures
- Eartec Comstar XT-7 full duplex wireless intercom system
- Mac Book Pro Computers running NewBlue FX Titler Pro 4 Graphics Software
- Marshall Electronics M-Lynx 702s rack monitors
- Exterity AVEDIA r9310 and 9300 player/receivers
- NDI Camera App from Sienna
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Learn more about NewTek NDI
Learn more about Advanced IP Workflow