High School Students Use New, Free Technology to Produce Live Election Coverage — Just Like the Networks

Published on in Miscellaneous

NDI & NewTek TriCaster allows Penn-Trafford High School student news team to incorporate live, multi-camera streams into live production.

As technology advances, it not only expands the palate of creative opportunities but also lowers the barrier of entry, allowing more people to participate. It’s a corollary to Moore’s Law, and television production is no exception. Once the bastion of big companies, specialized equipment, and large budgets, the barrier to entry has lowered enough for high schools with limited resources to operate at a level equal to that of many professional studios.

Penn-Trafford High School TV production students got a chance to experience true network production capabilities this November, complete with a smartly-dressed anchor seated on a Chroma-key set, animated graphics cycling through the background showing the latest election results, and on-the-fly switching between the anchors and live reporters in the field. The students covered their school’s mock presidential election the day before Election Day.

Election Day-type coverage presents a unique set of challenges, 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 just 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. In his earpiece, Cleland hears news anchor, Michael Sciulli giving him his cue: “Election Monday is in full swing and our reporter, Dylan Cleland, is live in the school library. Dylan?”

Cleland’s heart begins to race. As he 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 20 miles east of Pittsburgh, produced live coverage of the school’s mock election. But thanks to the latest technology, some of which is available free of charge, this was no amateur presentation. The production continued throughout the day without a hitch — even though it had been only three school days since the school’s crew learned about this new, free technology that made the producing the day-long election coverage possible.

Three days prior, 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 Network Device Interface, or NDI, the royalty-free standard developed by NewTek. NDI 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.

As 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.”

The moment the students were made aware of NDI and the opportunity it afforded them, they decided to use the new, breakthrough technology to produce live cut-ins of the school’s upcoming mock election. NDI made it possible for them to send video wirelessly through the school’s network to the crew’s TriCaster 460 4-camera video production system. Also developed by NewTek, the TriCaster is a fast, easy and affordable tool for creating multi-platform productions – from live and on-demand programs to engaging social and second-screen experiences.

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. NDI created the opportunity to go live from anywhere in the school district, which the students found to be a liberating experience.

According to Vinton, producing the election coverage was largely the student’s idea. “I just got out of their way. 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.”

An Unmitigated Success

Using the TriCaster and NDI throughout the election day coverage, Penn-Trafford’s media students got a taste of the turbulent world of live news coverage. Countless interviews were conducted using three iPads that served as remote cameras from locations at the opposite end of the school from the production studio.

“I was peeking up at the monitor and it was looking really good,” said 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,” said Vinton. “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” said Vinton.

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,” said Penn-Trafford senior Matt Simkovic. “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.”

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 group's 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,” said Vinton. “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.

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