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October 19, 2017 by Brian Leopold
American flags flutter from every streetlight along Park Avenue in downtown Amherst, Ohio, despite the fact that it’s closer to Labor Day than the Fourth of July. At Ziggy’s Restaurant, the heady smell of Thursday’s perennial lunch special, the homemade meatloaf sandwich, begins to waft up into the foggy, early morning air. The Marion L. Steele Comets are just two days away from the high school football season opener, and every square foot of lawn in this town of 12,000, 35 miles west of Cleveland, is littered with signs extolling “Comet pride.” Welcome to small-town America, a snapshot of the past, frozen in time.
But not everything in Amherst has been trapped in a time warp. Over at the high school, exciting things are happening, groundbreaking stuff involving the latest technology. Every school has its strengths, a signature program it’s known for, and at Steele High School, it’s the top-notch media program. Every year for the last decade or so, the television classes at Steele High School have been winning awards, and that’s thanks in part to the latest equipment from NewTek.
“Last year, in the National Academy of Television Arts and Science’s student production awards, they gave out eight awards in our three-state region and we won five of the eight,” media teacher Mark Lowrie tells me, standing in front of a Plexiglas trophy case with six shelves crammed full of trophies. The wall behind the trophy case is also filled with framed honors, so many awards there’s no room to hang anymore. Every ambitious student at Steele High School wants to be part of the school’s media program, but not everybody gets in. For the twenty seniors lucky enough to be chosen for the media program, producing the daily newscast at Steele is far more than just a class they attend every day.
“It’s a two-year program,” Lowrie says. “Students audition as sophomores, and once they gain entrance into the class, they’re here for parts of every day their junior and senior years. Junior year is like Minor League baseball. The students learn to run the equipment, edit, shoot and write. Then, senior year is the Major Leagues. We’re producing 130 to 140 live news shows a year, an original show almost every day. We get an eleven-minute window, some days a little bit longer. When the bell rings, we are on live.”
Producing 140 Shows a Year
It’s 8:00 a.m., Thursday morning, in Steele High School’s television control facility, and both the studio and control room are packed with anxious students. Airtime for the morning’s live newscast is less than an hour away, and the production team is frantically making last-minute preparations. The show open still isn’t edited, and there are audio problems with the remote live shot that will be part of the show. The program’s anchors for the day, Marissa Gillam and Gehrig Gabrie are struggling to get their copy edited before it goes to the Teleprompter. Everyone on the production team is all business, totally focused on the task at hand. Everywhere you look, there are determined faces, an unexpected level of maturity for a group of high schoolers.
“We don’t do the football games on Friday nights or the basketball games. We do the news,” Lowrie says. “Our main concentration is Steele News Live. To feed the beast 140 times a year, and come up with content to fill eleven minutes is a challenge, and that’s our focus.”
As airtime approaches, Lowrie urges his students to finish preproduction. “We need to do a rehearsal before we hit air,” he tells the room of scurrying students, who universally grimace and pick up their already frenetic pace. Fifteen minutes before airtime, most of the control room problems have been ironed out. The show open is finally edited, along with video stories about the volleyball team’s victory the night before, the student council meeting, and the golf team’s disappointing loss. There’s also a feature about the importance of locking your locker.
Time to Rehearse
In the control room, today’s assigned director Alex Kernell calls out, “Roll the open,” and a show run-through begins. Even though this is only a high school production, it’s a pretty complicated show, with a live shot done by a reporter outside the studio, anchors who deliver the news, not only from the anchor desk but also standing in front of a large video monitor on the set from time-to-time. The show moves at a pace that would do any big city newscast proud. Double-box effects with multiple camera shots on the air simultaneously appear every time the program makes the transition from a studio anchor to the remote live shots. Lowrie insists every story in the newscast is accompanied by video or, at the very least, a full-screen graphic. There is no inane reading of the lunch menu at this school. Technical Director, Jaida Perez punches through a complex series of video effects, sitting at Steele High School’s TriCaster. At some point during the year, all twenty of the students in the production class will get their turn in front of the TriCaster. Not surprisingly, Technical Director is one of the student’s favorite crew positions. “We got our first TriCaster in 2013, and it was a game-changer for us,” Mark Lowrie says. “The idea of being able to do a double-box in our shows, having animated graphics come in, incorporating digital video was awesome. We’ve gone from VHS tapes to Mini-DV tape, to no tape at all. The day we got out TriCaster was like Christmas morning.”
According to Lowrie, Steele High School’s TriCaster has helped his communications students excel at the college level.” I get phone calls, text messages, and e-mails from former students all the time, telling me how thankful they are to be so far ahead of the other students in their college programs. Many colleges use TriCasters, and my kids come in already knowing how to run it. When you have students who are sophomores an even freshman in college, and they’re anchoring their school’s newscast, it tells you that we must be doing something right.”
Once a Video Kid, Always a Video Kid
As one of the signature educational programs inside Steele High School, students lucky enough to be chosen to be part of the television program are afforded rock star status in Steele’s senior class. Television production students aren’t thought of as “video nerds,” but part of the school’s elite, one of the “cool kids.”
“Every person in this class has gotten closer since we all walked in here junior year,” senior, Peter Georgas tells me. “When we graduate from this school, we’ll all know we’re TV kids, and we’re always going to be TV kids. It’s a great thing to be part of.”
New for 2017: NewTek’s NDI Technology: Two Clicks and You’re On-the-Air
This year, thanks to NewTek’s groundbreaking NDI technology, the school’s newscasts have taken production quality to a whole new level. Live shots are effortless now, easy to set-up and accomplish. And this vast improvement in quality was accomplished without additional technical complication.
“This summer, we downloaded the NewTek NDI camera app, which allows us to hook up an iPad anywhere in the school, or anywhere on our network, and feed the signal back to our TriCaster. The TriCaster recognizes the signal, and the audio comes through with it. Two clicks of a button and we’re there. The difference has been incredible, and it’s so easy.”
Airtime for Steele News Live
With a successful rehearsal under their belts, the senior production class at Steele resets to prepare for their 9:00 a.m. airtime. Cell phones and pre-show selfies are abandoned as the clock ticks down the final seconds At nine o’clock, straight up, the crimson studio light begins blinking, and the newscasts open hits the air. “This is Steele News Live,” the taped announcer says in an authoritative, insistent voice and another successful show is underway. But things were not always so satisfying for the Steele High School production class. Just last year, this award-winning program was floundering, nearly dealt a death blow as a result of a school construction project.
A Distribution Disaster
“We used to be an old Channel 1 school, so every classroom in the building was hardwired,” Lowrie says. “We would flick a switch and everyone would get our signal. Then, when the school district built our new media center last year, they tore out the Channel 1 system and the solution was, ‘We’ll stream the shows online.’ We had already live-streamed the shows, because, with the TriCaster, all you have to do is hit one button and you’re streaming live anywhere. But the demand here within the building of 80 teachers trying to pull down that signal simultaneously caused a tremendous buffering problem. It buffered everywhere.”
Day after day, Steele News Live stuttered to a dead stop in all the classrooms at the high school, and there seemed to be no solution to the problem. “We thought we had enough bandwidth in the school,” Lowrie says. “We didn’t. Two months later, they doubled the bandwidth and thought that would solve our issue. It didn’t.”
As the school year progressed, more and more classrooms in the building turned off the morning news and those who continued to watch found the results disappointing. “The kids in the class got teased,” Lowrie says. “You guys suck; your shows are horrible. And it wasn’t them. It was the system we were using to feed the school.” This year’s production class watched last year’s seniors suffer as their shows buffered. Every day, the upperclassmen’s newscast was executed flawlessly, and every day, no one got to see the show.
“It was always kind of hard to watch because I know how hard everyone works on the shows, and how dedicated they are,” senior Brooke Armbruster says. “To see everyone in school hating on them, and then, seeing them come into class and say, ‘Oh great, another buffering issue.”
Senior Peter Georgas watched the catastrophe as well. “When people are telling you, ‘That’s the worst show I’ve ever seen,’ it’s kind of insulting because they don’t know what goes on behind the scenes. On the other hand, you can understand what they’re thinking. Viewers don’t want to hear about your problems, they just want the broadcast to work.” Television teacher Mark Lowrie was nearly beside himself with frustration. Viewership of the Steele News Live waned, as both teachers and students lost interest in the flawed programs.
“Distribution is as important as anything,” he insists. “That’s why you do the shows in the first place. If you’re producing the best show in the world and you can’t deliver the show to your viewers, you’ve got nothing. For the kids accepted into this class, senior year is their one shot to shine, and last year, I felt like I was letting them down.”
MediaDS: The Perfect Solution
Fortunately for Lowrie, just when things look bleakest, he discovered another NewTek product that turned out to be the perfect solution to his problem, the MediaDS, a revolutionary real-time encoding and live streaming video delivery platform that makes it possible for Steele High School to deliver their daily content to classroom viewers in high quality and without buffering. With MediaDS acting as the bridge between the production classes and the rest of the high school, buffering became virtually nonexistent and things began to change.
“With the MediaDS system set up, we were able to send a link to all the teachers,” Lowrie says. “The teachers go to the link every day. They click one button, and the quality they see is like I’m looking at a monitor in the control room. The buffering issues are minimal. It’s been a game-changer for us. We now have something that we can count on, and it couldn’t be easier. I don’t have to set up anything. I turn on the computer, and when we’re ready to send the signal, I click one button. It’s Magic.”
Sending a signal outside of the school’s firewall to a CDN (content delivery network) and then back into the school was quickly overwhelming the school’s internal network as each individual classroom was receiving an independent, dedicated signal from the CDN and causing it to crash. MediaDS acts as a virtual CDN, capable of connecting hundreds of individual viewers or streams to the device without the signal ever leaving the facility, eliminating the need for a costly CDN or a huge pipe of Internet bandwidth.
Cool Kids Once Again
Thanks to the MediaDS, the production class is no longer the laughing stock of the building. It’s cool to be a TV kid at Steele once again. The incoming freshman class is excitedly talking about trying out for the television program, hoping they’ll be accepted. Morale is high in the studio and control room, and the class of 2018 is eagerly looking forward to taking Steele News Live to an even higher level of excellence.
“I think this has definitely been one of the best years I’ve seen,” senior, Brooke Armbruster tells me, beaming with pride. “Everything has been looking a lot cleaner, a lot nicer.”
Teacher Mark Lowrie agrees. “The School District values what we do,” he says. “We’ve had a lot of successes. The program has won a lot of awards. Our high school is known for a lot of things. One of them is this program. So, when the time came, the Superintendent made the investment, because he didn’t want our program to go away. We are preparing kids to communicate, whether they go into television or not. If they want to go into education or pre-law or whatever, they’re getting the communication skills here they’ll need to help them in college and in life.”
Marion L. Steele High School Workflow
Key Equipment & Software Used in Marion L. Steele High School’s Studio Facility
Key Equipment & Software Used in the Field and Editing at Marion L.Steele High School
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