This article chronicles one television production teacher’s odyssey to search for an elusive prize. I was teaching a television production class which had many students and little equipment.
The equipment I had was barely consumer grade. I needed to replace it with higher grade equipment as well as massively increase the quantities of everything I had so more students would have access to gear at the same time. I could get everything I needed but for one thing – I needed funds. The following story has a happy ending and it is filled with ideas that you can adopt to create the same solution to the money problem while at the same time giving your students a real-world education.
Do You Have All The Equipment You Need To Teach Your Class?
I’ve never met a television production instructor who could answer the above question with a “yes.” Funding is always inadequate for television production gear.
In the Beginning - Darkness
What are the solutions we television production/broadcasting teachers are left with? We must ask our administrations for money. We’ve all done it. Most teachers in our buildings need things, too. They also have to ask the administration for money. Because the cost of video equipment is so high, a single request from us might be higher than the entire request from the English, Foreign Language and Social Studies departments combined. Now the principal is confronted with making three core academic departments happy or just the TV production teacher – a single teacher. All too often the principal rightly or wrongly eventually tells the single production teacher, “Maybe next year funds won’t be so tight.” Next year rolls around and the budget is even tighter. Sound familiar?
Not only is that TV production teacher told, “No,” but after years of asking, principals may begin to see the TV teacher as a perpetual whiner or parasite who always wants something.
Another method for receiving the large amount of funding necessary to run the class would be to apply for grants. Anyone who has ever done this will attest to the fact that it takes a tremendous amount of time on the part of the teacher to write a grant application – time which could be far better spent teaching.
In 1983 I was hired to create a television production curriculum with the mission of training students to enter the television production industry. I was elated to be hired. I was then given my new equipment budget - $16,000.00. I did the best I could trying to get the best bang I could get out of every buck but obviously, that paltry sum did not go very far. For two years I was the person previously described – I begged any and every administrator who would give me some time in their busy schedules. At the end of the second year, I was given enough money to purchase an editor. That editor became the beginning of a phenomenally successful solution to my problem.
What do people in your school do when they need money the school system cannot or will not provide? They have fundraisers. Right? They sell things – fruit, candles, plants, magazines, candy, discount books, flowers, or pizzas. They have bake sales or hold car washes.
The sheer cost of video equipment was enough to make me not even consider the traditional fund-raisers that work quite well for most school activities. If you need to purchase three identical studio cameras and, fully outfitted, the cost per camera will be $10,000, having a car wash to raise the $30,000 you need is not the answer. If the average donation for a car wash is $5.00, you’ll need to wash 6000 cars! Result: your students will be completely qualified to work at a car wash but have no experience with television equipment at all.
I was stymied, frustrated, and spent a good amount of time complaining.
Dawn’s Early Light
My TV course was offered under the auspices of the Vocational Department. Now, of course, we are called CTE. One of my students brought me a note asking to be released from class to go to the cosmetology class to get her hair cut. Confused, I called the cosmetology teacher and asked if this was legitimate. The teacher said yes. Her students actually practiced on real people two days a week and offered hair salon services to other students as well as the public. Curious, I asked if they cut men’s hair, too. She said, “sure, you need a haircut?” I said I did and she then told me how much it would cost. I made an appointment and went about the rest of my day.
Driving on the way home a revelation suddenly came to me. Those cosmetology students were actually doing what they were learning for a fee! When I got home I called a few other teachers in the department and found that in my county the vocational classes were actually encouraged to do work for the public as a way of training students for the “dealing with customers” aspect of Voc. Ed. The auto mechanics class worked on client’s cars, the veterinary classes groomed dogs, the photography classes shot head shots and portraits, and the list goes on. In today’s world, students in auto technology and auto collision classes run a used car dealership. Construction technology, electrical construction, and landscape architecture students actually build homes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to sell to the public. The profits from selling the house fund the construction of their next house construction project. All this was news to me because I was new to Voc. Ed. (I had been teaching TV Production through the fine arts department for the previous 10 years.)
Over the next few days I had thought out a plan to open a television production company run by my students. We would take in work from the school system and community, produce the programs and possibly duplicate the program all for a fee. That fee would go back into the local school account for my course and I would purchase the equipment I needed out of that fund.
As I look back 23 years later, I realize that I truly had no idea of what I was getting myself into. I only saw this as a way to get what I needed – money – without continuing to beg in frustration.
The first thing I had to do was to get permission from the administration to create this student enterprise. I approached my immediate administrator who was relieved that he was not being asked yet again for money and said the idea sounded good to him and then he told me who to talk to at the next level up the ladder of administration but that he would support me.
My building principal, said that there was a policy against running a fund-raiser year-round. I asked why. He said various clubs can have a two week candy sale but then that’s it and another club has it’s fund-raiser. He reasoned that it was fair to everyone that way. I thought a moment and countered with the concept that all the other fundraisers are specifically drawing funds from fellow students or their parents of that particular school. I was talking about providing a service to the entire school system and community at large. I would also be providing a curriculum related educational experience to my students at the same time. He agreed that I would not really be competing with other fund-raisers in his school so he gave me an approval but told me I needed to go on up the ladder to the system level if I was offering services to the entire system.
At the county level I was told that there would be a problem if I, using taxpayer paid for equipment, was competing with actual businesses in the community. It would be an unfair advantage. I offered the following: these are high school students. Is it even possible that they could be at a such competency level of professionals in the area that my students could ever actually take business away from the pros? Secondly, if my students were actually that good wouldn’t the pros be offering them jobs and wasn’t that the purpose of the class to begin with? I stated that my rates would be so far below what the professionals would charge that the only business we’d have would be people who could never afford the professionals. Therefore, we wouldn’t be taking business away if they never would have had the business in the first place. I finally said that the only advertisement I would do would be to other teachers and staff in the school system via letters (email now) and word of mouth from students, parents and former customers. I was given approval.
In the ensuing 23 years I received a complaint from 6 different businesses. I offered to meet with them in my studio. I gave them a tour, let them meet my students who were working for the company, asked them if they would consider being guest speakers, generally schmoozed them and all 6 complaints disappeared. Three of them each hired one of my students as part-time help within one month.
Setting up the Nursery
I had two camcorders, some mics, and one editor and 2 classes of 20+ students. I told my students we had been given permission to open a business. Without realizing it I was about to begin an entirely new unit with my students – how to start a business. We had brainstorming sessions for a few days and began to form committees to hammer out some working plans:
We needed a name.
We needed to advertise.
We needed to decide what services we could offer.
We needed to decide what to charge for those services
We needed supplies.
Most of all, we needed qualified employees!
Several were offered by students and we voted and decided on a name. An artistic student suggested we needed a logo. Another spoke up saying we need T-Shirts for employees when they were working as a kind of uniform. A committee was formed to pursue options for T-shirts once we had a graphic approved.
A committee decided to write a letter to be duplicated and sent to potential customers in the school system. The group decided the most likely customers would be elementary school principals (parents love having a video of little Susie being a Sunflower in the spring pageant), middle and high school graduation sponsors, athletic or activities directors, and fine arts teachers.
Initially, we only offered to videotape events (seminars, school programs, guest speakers, graduations, proms, sports games, etc.), place titles on the events, and duplicate copies for the client to sell. We decided that we would make the client our customer, not individual parents who would order a tape. The client would take care of order forms, collecting money, sending us one check, and distributing the duplications to the client’s customers. As time went on, we added more and more services. Currently, in addition to event videography, the enterprise also produces custom-made fully edited programs for school, private citizens, and corporate clients.
WHAT TO CHARGE
We contacted professional production companies in the area and asked what they would charge to perform the services we were talking about. For example, “What would you charge an elementary school to videotape a spring festival show put on by the fifth and sixth grade?” The answers we got were in the thousands of dollars for estimates. No school could ever afford to hire these organizations. We decided that we would offer to shoot the event for less than $100. In one 2 hour period of time we could earn as much as 20 cars being washed and it only involved the labor of 2 people on the camera crew. We also charged a fee to make duplications.
I recognized that I would need a form of some kind to use to bill the customer for jobs. After spending a fair amount of time working with a word processing program to try to develop a form to use as a template, I discovered that my county already had a form on NCR paper in triplicate that was used in the other student enterprises like auto mechanics, printing, and maintenance and repair shops. Therefore, I just used that form. The form is necessary in order for the client’s finance office to cut a check to the production company. There must be a paper trail for the money.
This brought up another discussion. Students realized that if they were going to be doing real work and money was being brought into the program, shouldn’t they receive a real paycheck? Slavery was abolished over a century ago. Moreover, I realized that I was trying to offer these students a real world education and in the “real world,” people are paid for their efforts.
Paying students a salary opened another entire issue which I had to pursue with the school district. The solution was actually fairly simple. The school system already had a job title called “student technician” which primarily covered paying students to run the lights and sound in the auditoriums throughout the county when organizations like churches would rent out space in the buildings for church services until their church buildings were constructed. The salary was set by the county and was more than fair. My students who worked for the company were registered with the county personnel department and I kept track of the hours that they worked. (By the way, having my students fill out the county forms for employment became another lesson plan for my class. The county provided the application, I-9’s, W-2’s, etc. And then they even came out to put each of my students through a real job interview.) Every two weeks I turned into the office a Time and Attendance Report and my students were paid by the county. I had the finance officer at my school transfer the money from the company’s earnings to the county to reimburse the county for the student’s salaries and F.I.C.A.
I realized that initially the only supplies I would need would be videotape, labels, and cases. At that time everything was VHS. Over the years we migrated from VHS to S-VHS to DVCPRO to going “tapeless” by recording on cameras with built in hard drives. All duplications were in VHS. In the last 2 years we’ve moved to DVD’s for duplications media.
I was surprised to discover that nearly half of my students were not interested in working for the company because they were already booked with other activities or sports or part-time jobs. A very small percentage were students who were not mature enough to handle the responsibilities or did not have reliable transportation to get them to and from jobs. Nearly all jobs took place after school hours or on weekends. The students left who were extremely eager to work for the company then began training intensively with me to do event videography.
To train the students, we would go to the auditorium in the school and practice setting up and tearing down equipment quickly as well as practice shooting what the drama class was doing that day. It gave me a perpetual “something to be shooting” without ever having to create the performance myself. My students were quiet and never bothered the drama students who quickly learned to ignore us. We’d only shoot 10 minutes or so and then retire back to the studio for critiques of the videographer’s work.
Ultimately, I created a handbook of rules of operation for the student employees which was used in addition to the intensive training. It can be found at the end of this article. You may find parts of it will be suitable for your own use. Feel free to use it.
Birth and Infancy
That first year (1983) we only made $413.00. It doesn’t sound like much but that was money I could use to purchase equipment with that did not have to come from begging the administration. It took time to train the students to a level where I could comfortably send them out to do work but it took less time than I thought it would. After about 2 months, we started the production work. The reputation of the company literally rested on every job we did. We were very careful to never take on more than we could successfully do well. Of course, there was the occasional “bump” or “snafu” but for the most part, no disasters. This was in the days before cell phones were as common as pennies but I had a beeper and all my student employees knew both it and my home telephone number if they needed technical help in a hurry. We learned early on that the students needed to arrive to the shoot location at least an hour before the event so they could set up (usually took about 5 minutes to set up) and test the equipment. If there was a problem, there would be enough time to fix it before the event began.
As years went by, new employees were trained more and more by the previous employees after introductory training by myself. We developed a system where there were always two students at least on each job – a first year trainee and a second year trainer. This caused the quality level to actually increase as years went by because of a collective experience which was shared amongst the students. We evolved away from t-shirts to sharp looking polo shirts with our logo embroidered on the breast and a pair of khaki slacks. We even got jackets with our logo embroidered on them as well as baseball caps. I was amazed at the tremendous pride which was created with this clothing.
There is no “Adulthood” heading for this article. The company is evolving more every year. Constant purchases of newer state-of-the-art equipment funded by ever-increasing amounts of money earned by the company indicate that the company is by no means finished “growing up.”
Each year we earned more and more while each year I purchased more and higher-quality equipment. As stated earlier, we earned enough to change formats from VHS, to S-VHS, to DVCPRO, to hard drives on cameras. We’ve gone from analog to digital and within the next few years to HD. Since 1995, the company has never earned less than $35,000.00 and last year earned just over $51,000.00. The quality and quantity of equipment - studio, portable cameras, editors, duplicators, etc. is all at a professional level. The motto of the class is:
Doing the real thing
With the real thing
Training to be the real thing
Periodically over 23 years, the county infused equipment money into the program. The value of our current equipment inventory exceeds seven figures and well over half of that was earned by the production company.
You are teaching television production as a career. It is logical that the students need to receive real on-the-job experiences to become employable. You can be their “interning” site!
Start small and let people know in your school that you can videotape activities for them – for a fee. You can even duplicate the master tapes for them for sale to the parents of the students involved. Imagine how much the parents of an elementary school student in your area would love to have a high-quality videotape of their child in a school program.
As word of mouth spreads, your business will pick up. My own students are hired to shoot seminars for businesses, training tapes for businesses, weddings, little league games, all kinds of athletic events, concerts, programs, festivals, parades, graduations, proms, family reunions, etc. We produce highlight tapes for athletic teams. We produce individual highlight tapes for players to send to college scouts, etc. Let your imagination run wild!
There is much in the preceding narrative which can be used as a pattern by television teachers anywhere to provide a funding source that is virtually unending. Running a business as well as teaching a course is stressful to be sure, but the education it provides for students who reap the benefits of both the job experience as well as the ability to use the exact same equipment they will use in the field is in calculable.
Do not plan to shoot the last performance of a theatrical show. Always shoot an earlier performance. That way, if something goes wrong, we can go back to shoot the last show. If you shoot the last performance and something goes wrong, we lose the entire gig.
After accepting a gig:
Contact the client and confirm that you are the chief videographer for the event, leave your phone numbers and tell them when you are previewing the program, if necessary, so they’ll have complimentary tickets for you and your partner waiting at the box office. Verify the address of the site, get precise driving directions to the site, as well as the times of your arrival. Ask if there is anything special you need to know about where to park and/or how to get to the location in the building once you arrive at the site. You may leave this message on an answering machine but you may NOT leave this message with a student.
Obtain your partner and write your partner’s name on the large job ticket and on the small calendar ticket. BOTH OF YOU ARE NOW COMMITTED TO THE EVENT! THE INSTRUCTOR MUST BE INVOLVED IN ANY DECISION TO ALTER THE NAMES OF THE PEOPLE ON THE CREW FOR ANY REASON.
Fill out the rest of the small calendar ticket and place it on the calendar.
Reserve the equipment you will need for the gig.
Some gigs require that you attend the preview. Ask your instructor if you need to preview the gig. If you have to, you must do so with your partner and only your partner. YOU MUST ATTEND THE PREVIEW! That attendance is part of the contract with the client and what you are being paid to do. You may not take a “friend” or “date.” This is a job.
A. Dress appropriately! You must arrive before the preview begins and you must remain until it is over. You may not leave at intermission is there is one! Make every effort to meet with your client to “check in” at the preview. When the job is accepted by your instructor on the phone, the client is assured that the videographers will attend the preview, so you must check in.
B. If, at the preview, you realize that there are unusual difficulties or circumstances surrounding our being able to provide a good tape, you must use your judgment on whether to discuss this with the client before discussing it with your instructor. The simplest solution is to discuss it via cell phone right then with your instructor, or, if it can wait, the next school day in person.
Be prepared to discuss special mic placement with your instructor.
Do not discuss financial issues with the client – EVER. Refer everything to your instructor. Have them call the studio during school hours.
Arrive one hour before the event begins. Your arrival at least one hour before the event is part of our contract with the client. Moreover, if something goes wrong, you have time to correct it or call for help who can correct it before the event actually begins. If the event begins at 8pm and you arrive at 7pm, you should have all gear connected, tested, and ready by 7:15pm. If there is a problem, you have 5 or 10 minutes to attempt to correct it before “calling for reinforcements.” REMEMBER: PAY PHONES WILL NOT ACCEPT INCOMING CALLS SO DON’T ASK YOUR INSTRUCTOR TO CALL A PAY PHONE TO REACH YOU! CALL FROM A “REAL” PHONE OR A CELL PHONE NOTE: If you have a cell phone it certainly will make trouble-shooting on the phone simpler.
B. Do not trust batteries if you do not have to! Use a reliable AC power adapter! Using duct tape, securely tape to the floor any AC cords or mic cords to prevent audiences from tripping.
C. This is a big issue: Do not for any reason plug your audio cables into the audio board of the theatre where you are working. No matter what the audio people tell you, you are NOT to take an audio feed from their board. Their board and their operation of the board is for the sole purpose of ENHANCING AND REINFORCING the audio coming from the stage. It is not for RECORDING audio. Their board will only allow you to record the specific things which are miced – not all the sound of the entire event. Thus, you will not provide the client with what they want. If you run into insistent people at the theatre call your instructor. Do not get disrespectful.
D. Make certain you do a test record of audio and video after white balancing! For your protection, don’t erase your test. It should only be a minute long and should be on the beginning of the tape. Follow the test with at least two or three minutes of black so opening credits can be inserted. At the end of the show, pull the audio record levels down to zero after the applause ends and let the camera run for at least 5 minutes of clean control track (for closing credits) and preferably continue the “blacking” until it reaches the end of the tape. If you can’t let it run that long at the event then “erase” the rest of the tape at home before you bring in the master tapes on the next school day. Why? So that in the duplication process at the end of this program, the show doesn’t suddenly shift to whatever was recorded previously on the tape.
After the event ends
At the end of the event, seek out the client to sign the contract and give them a copy as their receipt. Hopefully, they will give you a check in return. In any case, ask for the check, but if they don’t have it, don’t make a big deal about it. It happens frequently. Tell the client that usually within 2 school days the tape will be ready for duplication and to call the studio to let the instructor know how many copies the client wants. DO NOT DISCUSS COSTS AT ANY TIME WITH THE CLIENTS. YOU ARE NOT AUTHORIZED TO DO SO!
DO NOT OFFER TO EDIT THE PROGRAM FOR THE CLIENT! If the client wants to have the program edited, they will have to discuss it with your instructor. You may say, “If you want any editing done, you’ll have to discuss that with my teacher. I was just told to shoot the event.” That will get you out of the middle and, trust me, you don’t want to be in the middle! Chances are that if your instructor hasn’t mentioned anything about editing to you, then the client never mentioned it. If they mention editing before the event starts, call your instructor if you can. Otherwise, go ahead and assume that editing will occur and make sure you shoot it with editing in mind – heads and tails, etc.
Make certain you pick up a copy or two of the printed program so the titles can be done.
The next school day:
Bring the tape(s), contract, and program to the instructor.
Debrief your instructor with anything he might need to know about the event – good or bad. Do not let your instructor be blindsided with a client telling him something that happened that he didn’t already hear about from you. If some kind of disaster occurred, then call your instructor at home before the next school day so if the client calls before you come to class, your instructor will know what happened.
Payment of your salary is authorized as soon as the client pays their bill for the taping of the event. Once authorized, it usually appears at your bank in 2-3 weeks. The first one, however, will take 5-6 weeks. It’s a county payroll delay not a delay here at the school. Keep track of your gigs. It is recommended that you adopt the frame of mind that the salary you receive is “found” money rather than a regular check you must count on to pay a bill of some kind.