Bringing schools to small screen

A staff of 5 runs Channel 72 and produces material for system use

November 03, 2006|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the sun

That news — For the past eight years, Howard County residents have turned to Comcast's Channel 72 for news about the school system.

That news - including magazine-style shows such as Parent Teacher Connection and broadcasts of sports events and Board of Education meetings - is produced by a staff of five from a studio in the Applications and Research Laboratory on Route 108.

And if keeping the channel filled 24 hours a day isn't enough, the Office of Television and Video Production also provides a wealth of videos for use in the classroom and for teacher training.

"The bulk of what we're doing now is for internal use," said Michael Dubbs, television production manager for the school system's TV and video production office, which operates Channel 72.

Recently, the small staff gathered for its biweekly production meeting. Drinking coffee and joking, they discussed topics such as a broken camera stand and the next edition of Parent Teacher Connection.

The five were Dubbs; Brian Bassett, broadcast facility operator; Terry McClung, production assistant; Bruce Johnson, producer of Parent Teacher Connection; and Nigel Reed, producer of Arts a la Carte, among other things.

"We all produce a lot of things," Reed said.

Helping one another is part of the job. Performing tasks as varied as filming, editing and making sure the equipment is in working order means the job never gets boring, Dubbs said.

Discussion centered on the school board schedule. The board was renovating its room, and nobody knew whether the renovations would be complete in time for the next meeting.

The meetings are filmed, so cameras and lights had to be ready in the renovated room or in the conference room that had been serving as a meeting room during renovations.

After several minutes of discussion, Dubbs asked, "Is everybody clear on the board meetings?"

"We're clear that we don't know anything," Bassett said. (As it turned out, the next meeting would be in the conference room.) Board meetings are rebroadcast several times, Dubbs said.

Discussion turned to a tripod that wasn't working. "Do we have a backup?" Reed asked.

"You stand real still with the camera," Bassett said.

Reed then said he was changing the set and the graphics for his Arts a la Carte program, a compilation of student art, including musical numbers performed in the studio and student art exhibits filmed on site. Another show, On Stage, features student performances outside the studio.

Next up was Johnson, who said the next Parent Teacher Connection would focus on school safety, a topic much on the minds of parents after school shootings nationwide. Ron Miller, the school system's manager of safety, environment and risk management and James LeMon, assistant principal at Marriotts Ridge, would be interviewed.

"We're trying to tell parents how we are prepared here," Johnson said. "It'll be kind of the school perspective."

Turnover in the production office is rare, and everyone at the table had been with Channel 72 for many years. Dubbs' work with school-related television dates to the beginning of such a thing, when the Department of Television Services was established at Howard High School in 1978. Back then, nothing was broadcast. "They just taped educational programs," Dubbs said.

Dubbs, who graduated from Howard in 1981, practically lived at the production studio, and he built some sets that are in use today. "From my sophomore year to my senior year, I was sort of a studio rat," he said.

In 1984, he returned to Howard to take the job of audiovisual producer. Some of the educational tapes were played on the Howard Community College station, Channel 8, he said. "I would shuttle tapes," he recalled. "I would drive them over to the community college, and they would play our programs on the channel."

Starting in 1986, the college and the school system began to split time on the channel. A studio was set up at Faulkner Ridge. In 1998, the school system got its own channel and the studio was moved from Faulkner Ridge to its current location at the lab.

The station includes a studio and editing suites, as well as a van that enables cameras to be taken to events such as games and concerts. The studio is equipped with school-related props such as chalkboards and globes, and one side is set up with a table and several chairs. That is where Parent Teacher Connection is filmed.

Much of the schedule is taken up with sports, concerts, Board of Education meetings and the magazine-style shows.

Ideas for Parent Teacher Connection come from the PTA, Dubbs said. "That show works well for us and helps us get ideas out to parents," he said.

But large chunks of airtime, particularly during the school day, are also filled with free programming from Annenberg Media, which delivers, via satellite, teacher workshops such as Teaching Geography and Insights into Algebra.

A "message wheel" showing school information such as lunch menus and scheduled events, fills the gaps between programs.

But videos that are used by teachers and students, and not shown on television, are becoming a larger part of the studio's production.

Recently, the staff produced a video for teachers with advice on improving parent-teacher conferences, Dubbs said. It took about four months to produce. "Compare that to a basketball game that we can turn around in 24 hours," he said.

Teachers and other school officials can contact the Channel 72 office and ask for a video to be made. "The rule of thumb we use is, if it's a program that all the school system would benefit from, we'll do it," Dubbs said.

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