What is digital video? Why do we want to produce it? How do we produce it? Ask any millennial those questions, and they’ll probably just roll their eyes before looking back down at a smartphone.
So why are some public media stations having such a tough time breaking into producing digital videos, and in some cases even fully grasping the concept?
It was with those questions in mind that we were brought on by PBS Digital Studios to become their digital video training team, and how, over the course of two years, we (Slavik Boyechko and Travis Gilmour, also known as Video Dads) traveled the country to 15 cities, delivering multiple-day video production training to over 200 public media staff representing nearly 30 stations.
From interns to senior management, from Emmy Award–winning TV producers to web developers, our job was to train staff on how to create videos that are short, engaging, sharable and oftentimes cinematic. In other words, digital video. We even produced the original digital series Indie America along the way to give our trainees a behind-the-screen look at how it’s done, step by step, featuring people and places local to the station. It was a dream gig.
At the end of each multiday training, we sat everyone down and asked participants to share what they’ve learned, what they’re still struggling with and, most importantly, what their station needs to make digital video a reality. Now that we’ve had some time to process what we’ve learned, we thought we’d share our takeaways here in one of digital media’s native forms: the top-five listicle.
1. Everybody wants digital video (but not always for the right reasons).
We don’t need to regurgitate the same presentation we see at every conference — this many billions of videos online, hours watched, ad dollars spent. We all get that we should be producing unique content for web distribution. Not just uploading studio productions online, not just embedding nationally produced web series on our websites, but actually creating our own local video content.
But the reasons for diving into digital video can come out of a desire to reach specific objectives, other than simply to serve local audiences with new, locally relevant content. Common goals are: wanting to reach younger audiences, raising money from sources outside the station’s current member base (i.e., crowdfunding), or experimenting with new ideas before committing the full support of the station.
Those are all reasonable goals, but in many ways, they put the cart before the horse.
At the end of the day, the number one goal should be to produce quality, local content for a local audience. Once you’ve done that, many of those other goals, such as new funding and new and younger audiences, will be far easier to reach. With a more digital mindset, productions can even end up being faster, cheaper and potentially better than traditional TV production.
But why are we even bothering with listing the reasons? If you’re a public media station, you should be making local, digital video content. Period.
2. Keep it simple (rather than shooting for #virality).
Our colleagues on the national level often have a difficult time selling the idea of digital video series to local stations. Of course, like everything, there are a number of reasons for this: limited time, talent and resources.
However, it cannot be overlooked that the national examples of successful web series are mostly foreign to what local stations are doing. Let’s be honest, many stations are not in the business of making quirky, niche, vlog-style videos for internet-culture–obsessed audiences around the world. By and large, stations make commentary-based public affairs programs, interview-driven documentaries about people and topics in their local regions, and live-to-tape programs featuring arts, music and entertainment.
So instead of trying to invent the next “Idea Channel,” we advocate that stations focus on producing the type of content they’re already producing, but with digital methods and philosophies guiding the approach. Instead of spending years chasing funding for an hourlong documentary, why not produce short, monthly standalone episodes that can then be stitched together at the end of the season for a TV audience? Instead of asking journalists to talk about local issues around a table, why not go out in your community and talk to regular people?
And instead of bringing in a local band to record a live-to-tape in-studio performance, why not go out to a venue with a couple handheld cameras and record a song or two? You can edit it together first thing in the morning — trust us, multicam editing is much easier today than bringing in an overly complicated broadcast switcher. Much of the digital video philosophy is about approaching productions like a creative individual (or a group of them), rather than a behemoth station with the motto “That’s How We’ve Always Done It” engraved on a plaque outside Studio A.
3. Serve existing audiences first (and do it well, rather than often).
There’s a notion at stations that digital video ought to target a different audience than your primary supporters. That a web series should target an audience that lives online — perhaps younger, more anonymous and less serious than the real people in your neighborhood who watch Masterpiece, Nova or your local broadcast productions. Or, worse yet, that the online audience is less discerning about quality and is constantly hungry for content, no matter what it looks or sounds like.
Yes, stations should try to grow their audience and broaden their appeal. But your primary goal should be to serve your current audience, not some mysterious person who doesn’t already know about you, with new and interesting ideas. Your members, your major donors, your board of directors — they are your audience. Local viewers age 55 and above are just as engaged in digital video as anyone else, and if you, the local public media station, is not providing them locally relevant video, they’ll go elsewhere.
The other lesson is that you need to provide exceptional video storytelling online. There is a place and time for unedited smartphone videos and never-ending live streams, but at its heart your goal should be to create content online that is as good (or better, in our opinion) than the productions coming out of your TV studio.
With that said, we believe it’s OK to start small. It may be more valuable to produce and release a short video, say, once a month than to attempt a weekly series in order to build a subscriber base. In fact, it’s more valuable to share your monthly videos with your web (or email) base than to spend time and resources building up a subscriber base of mostly out-of-town non-members. You don’t need huge view counts to have a big impact locally.
4. Digital = TV = Digital
Will we ever move beyond the notion of digital video production being completely different from TV production? Yes, there are differences in philosophy and methodology, just like there are differences between a public affairs show, a musical performance and Masterpiece. At the very core, however, someone produces the story, someone shoots it, and someone edits it. Often in the new world of video production, it’s one person who does all three, using very limited resources.
And yet, we all feel there are significant differences between TV types and digital video types, right? Allow us to generalize for a moment: TV production veterans are wary of scrappy digital video people who try to be jacks-of-all-trades, perhaps because the old-timers have seen many staff come and go and realize a production can’t depend on one person. Meanwhile, digital video people like to think of themselves as three times as efficient as the previous generations — their critique is, “Why does it take a whole crew to make a video?”
Distinguishing a producer’s age, experience or approach to production by using “TV” or “digital” may be a convenient way to label them, but it only confuses the issue for anybody outside of production. More recently, the term “DSLR video storytelling” has become another convenient way to label the younger folks without having to point to age or experience as the difference. The problem is, the rest of the system now believes that the DSLR cameras used in “DSLR video storytelling” actually differ somehow from cameras used in TV storytelling, much as “digital” is thought to be inherently different than TV.
The truth is, the technology (digital) and the equipment (DSLR cameras) did indeed usher in a new era of video production, storytelling and audience reach. But today, all TV is digital, and almost every type of digital video format can be made to fit TV broadcast standards. And a funny thing about “DSLR video storytelling” is that just a few years after its birth, the majority of digital video producers have moved past DSLR photo cameras to using cinema cameras much like the video cameras of yore.
5. Every station is the same (sorry), but the people are not.
The strange thing about visiting public media stations across the country is you see just how similar they often are — and we’re not just talking about the shocking uniformity in catered lunches (we call it the “Ol’ Sandwich, Pickle, Cookie”).
The fact is, the public media system has excelled at brand continuity. Walk into any local station, or watch the TV feed from your hotel room, and you know it instantly. The station IDs may feature a different time lapse of different clouds flowing past a different statue, but beyond that, stations are similar. It’s not an inherently bad thing, but it is striking.
The good news is that public media station staffers can look to any other station doing what they want to do — say, a digital video series about local artists — and steal it. And it will probably work. In fact, we would all be happy if good ideas were replicated in other markets. But good ideas don’t make digital video happen. People do. And some stations have those people, and others don’t.
What most public media stations do have is amazing people in a variety of departments. In fact, at the stations we visited, despite their sameness in building design, corporate culture and core product, we encountered the most engaged, well-read and -traveled, and passionate workforces. And that went from general manager to intern.
But not everyone is a filmmaker. Video production, even in its simpler forms, is a gargantuan effort. It takes a certain kind of person to have the creative, technical and social skills to produce, shoot or edit a video. Often, it’s exactly the kind of person who seeks out a job at a public media station. But maybe their only point of entry is in the web department, or member services, or accounting? If you take away only one thing from this opus, make it this: If someone in your station is interested in digital video production, but he or she is currently filling some other role — give them wings. Maybe they’ll fly.
When our tour of stations came to an end, we looked back to see if our lessons led to positive change at the station. Without a doubt, reports from stations made us incredibly proud. Some of our trainees simply needed outsiders like us to reinforce the same things they’ve been telling their teams and management for years. Some stations had been wanting to get into digital video, but needed specific answers to questions about technical matters such as captioning, video codecs, and 4K. Some stations needed honest gear recommendations from experienced producers. Above all, most stations just needed to talk out questions in an open forum, to finally get to the bottom of what digital video production meant to them, the team and the organization as a whole.
The proudest moments for us are when we see stations utilize these lessons by going out and producing remarkable local stories. At Illinois Public Media, a few camera operators and forward-thinking TV producers went outside of their studio comfort zone and created ART/BTS, a beautifully shot web series profiling local artists, now in its second season.
At WETA, the presenter of Ken Burns’ documentaries, website manager Mark Jones bought a DSLR and asked us to teach him and his colleagues how to produce a quirky local series about Washington, D.C. A couple years later, Mark and his team have produced some stunning short films for Re:Dream, a digital video collaboration between 15 PBS member stations.
There are many more examples of stations producing new and inspirational digital video series, but they didn’t get there by accident. Most likely they began with the questions, “What is digital video? Why do we want to produce it? How do we produce it?” We hope this article helps you begin that conversation at your station.
Video Dads is a video production and training company dedicated to making powerful stories about people. Since 2014, Emmy Award–winning producers Travis Gilmour and Slavik Boyechko have produced hundreds of projects for public media, nonprofits, universities and corporate clients around the country.