Videoconferencing: The Television Connection
Starr, Robert M., Distance Learning
For most of my 33 years in education, I have been involved in some aspect of video production. From that first encounter early in my career with a reel-to-reel portable videotape recorder and its hand-held black-and-white camera to my current familiarity with desktop video editing systems and DV equipment, I have remained fascinated with all things video. For a number of years I taught classes in video production at a major university in Virginia and operated my own production business on the side. Even with such long-term experience, I have always considered myself to be a student of the art and craft of television, albeit an advanced student on occasion. Upon retirement from my university teaching position, I entered government service with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as a television producer and multimedia specialist. It was in this capacity that I was introduced to videoconferencing and, after years of creating television for passive audiences, the prospect of reaching viewers who could actually interact with presenters renewed my longstanding fascination with video technology.
It became evident early on in my experience with interactive television that the video production conventions and rules I tried hard to follow both in and out of the television studio were not necessarily followed when it comes to videoconferencing. It was clear that many of the people who were using interactive television were not from the video side of things. There seems to be a new breed of video practitioners who have their roots firmly planted in the computer world. Although the video and computer worlds have converged to a great extent, important aspects of television production seem to be left out of the equation. For example, headroom, framing considerations, and even placement of the camera to facilitate normal eye contact are often disregarded. Creative video craftsmanship is standard television practice and can improve interactive television.
I recall a student making this statement after receiving a low grade on a commercial assignment in an advanced video production class many years ago: "You mean we are required to be creative in this television class?" I responded in the affirmative. The student dropped the course shortly thereafter. It also became clear to me after a few years of teaching media arts that just because people watch television for most of their lives, the grammar and syntax of the video craft does not necessarily register in long-term memory. One of the metaphors I used back in those early days to illustrate the need for video craftsmanship was cabinet making. After showing a picture of a well-made chest of drawers, I asked beginning production students what it would take for each of them to make such a piece of fine furniture. Responses generally ranged from selection and use of appropriate tools to years of experience. I tried to make the point that television was just as much a craft as cabinet making, and the best scripts or storyboards were meaningless unless acceptable standards were applied to the process of transforming ideas and words into effective television presentations. I maintain that any videoconferencing environment can be improved with the application of a few simple rules that, in the end, may serve to enhance the communication process and thus provide a more meaningful exchange among the participants.
Of utmost importance is camera placement. Generally speaking, most videoconferencing systems provide a small, remotely controlled camera with pan and zoom capability. Typically, the camera is either placed to the side or above the television monitor that displays the other site(s). In standard television, if a presenter is not looking directly into the camera, the viewer notices an immediate break in eye contact. Unless a newscaster, for example, looks down at his or her script momentarily, eyes are pointed straight into the lens of the live camera. …