Class Act: The Scholastic Squeeze
Posted Jan 20, 2005

After working in commercial and broadcast production for eight years, I came to the conclusion that academia was one of the last refuges of video production. It seemed to promise freedom from demanding business owners, insane deadlines, insurmountable workloads, and most of all, the constant pressure for profitability. I envisioned a utopia where scholarly work was conducted for the greater good.

With that frame of mind, I jumped at the offer to take a position at a large university several years ago. Since then, reality has tempered some of my loftier expectations, but some of my original views still hold true. While I no longer have the specter of profitability to worry about, new and different challenges have emerged.

I got into the production business at a very interesting time, when DV was just becoming viable. Small, compact non-linear editing systems were starting to ovdertake larger CMX editing bays. This gave me an understanding of the tremendous costs and space needed to run a production department before DV changed the requirements and needs of production. The generally insulated setting of academic and corporate production units began to feel the repercussions of this shift. What was once an elite club of videographers and editors opened up to anyone with a computer and a camcorder. Although most professionals enjoy the new toys and technology that modern DV has brought, they can no longer hold themselves above the crowd based purely on the superior equipment they use.

In academic settings—and beyond—this democratization of production and post-production has lead to what I affectionately call the "scholastic squeeze." The squeeze comes from several different directions. The first challenge comes from the low cost of production equipment. Clients don't understand why this new inexpensive gear doesn't result in a cheaper budget. Don't get me wrong—I'm not arguing that there is an indistinguishable difference between shooting in DVCPro and native DV. But try explaining the quality differences and broadcast-level standarrds to a professor or dean - it's about as much fun as a dental appointment. In practice, the quality of shooting, editing, and presentation in DV is good enough.

Second (my personal favorite), some clients are forgoing production services altogether, creating their own micro production departments instead. They buy a new PC and some editing software, and—poof!—they're a post house, right?

Third is the outsourcing of production. Certainly, there are other elements that also put on the squeeze, but I'll focus on the Big Three.

The first—and most complicated—challenge is price. For many in-house producers, price is not a factor, because the production stays internal. But even in these cases, internal operations will often want to see a budget. This allows them to evaluate the costs/benefits of production. Case in point: even at a large university, we bill internally for our production services. While no money changes hands, we do pull money from one account to another, which still forces departments to pay attention to budget constraints.

Whether they are internal or external clients, everyone wants it cheaper. What doesn't drop in price is the value of experience and knowledge that a talented editor/videographer brings to a project. This talent and experience needs to outweigh the benefits of choosing a less expensive production unit/company.

The bane of my existence—and the second of the "squeeze" challenges—is the self-made internal production/post-production unit. I have run across several departments that decided to create their own production department rather than continue to pay for production services. I don't know if they believe that production fairies will come and sprinkle magical dust on them or what, but great gear doesn't guarantee great productions. Ironically, most of these scenarios are destined for failure, and the seasoned producer becomes the heroic "problem solver." By displaying knowledge and expertise (a punch of two buttons to get them up and running again), clients will remember the value of your talent when they need video services again.

In larger academic and corporate settings, outsourcing is becoming a real threat. Some businesses outsource because of availability or cost and others simply because someone knows a friend of a friend who does video in his basement. It is becoming increasingly difficult to explain to a client the appreciable difference between shooting on a $40,000 camcorder and a $3,000 one—and that it takes knowledge and skill to operate both.

Make no mistake: the squeeze is on. Talent remains one of the few distinguishing factors that can alter the production equation. The same arguments that worked five years ago hold little significance today. Internal production departments are under siege from many different fronts. Their future and viability will rely heavily on their ability to adapt and change in this new DV world.