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Managing an association video network.

Use live broadcasts to suplement in-person training and save members travel time.

January 22, 1987, was the day of the first national teleconference sponsored by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA). The leaders of the Washington, D.C.-based trade association were all due at a television studio in northern Virginia. Thanks to a 14-inch snowstorm, they almost didn't make it.

The show goes on

The snow may have temporarily stopped us, but it didn't interfere with the technology. The studio kept humming, with camera operators and technicians in place; the satellite maintained its flight path 22,000 miles above the earth; and the signal would still go out to almost 100 member organizations around the country. With or without us, the teleconference was ready to go.

Eventually, some association leaders scrambled into four-wheel-drive vehicles and made it to the studio in time to get the show on the air.

In the six years since that first teleconference, NRECA has produced scores of live broadcasts for its members--1,000 rural utilities. These member systems provide electric service to approximately 25 million people in 46 states, spread across 70 percent of the land mass of the United States.

Promising demographics

Although geographically diverse, rural electrics have common needs related to accounting, engineering, and human resource management; when new issues emerge, employees and directors everywhere need to hear the same information. NRECA members, however, are often at the end of the transportation system--not close to airline hubs. Consequently, traveling to training programs costs them a lot in time and money.

Because those members live in rural areas, many were already familiar with TVRO (television-receive-only) satellite technology. Much of rural America doesn't receive cable television, so our members often received commercial television using satellite dishes in their backyards.

Given our demographics, NRECA's management services department identified satellite technology as a means of bringing more training and information to members. Broadcasts would supplement, not replace, classroom training.

Lessons learned early

The teletraining initiative, launched in the mid-1980s, consisted of two main steps.

First, NRECA announced a pilot project to televise 10 annual training programs, beginning in 1987. (Unsure of what people would watch and how to design teleconferences, we simply guessed at the number of programs. I'd encourage other associations to be less ambitious and schedule only one or two programs the first year.)

Second, we hired a production company to help clarify program objectives, assist in translating technical scripts into conversational English, and produce and direct the live broadcasts.

The network was named RECNET, the Rural Electric Cooperative Network. We wanted to use the technology to explain the technology, so we created a 10-minute videotape called Space Age Neighbors. We showed it at meetings and loaned it to member systems to build interest in the network.

In its first, year, RECNET produced eight live broadcasts, including programs on rural economic development, chemicals used in preserving wood utility poles, work order accounting, and poletop rescue. Here's what we learned from those early efforts.

Precisely target the audience for each program. We found out our broadcast on wood-pole preservatives was too generic. We needed to define the audience more narrowly and then match the level of the presentation to that specific audience.

Avoid scripted panel discussions. The program on rural economic development featured several speakers, each reading a 10-minute presentation from a TelePrompTer. This approach carefully controls scheduling, but each speaker becomes a "talking head." Group discussions--with lively give-and-take and interaction among the panelists--work better in maintaining audience involvement, especially when the topic is relatively abstract.

Find topics that viewers realize they need to understand. Almost all NRECA members follow the same accounting system, and they know they need training and periodic updates on technical concepts. This means we have a willing audience for certain accounting programs.

Present material that will stimulate discussion at the viewing site. The program on pole-top rescue showed an approved method for bringing down an injured lineperson from a utility pole and giving emergency treatment. We included guidelines on communicating with ambulance drivers who might need guidance to reach off-road power lines. Rather than talking about how this should be done, the program used field footage to show it.

We later learned that the employees at one utility spent three hours comparing their pole-top rescue plan with the one presented in the broadcast. The program achieved its goal: Viewers discussed the program in terms of how the information could help them do their jobs better.

Technical components

Satellites. About 25 commercial communication satellites fly over the United States in geosynchronous orbit, meaning they stay in the same location relative to the earth. Each satellite has a number of transponders, or channel carriers; each transponder carries one program at a time.

Commercial satellites are known as C or Ku, depending on the radio wave frequency they use. Vendors broker transporter time for a rental fee; the satellite must have a signal footprint that will reach your network of downlink sites. Currently, RECNET is a C-band network.

Studios. RECNET broadcasts originate in a production facility in the Washington, D.C., area. Studios, available on a rental basis, provide satellite uplinking and other technical support. To own its own studio, NRECA would need to invest from $5 million to $10 million.

Scrambling. RECNET doesn't encrypt, or scramble, its satellite signal. Encrypting on the uplinking end--on the path from the studio to the satellite--would dramatically increase network costs, not to mention costs at the downlink end, where viewing organizations would have to invest in de-cryption equipment.

Instead, to maintain system security, we notify subscribers about program dates, times, and satellite coordinates. This ensures only paying customers receive RECNET programs.

We also provide viewers with information on satellite dish placement. A 30-minute test pattern precedes each program. If viewers have difficulty tuning in during the test, they call a technical trouble line located in the studio's control room.

In addition to notification about programs and technical assistance, subscribers receive course handout materials, technical support for setting up the downlink site, and free training for their site facilitators.

Making contact locally

The most important service RECNET provides, besides programming, is training for site facilitators. The chief executive at each utility selects this person to be the local contact. Establishing a network of local facilitators is important for a number of reasons.

First, time-sensitive information sent directly to chief executive officers often sits unopened on a desk or gets misplaced. We rely on the facilitator to be the one person at each utility who informs viewers about upcoming programs, distributes viewer handouts, keeps us informed about viewer reactions, and guides us in selecting programs for the next year.

Second, adults learn best when they can discuss an idea in terms of its relevance to them. Ideally, such a discussion takes place after every broadcast. NRECA trains facilitators not to be content experts but to stimulate discussion by having the audience focus on one key question: What did we see in this program that will help us do our jobs better?

Monetary matters

By the end of its first year of operation, RECNET had 90 subscribers, each paying a $2,000 annual fee. In 1988 we lowered the subscription fee to $1,500.

By 1990, however, we found that smaller rural electrics weren't subscribing to RECNET. We developed a three-tiered pricing structure based on approximate per-viewer cost: Those with fewer employees pay a lower fee. Subscription fees are now $1,000 for the smallest utilities, $1,500 for the middle-sized, and $1,700 for the largest. We currently have 300 subscribers.

RECNET needs annual revenue of $450,000 to cover all expenses for about 10 annual programs, plus management and overhead costs. (One teleconferencing specialist is dedicated full time to RECNET, and I allocate half of my time to it.) Several variable-cost factors drive RECNET's budget:

* Production facility expenses--technical support, camera operators, and uplinking cost about $10,000 per show.

* Production company fee--totaling about $10,000, this includes assistance in program planning and design, finding "B-roll" footage used during the program to add visual variety, assistance in training speakers to read from the TelePrompTer, and directing the on-air production.

* Speaker and material costs--professional fees, travel expenses, and production and distribution of handouts for each program. We work with speakers to develop a 10-to-25-page handout that directly corresponds to the live presentation. Typically, these costs also total about $10,000.

* Satellite rental--the rate is usually less than $700 per hour.

Subscription revenue does not cover RECNET's entire budget. Because RECNET reaches about one third of the total association membership, NRECA produces some videotape programs for sale to nonsubscribers. For example, a 10-part "cooperative legal seminar" consisting of 20-minute videos was first shown by satellite, with no call-in component, and then offered to nonsubscribers at $185 for a single tape and $1,400 for the total set.

We also translated several live accounting programs into stand-alone, self-paced tape packages. Program scripts and participant workbooks were developed to guide the viewer through watching a lesson and then answering problems presented in the workbook. These products have been our largest source of nonsubscription revenue.

Matching the message to the medium

Live television has an immediacy that is exciting to viewers and allows them to interact by calling in. We have received good call-in responses for many, but not all, of our live programs. For example, a program on the Americans with Disabilities Act and its effect on rural electrics generated a number of questions from viewers.

Other programs work better as brief videos. These prerecorded videos can still be sent over satellite but have no viewer call-in. One RECNET program on power quality--how electricity can affect the operation of consumer electronics and appliances--featured an electrician walking through a typical American home, showing where low-cost surge suppression devices could be installed to protect home electronic equipment.

And, for a program called Healthy Eating, we developed a script and hired a professional narrator to explain the American Heart Association's "30 percent rule," which says that no more than 30 percent of daily caloric consumption should be from fat. Supporting footage was shot at a local restaurant and grocery store. Both of these topics were better to show in a video than to talk about in a teleconference.

Although shorter--usually about 20 minutes in length--videos are more expensive than live teleconferences, per unit of length, because of the editing time required. Videos cost anywhere from $400 to $14,000 per finished minute, depending upon the components you decide to add to improve production values, such as high-speed imagery or animation.

RECNET has just begun its seventh year. Facing a new year means looking at hours of programming time that remain empty until a word or a phrase evokes a positive response from viewers and facilitators. Then the topic gets expanded into a real program with human speakers and interesting visuals.

Like the commercial networks, we promote our new programs each fall to retain current subscribers and to attract new ones. Retaining subscribers from year to year is not automatic. Executives from the few systems that don't resubscribe rarely complain about program quality. Instead, they say their employees simply don't have time--about one hour per month--to watch the programs. This reinforces the importance of showing what viewers know they need to know; otherwise, they will find reasons not to watch.

What we've learned

Annually, RECNET produces 10-12 programs. Although intense from a production perspective, this schedule accommodates at least one program for each employee group or professional classification.

Four months before each broadcast, we develop a milestone chart specifying dates by which to complete the script, prepare the handout, find B-roll footage, and train speakers. One month out, site facilitators receive a master copy of handout materials to copy and distribute--plus an evaluation form.

Getting feedback is one of the hardest and least satisfactory aspects of teletraining. We never know the exact number of viewers, and most feedback is anecdotal.

Although it may be vague and anecdotal, the feedback does tell us RECNET programs continue to improve. The lessons we've learned across the years may help you make the most of an association broadcasting business.

* Develop programs for which you know an interested audience exists. The less viewers know about a topic, the harder it will be to get their interest.

* Avoid long speeches. A five-minute speech on television can seem like eternity. Good communicators summarize their thoughts into short, simple, memorable statements.

* Find experts who speak plain English. The world is filled with people who speak the jargon of their specialty; the trick is to find experts who speak the language of the viewer.

* Avoid large panels. Generally, one or two speakers and a moderator are enough.

* Don't expect or depend on many call-in questions. A fear factor keeps many people from asking questions in front of other television viewers. To stimulate audience participation, plant or arrange for call-in questions at selected viewing sites.

* Focus on three or four key points in any presentation. Teleconference speakers cannot present as much material as they would in a live, daylong seminar.

* Build visual interest with supporting video footage, graphics, or moving images. Television is a visual, not an intellectual, medium. On its own, television doesn't do a good job of allowing explanations of complex or abstract topics. Find supporting material that stimulates the eye of the viewer.

* Clearly define the purpose and audience for each of your programs. Have your speakers address a specific audience, and don't let your promotional material imply that a wider audience should be viewing.

* Keep your focus on the viewer. Although it helps to know some technical language, don't get carried away by the technology so much that you forget about the program content.

Finally, lighten up. Smile. Speakers don't have to look somber and serious. In fact, it helps to have the moderator tell a joke just before going on the air.

The viewers enjoy a program more when the participants look like they're having him. I wish I had known that back in 1987, when we were serious, somber, and scared during NRECA's first teleconference. But, 70 programs later, we're still on the air--learning from each one and having fun.

On the Air

Because the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association uplinks from the East Coast, RECNET programs usually begin at 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. Here's what typically happens on the day of a broadcast.

The production company and technicians begin preparing early in the morning, while the speakers arrive at the studio at 9 a.m. Air time is still five hours away, but we have a number of details to check.

Accuracy of the character-generated graphics. We verify the spelling of speakers' names and the content of each graphic. If the program is scripted, many graphics must be cued up and synchronized with the speaker's presentation to make sure they appear at the appropriate moment.

Studio logistics. We confirm the seating arrangements and make sure speakers know which camera to look at. If speakers are reading from the TelePrompTer, they should look directly into the camera. But if the program is unscripted, participants should look at one another and ignore the camera as much as possible.

Final rehearsal. Without overrehearsing, we make sure speakers know exactly how to begin and end the program and how to respond to call-ins from the audience. We also rehearse the unscripted discussion that goes on in between call-in questions from the audience. (For this part of the rehearsal, we provide speakers with discussion questions written on 3-inch by 5-inch cards.)

As the uplink time approaches, the speakers get made up and take their places on the set. Everyone is wired with a microphone and voice-checked. A floor director is responsible for giving hand signals and assisting the speakers.

The program moderator, who controls the discussion and directs the call-in questions, is linked to the director in the control room with an internal feedback ear piece. The director keeps the moderator informed about the time and call-ins. The moderator can communicate back to the director through nods and hand signals captured by one of the cameras that is not, at that moment, sending the over-the-air signal.

In the control room, the director is ready to cue each electronic component that will be "inserted" into the signal being sent to the satellite. At the stroke of broadcast time, the director tells the technician to send up the RECNET logo and the program title. An off-screen announcer introduces the moderator. The floor director then gives the go-ahead signal to the moderator, who welcomes the audience and introduces the program.

If the program was well-planned, the viewers should now be watching and learning, following along in their handouts, and preparing to call in questions when the moderator announces that the telephone lines are open.

Greg Boudreaux is manager of RECNET as well as manager of training for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, Washington, D.C.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article
Author:Boudreaux, Greg
Publication:Association Management
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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