There’s no such thing as "over
the hill" when it comes to making video.

At a time when most of us hope to relax and enjoy the finer things in life,
one ambitious group of Connecticut retirees is taking on a new career. Meet
the Seniors is a video production group that produces local programming
for cable access television in Fairfield, Connecticut.

Using the Fairfield Senior Center as home base, the group’s 20 members have
been documenting local events and personalities for 10 years. They are a
diverse group of people with many talents and experiences to offer. The
current president of the group, Sara Pellegrino, is a retired teacher and
social director who leads the monthly brainstorming sessions that make their
productions a success.

"We cover subjects from start to finish," Pellegrino says. "We
can do something as simple as an anniversary or [as complex] as a community
project."

Each idea is developed from concept to completion, beginning with a storyboard
to give the project shape and direction. Members make it a habit to jot
down ideas for future shows whenever they come to mind. Those ideas usually
become the subjects of brainstorming sessions and allow everyone to add
to the creative process.

The group works as individuals or in small teams to cover a project and
create weekly half-hour programs. More than 80 shows have been aired and
Pellegrino says the group enjoys tremendous support from other seniors and
the community in general.

The idea for senior programming came from a similar program suggested by
the American Association of Retired Persons; it’s supported by the local
cable company which oversees the group’s training.

Lessons Learned

Experience is the best teacher, according to Pellegrino, who has many
stories to tell of adventures in the field.

While shooting a piece on the renovation of a historic district, one of
the members strolled casually into a pool room with a camera on her shoulder.
The customers glared and thought they might be the subjects of an investigation.
But after a brief explanation, the patrons became participants in the project
and offered information and help.

"Even if you have permission to tape," Pellegrino says, "know
your territory."

Sometimes nature has something to say about when and where a shoot can happen.
Jack Kennedy spent 43 years as a programmer and sales engineer before he
became a camera jockey.

"We were shooting old ruins on Charles Island, the legendary burial
place of Captain Kidd’s treasure. Access to the island is at low tide by
a mile-long sandbar," Kennedy explains. "We had a two-hour window
to return to the mainland before the tide came in. With water up to our
knees and the equipment on top of our heads, we made it back just in time."

Not all of the group’s mishaps are as glamorous, but the details make for
hilarious happenings. Forgetting to turn off the camera is a common mistake,
resulting in endless footage of the ground as the crew walks away from a
story. Even Pellegrino has firsthand knowledge of video gremlins. While
shooting an air show, Pellegrino noticed right away that the battery in
the camera was very low. "I had to trek back to the parking lot for
another battery and missed part of the show I’d wanted to shoot," she
says.

Challenges Faced

Once the group has faced the challenges of shooting in the field, they’re
ready to begin the time-consuming post-production process.

"It takes about a month or two to put together a show that involves
location shooting," Pellegrino says. "In-studio productions go
more quickly."

Former insurance executive Sylvia Wettenstein says editing is her biggest
challenge because the group’s equipment is old. Pellegrino also feels that
the equipment is a challenge and adds that getting editing time can be difficult
with such a large group working on so many projects at once.

Most post-production is done at the Cablevision studio and once a week Fairfield
University allows the group to use its television facilities for editing.

The Meet the Seniors group has covered just about everything in and around
the community of Fairfield. From "Facelift with a Forklift," which
documented the renovation of a historic neighborhood to "Anatomy of
an Art Show," viewers have learned the stories behind the events happening
around them. Visiting dignitaries have also been a part of the program including
"Interview with Hillary Clinton" and "On the Campaign Stop
with Elizabeth Dole." Pellegrino is researching how to package and
distribute the shows to other markets.

Eye on the Future

Goals for the future are both technical and personal. During monthly
meetings, the group keeps up-to-date with the latest technology.

"With all the new digital and computer advanced technology," Wettenstein
says, "our equipment is already obsolete."

Kennedy agrees that the biggest change in the near future will be the availability
of low-cost digital video cameras and editing equipment. He hopes to add
hardware and software to his personal computer to create his own post-production
suite for making high quality video at home.

Like the rest of the group, Pellegrino craves the digital age but says the
ultimate goal for Meet the Seniors is to continue producing programs that
are interesting, informative, educational and entertaining for the community.

"We want to continue to produce quality programs," she says. "And
to increase and expand our capabilities for video production."

Julie DeForest is a television producer and journalist.



Public Access Made Easy

Whether you’re new to video production
or looking for a way to get your show on the air, public access is a great
starting place for videographers of all kinds. The most important factor
in public access is its cost–it’s usually free to those living within the
service area. Your local cable company (or an educational institution under
contact) provides training. Once you’ve passed whatever test and requirements
are necessary to participate, you can use the cable company’s equipment
to produce your own video productions. The company will provide you with
guidelines about what can and cannot be aired under the terms of public
access but the rules are general enough to encompass most ideas as long
as they are free of any blatant advertising, product or service recommendation
or company logos.

Step-by-Step

Most cable companies who offer public access service have prepared materials
to get you started and can usually provide a schedule of training classes
when you can learn the basics and get your hands on the equipment. Some
companies are required by their franchise agreements to offer public access
service. The cable company usually must provide interested parties with
all the materials necessary to understand and participate in public programming.

Once you’ve completed your tape, you will have to submit a number of forms
to the cable provider–usually a request for programming time and a statement
of compliance that says you know the rules and have followed them. Some
of the more advanced public access groups publish a viewer guide and will
ask you to submit a synopsis telling what the show is about. It will be
printed in the guide and give you the opportunity to generate interest in
your show.

Program Guidelines

While many go-getters plan and produce a series of similar programs
like a talk show or a regular series on golf, don’t be afraid to pick a
topic you care about and do one good show. Programmers value quality and
will remember you the next time you offer a production.

Often there are limits or guidelines on the program length. The access provider
will inform you as to the standard lengths of programs commonly aired.

Guidelines for content are almost uniform throughout the country when it
comes to what isn’t allowed on public access. They are: no endorsements
of political candidates; no program that contains obscene materials as defined
by the U.S. Supreme Court; no material that constitutes libel, slander or
invasion of privacy; and no program which includes copyright or trademark
material without written permission. Oh, and one more thing, you can’t air
a program that advocates violation of any law.

To find your public access provider, call your local cable company. If they
don’t provide a public channel, contact the local governmental agency that
oversees the cable operator’s franchise (the legal contract that allows
the operator to offer exclusive cable services). Lobbying of the franchise
agency can be an effective way to bring public access to your community.

–JD

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