If you’re a Saturday afternoon sports fan in the autumn months, it’s easy to find football on the television from noon to midnight.
Key college matchups between rivals, top games from the most popular power conferences across the nation like the SEC, Big-12 and Big-10, and occasional NFL contests are spread across the dial.
In the Roanoke area, sandwiched in the middle of it all on WWCW, sister station of Fox’s WXFR, each Saturday afternoon brings “Student Playback High School Football Game of the Week.” A local high school game produced by a select group of students from the TV Production Class at Franklin County High School.
Make no mistake about it, these talented kids know what they’re doing and put a good broadcast on the air for the typical duration of a high school matchup, about 2 1/2 hours.
The comparisons to their college counterparts are staggering. A top-notch college game can have as many as 20-30 cameras; Playback Game of the Week has 3. College games, according to TV operations data, employee 150-200 to produce a game. Playback does it with 7 students, their class instructor Ken Kilinski, and two announcers, long-time broadcaster Dave Ross and his color commentator Steve Myers.
They might be outmanned, but there’s no complaining.
“These kids are the best of the best,” Kilinski explained before a recent broadcast at Dwight Bogle Stadium between Hidden Valley and Pulaski County. “For these seven, this is a job. They get paid, they’re hired to be here and they all know they can be fired. They could walk into a network television studio and go right to work. The camera crew could operate a camera, our director and audio coordinator know how things work. And, we’re ready to go regardless if it’s 72 degrees or pouring rain and snow.”
The origin of “Student Playback High School Football Game of the Week” dates back to 2014 when Kilinski, who started the TV Production Class at Franklin County HS in 2005, got an unexpected call.
“Former WDBJ-7 program director Mike Bell called me one day and asked, ‘I have a crazy idea. Do you think your high school kids could shoot football games?’ “
“We got started with 3 mini-cams, an old wooden desk and 4 Mac computers.”
After three years WDBJ-7, the program moved to WWCW, and Franklin County’s Mark Church wanted the program to be state of the art which led to the school system investing a lot of capital.
“What you see here with cameras, computers, the director’s screens and various other equipment comes to about $40,000,” Kilinski pointed out. “Our Career and Technical Education supervisor, Robbie Dooley, wanted things to be the best so the school really invested in this program. We now have full high definition equipment, including monitors, TVs and high definition cameras.
And, the crew has its own van complete with logos of the program that transports all the equipment to games each week. Originally, Kilinski had contemplated using an old mini school bus and tearing out the seats to put the entire contriol room on wheels, but that idea was scrapped in favor of the van.
At Bogle Field, the Playback crew has arrived 2 hours before kickoff to set up everything for the game. Tables, cameras, screens, computers and cables are organized with precision. 2021 Playback Director Libby Jeans, a junior at FCHS and former varsity cheerleader, is putting on the final touches before the game’s taping begins. Jeans is in her third year of the TV Production Class and second on the Playback crew. The Director’s job is the top spot among the crew.
“It’s a lot of fun, but it’s challenging,” Jeans points out as she watched the scoreboard clock noting the time remaining before the game’s start. “I was a varsity cheerleader and hardly got to actually see the game. Now, I get to see the whole game. We have three camera operators, our audio producer, special effects and a runner. Dave Ross is doing the play-by-play and I’m watching the production monitor continuously that shows all three camera shots. We also have instant replay for certain situations. There’s a lot going on. Ken will shout at me if he sees something’s not quite right, but that’s the way it works. Everyone on this crew wants things to be as close to perfect as possible.”
Jeans continues a trend of the eight directors for Playback since 2014; all have been girls.
“Girls pay more attention,” Kilinski explains without hesitation. “The girls are intense. They are more careful and won’t hesitate to tell the boys to get on the ball. We have 17 students taking the production class and before any male is brought onto the 7-member crew I make it very clear, ‘You better be comfortable about taking directions from a girl, because if you can’t, you won’t fit on this crew.’ “
Brianna Moore, in her second year in the TV Production Class and first with the crew, is the audio producer siiting beside Jeans at the director’s monitor.
“It’s a fun job,” Moore noted. “We get to games at 5-5:30 and get back to the school by 10:30-11pm after a game. Dave Ross is great and our audio usually runs very smoothly, especially with him on the microphone, We had a game where kids running around our cables caused a problem, but that was out of our hands. We’re not in private booths or separated from the crowd.”
Junior Bryce Higley, in his second year in the production class and first doing games, is one of the three camera crew members.
“We put one camera at each end above the field, between the 10 and 20-yard lines”, he explained. “We have one camera on top of the press box. Things move fast and it can be difficult at times to track plays.The trick plays that many teams run are the toughest to follow. But, it’s fun and I plan on being back on the crew next year.”
Ross, like Kilinski, was recruited by Bell to do the play-by-play in 2014. Additionally, Ross picks the games to be taped each week on Friday nights based on their popularity. Games can be played in the Roanoke Valley, Franklin County or as far away as Lynchburg. After the game concludes, he drives the recording to the WWCW studio where it is edited and fit into the time slot for Saturday’s replay.
Ross relishes his role working with the high school students.
“I’ve always been very impressed,” Ross, who has broadcast games throughout seven decades, notes. “These kids have always been totally professional, very polite and they are good people who will have success as they move on in life.”
“We’re doing the play-by-play somewhere around the stands, and there can be people walking by, distractions or bands playing. We try to find the best place at every stadium to make it work the best. On top of the crew, the most important thing to me is getting these young high school players and coaches on TV that would never have that opportunity otherwise. Few high school players go on to play at the college level, so this is their day to be in the spotlight.”