Bill Hicks reports on how the educational video market has had to adapt to survive. "We're surviving on the basis that we do the teachers' homework for them," says Chris Thomas of Team Video, an independent producer of highly-regarded issue-led educational videos. "If we were in a thriving education market if education was really valued in this country then VHS would long since have been cast into the graveyard."
And yet, VHS is a great survivor. It is still the dominant educational audio-visual medium, and despite rumours of its imminent demise at the hands of CD-Rom, CD-i, and other voguish digital technologies, the 18-year-old format still has a future, and not just because it is the one technology to which (almost) all teachers have access.
As Chris Thomas points out, "VHS has one purpose, CD-Rom another. We aim to keep the whole class going". Try getting 30 children to interact with the grainy video windows on a typical CD-Rom, and you see his point.
Team Video is an example of a breed of specialist producerdistributor one of a handful of small, agile companies which has responded to the demands of teachers labouring under the pressures of national curriculum and tightening budgets, by producing relevant, well-supported materials at appropriate prices.
Typical of its output is the Why Civil Liberties?, an integrated video pack, produced by Team Video for the Civil Liberties trust. This offers seven 10-minute video segments, alternating documentary and drama, with an on-screen index and 40 photocopiable worksheets: as such, an instant mini-course for personal and social education, English, or general studies teachers, sold at Pounds 35.25.
Keeping close to teachers' needs has been a lifeline for ViewTech, the Bristol-based distributor of science and humanities videos from 90 producers, including Gateway, Hugh Baddeley, Film Australia and Disney Educational Productions.
"You might not believe it," says ViewTech's sales manager Sue Duckett, "but our sales are 60 per cent up on this time last year. CD-Roms are having no detrimental effect on our business. We're not being complacent, but video is a technology which at last is being well used. We're doing better marketing, and teachers are using our products in better ways than they did in the past. "
ViewTech's videos sell at around Pounds 30 for a 15-minute tape. "We have had to balance schools' lack of money against what we can live on. It was quite a battle teachers see those Pounds 10 videos in the shops but it's now acceptable."
The bargain-basement prices of many feature films on video has been a bonus for media and English teachers, with a huge back catalogue of cinema classics now available on the high street. Instead of having to wheel out a projector or organise a trip to the cinema, an instant film classic, such as Pulp Fiction, can be anatomised in the classroom and taken home for a second viewing.
But there is room for classroom videos without any mainstream sales. Classroom Video has 90 or so titles covering secondary science, geography, PSE and most recently design and technology. These are targeted at gaps left by school television and all sell well at Pounds 27.
UK manager Felicity Carlin says: "I don't think this is a saturated market. Although we're aware of the acute financial problems in schools, it's possibly because of the difficulties that video is so popular."
A different view is taken by Lydia Vulliamy of Concord Film and Video, which, with some 3,000 titles in its catalogue, remains a goldmine for social science and humanities teachers, but which, she adds, has never attempted to offer specifically national curriculum-geared programmes. "When we started back in the Sixties, 99 per cent of our work was with schools now, it's further education colleges, universities, social services departments, prisons and far fewer schools. They're just so short of money. But we keep going."
She highlights the trend away from hiring, and towards outright sale of videos, which even at an average of Pounds 40 per tape, leaves little margin for the distributor.
Another factor has been the schemes which enable teachers to record mainstream television programming off-air without infringing copyright, though Chris Thomas feels this could be overplayed: "The thing about off-air recording is that someone's got to record it. Who does it? The media resources officers? They've gone. If this wasn't the case, then we would be out of business. "
Then again, maybe not, given that the broadcasters still have a good sideline in selling re-packaged programmes to schools. There also still seems to be room for the well-made sponsored videos from big corporations and government departments.
The Shell Education Service continues to add to its video catalogue, with, for example, its succesful art history series for secondary schools alongside rather less surprising offerings on the oil industry. Shell has recently stopped hiring its videos: most sell at well-subsidised prices of Pounds 8.40 or Pounds 12.34.
While most distributors see a good few years more for VHS, it's clear that, with school-age children among the most voracious consumers of multimedia PCs, the days of this well-liked but ageing technology must surely be numbered.
Felicity Carlin at Classroom Video reckons that CD-i, and not CD-Rom, will take over from videocassette. "It's a very simple format, you don't need to be computer literate to use it, it offers far better quality full-motion video than CD-Rom. Its day is not here yet, but its time will come." She hopes to start producing CD-i titles within three or four years.
One producer with every reason to be aware of the rise of disc-based digital media is Carol Vorderman who, when she's not presenting Tomorrow's World, runs her own video production company Rockhopper, making the self-help Video Class series, aimed at parents wanting to supplement their children's education.
"We outsell CD-Rom now, but might not, I think, in three years time," she says.
Team Video: 0181 960 5536
ViewTech: 01179 773422
Classroom Video: 01737 642880
Concord Film and Video: 01473 715754
Shell Education Service: 01635 31721
Rockhopper: on sale in high street shops