Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Producer Nathan Schutter and Founder Jeff Batten, right, work behind the scenes while filming an episode of the television show Gwinnett Pep Rally at the Batten Communications, Inc., studio in Atlanta on Sept. 11, 2012. Gwinnett Pep Rally has provided coverage of Gwinnett County high school sports for the past 20 years.
Gwinnett Prep Rally's 20th year
Gwinnett Prep Rally is celebrating its 20th year of covering Gwinnett high school sports this season and we take a behind-the-scenes look.
Without hesitation, Sean Calhoun can tell you his favorite TV show in high school.
The Collins Hill assistant football coach grew up during a time when "Dawson's Creek" and "Friends" were popular with his high school friends. But for the 2000 Berkmar grad it was a little show on a cable access channel called "Gwinnett Prep Rally" that was his favorite.
"When I was in high school, I never missed an episode," Calhoun said. "You got to see what see everyone else around the county did."
That was the initial idea behind the show. To give Gwinnett County high school football fans a chance to see highlights from other schools. Now in its 20th year, the show has not strayed away from that premise.
"I think this whole show is about credibility," said Jeff Batten, the show's creator. "It's not about how good looking you are, or a hot woman doing the show. I think the people that watch our show do because they know it's going to be credible. The information we're getting out they don't know and there's at least two or three things in every half hour show that they learn something. This show was never about stars. The video and the content was always the star."
Gwinnett Prep Rally first aired on Aug. 10, 1993. A year earlier, Batten read a column by Gwinnett Extra sports editor Scott Bernarde suggesting it would be neat to have a high school program on a local cable access channel.
Batten, who had recently graduated from the University of Georgia with a master's degree in mass communications and was in need of a job, read the column with great enthusiasm.
"This just screamed out to me," Batten said. "I owe a throwaway column from Scott Bernarde in 1992 for everything I have in this world."
Gwinnett Prep Rally launched, but not without a hiccup in its first episode. The show didn't feature the lavish studio it has today in Atlanta. It was filmed on location at high schools.
"We barely knew what we were doing technically," Batten said. "It wasn't, 'Can it be good?' It was, 'Can we get it done?'"
The first episode was taped at Shiloh High School. It was such poor quality that Batten had to ask then head coach Charlie Jordan if they could re-shoot there again just days before the show was supposed to air. Jordan agreed to help Batten any way he could and Gwinnett Prep Rally was born.
"The coaches were always great," Batten said.
The show was originally hosted Eric Hunter, a friend of Batten's, and Rachel Livingston, an aspiring broadcaster. It wasn't the highlight-filled show that airs today. It was more about human interest stories off the field. That changed a few years later and Gwinnett Prep Rally was filmed at Stone Mountain Pizza Cafe. The show went through various hosts and co-hosts before Batten stumbled upon Todd Cline, then a Daily Post sports writer.
"That was the best thing we ever did, aligning with the Daily Post," Batten said. "I didn't know at the time they would become what they've become in terms of high school coverage. But it was obviously the perfect marriage."
Cline, now editor of the Daily Post, is in his 16th year on the show and has been joined by Daily Post sports editor Will Hammock for the last five years.
"Any time you get the word out about the players of Gwinnett County, Will and Todd do such a great job talking about it and promoting," Norcross head coach Keith Maloof said. "I think that's what separates our county from other counties that the kids like to see themselves on TV. It promotes not only their athletic ability, but what they are doing in the classroom also."
The show originally featured just football and basketball highlights. In 2000, the show expanded to spring sports as well.
With the success of Gwinnett Prep Rally, Batten started similar shows in Cobb and North Fulton but didn't get the same kind of response.
"It just wasn't met with the same reaction as it was in Gwinnett. Gwinnett County was the place to do it," Batten said. "To do this in Gwinnett, that's how it had to be. There's no other county I think could have completely embraced this in terms of popularity, in terms of the budget it takes to keep it going. Gwinnett had to be the place."
Nathan Schutter, a 1998 Brookwood grad, is the producer of Gwinnett Prep Rally. Schutter was working at a bank when he called Batten to see if he needed any help with the show. One thing led to another and he quit his job at the bank to join Batten's team.
"I grew up watching the show. I wasn't a football player, but I liked high school football," Schutter said. "I didn't go to all the games, so I liked to see the highlights."
Now Schutter is responsible for what everyone sees every week on Gwinnett County Public Schools' cable channel. Schutter does everything from start to finish with the show from shooting video, writing scripts, cutting the highlights and editing.
"I think high school athletics has just gotten so much bigger. These guys are kind of rock stars," Schutter said. "The Robert Nkemdiches of the world. Everyone around the nation knows who he is and I think that's played a big role. People want to see these guys and if they can't get out to Grayson to watch Nkemdiche, then they can go online or watch the show and get a glimpse why this guy is so great. I think the overall interest in the Southeast doesn't hurt and high school football has just become so big."
The success of Gwinnett Prep Rally has allowed Batten to branch out into other projects. He owns two radio stations in Habersham County and two in Towns County. He also owns two broadcasting schools -- Complete Game Broadcasting and the Atlanta Broadcast Institute -- and produces NBC's "Match Point," a tennis show syndicated for Fox Sports South. Batten Communications also has been involved with Comcast's high school football programming for more than 15 years.
"Everything we've ever done has been an offshoot of Gwinnett Prep Rally," Batten said.
The show has remained popular with current and former Gwinnett County players like South Gwinnett grad David Greene, who went be the NCAA's all-time wins leader for a starting quarterback at Georgia and played in the NFL.
"I was on the varsity my freshman year and didn't play much, but we would go over to somebody's house on Wednesday or Thursday night, have dinner and watch Gwinnett Prep Rally," Greene said. "Starting my junior year, we used to go to Steven Berardinelli's house. Obviously they're Italian and we'd have our pasta and watch the show. That was the show around Gwinnett County when it came to high school football."
That was more than a decade ago and the show is still popular among players and coaches today.
"I like the show," Grayson head coach Mickey Conn said. "My dad is a fanatic with it. Will and Todd do a great job with it."
It's been 20 years since that first episode of Gwinnett Prep Rally aired on Wometco Cable Channel 2 as Gwinnett's first and only high school sports show.
It's a distinction Batten would like to continue for another 20 years.
"This is the smallest project I have in scope and revenue in any way shape or form and it's still the child that you don't want to leave the house," Batten said. "It's 20 years. It's a remarkable testament to how important high school athletics is in Gwinnett County."