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Notes from the Reel World: The Board President's Column, March 1995

By Peter Stuart

Like many of you who make documentaries for television, I thought that the advent of multiple channels would lead to a golden age of nonfiction filmmaking. (Someone has to fill up all that time). In one sense there is more work, but in most cases, the minimal budgets that are offered make it quite a struggle to create quality work. One of the reasons for these sparse budgets was made clear by Stan Moger, an IDA trustee and the president of SFM Entertainment, a division of the nation's largest independent media-buying organization, as he shared audience data with me. As always, budgets reflect the advertising or pay-TV dollar, and that depends on the size of the audience. To put it simply, if the numbers don't talk, the money walks. Up to the time of my discussion with Stan, I wasn't aware of the audience figures for many of the cable networks. You may find a big spread between your perceptions and reality. For example, before you read on, try to guess how many people watch MTV on an average hour in prime time. (The figures I am going to give you represent the approximate average audience during the second quarter of 1994 for an hour of prime time.) The regular audience for a prime-time hour on MTV is merely 565,000 viewers out of a nation of about 260,000,000 people. A newcomer like the Learning Channel is seen by approximately 201,000 viewers. A&E has about 875,000 viewers per hour, and the Discovery Channel is seen by 892,000 people. CNN averages about 834,000 per hour. Sponsors pay comparatively little for this kind of audience. When you get to the three major networks, the audience share is much bigger, but there's an interesting spin on those numbers also. A hit show like Frasier will attract about 21,495,000 people. What I find fascinating is that 238,505,000 people don't watch Frasier. There's another intriguing number. On any given night, about a total of 87,660,000 viewers watch television- which means that 172,340,000 people are not watching television. What are those people doing? Well, I know what some of them are doing, but it doesn't take over an hour of prime time.

Many independent film- and videomakers who make documentaries dealing with social issues or offbeat themes cannot find a venue on any of the regular television outlets at any price. They depend on organizations like the NEA, NEH, and PBS as important sources of funding. Suddenly they have been swept up in the political controversy over the role of the arts in America, and they are facing a major crisis. Newt Gingrich and his merry band of so-called neo- and paleoconservatives are out to gut the NEA, the NEH, national Public Radio, and PBS. This is being done in the name of fiscal responsibility, but there is a not-so-hidden agenda here. If Rush Limbaugh was running PBS, I doubt if Gingrich and his cohorts would be that interested in eliminating PBS. To paraphrase W.S., the devil can cite (fiscal) scripture for his purpose. Senator Larry Pressler made that quite clear when he sent a 16-page questionnaire to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting employees, asking them, among other things, about their political leanings. To quote the Los Angeles Times, "We thank Senator Larry Pressler for revealing the real reason behind the efforts of some politicians to scuttle federal support for public broadcasting. Forget all the high-mind­ed rhetoric about privatization and deficit reduction. What is really going on is something like a witch hunt against public broadcasting employees considered too liberal." Even the distinguished conservative William Buckley wrote that Pressler was "engaged in Orwellian persecution, pure and simple."

Newt's solution to the problem of what he calls programming for the cultural elite is simple. He would close down the NEA and NEH and sell the NPR and PBS franchises to the highest corporate bidder. This will be disastrous for many independent film- and video­ makers who have always depended on some sort of public funding. (The IDA itself carries out many programs, especially our International Documentary Congress, that depend on federal funds.) In the time of the Grinch, it's important that we do what we can to influence the outcome of this struggle over federal funding for the arts. Let's take a leaf from the handbooks of organizations ranging from the NRA to AARP to pressure the un­committed in Congress and strengthen the resolve of representatives and senators who support public funding. It's been proven time and time again that an avalanche of letters, faxes, and now e-mail can effect changes in congressional positions. In this respect, the IDA Board of Directors has sent a letter to over two dozen members of Congress. We urge you to do the same. Remember: The documentary you save may be your own.