Skip to main content

INPUT's Output: International Public Television Celebrated Amidst Creativity and Crisis

By Barbara Abrash

From Odette Geldenhuys' 'Being Pavorotti,' produced by South Africa's SABC. Courtesy of First Hand Films

INPUT 2005, which was hosted by ITVS in San Francisco this past May, took place in an atmosphere of creativity and crisis.

INPUT is an annual movable feast of international public service television programming, where one will see slices of life from around the world that are not likely to be found on commercial television. This year, 1,700 public television broadcasters, producers and supporters from 58 countries gathered to screen and discuss the best of 2004 public television programming worldwide, as well as to network and consider how to thrive (or even survive) in a rapidly shifting media landscape. With public service media everywhere suffering the seismic dislocations of globalization, market economics and new digital technologies, INPUT is a microcosm of how broadcasters and producers are meeting the challenge.

INPUT is neither a festival nor a competition, nor is it just about documentary. It is an opportunity to see and talk about high-quality documentaries, reality TV, innovative drama, magazine shows and experimental work that push the boundaries of television content and style.

One standout among the 94 programs screened was Chris Landreth's Oscar-winning Ryan, a brilliant cross between documentary and animation from the National Film Board of Canada that tells the strange story of legendary animator Ryan Larkin. In Dhakiyarr vs. the King, directors Tom Murray and Allan Collins stretch the documentary form with evocative re-enactment techniques to pursue a tale of murder and injustice arising from a clash between Aboriginal and white cultures in 1934 Australia. The humanist documentary tradition was well represented by the beguiling Kindergarten (Zhang Yiqing, dir.), which traces a year in the lives of children in a Wuhan, China boarding school.

The Empire (Joachim Brobeck and Rolf Sohlman, dirs.), a Survivor-style reality show that takes 16 Swedish men and women back to faux-feudal times where they duke it out for dominance, sparked heated discussion. A sharply divided audience asked, Where is the proper line between education and entertainment? Is this the best use of public funds? Just what is a "public service" reality show?

From the Swedish Television reality series <em>The Empire</em>(Joachim Brobeck and Rolf Sohlman, dirs.). Photo: Katja Andersson/Swedish Television.

INPUT's international board has made a strong effort to broaden beyond its Western European, Canadian and US core, to include Latin America, Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. South Africa's SABC made a strong showing this year, with vigorous programming that attracts young audiences and brings hard subjects into public view. And There in the Dust (Lara Foot Newton, Gerhard Marx, dirs.), an animation based on a dramatic stage piece, is a powerful lament on the subject of baby rape, a recent scourge in South Africa. On a more upbeat note, Project 10 is a series of 13 personal documentary films--"real stories from a free South Africa ," made by first-time filmmakers as part of a broadcast training initiative. According to Pat van Heerden, head of entertainment for SABC, heavily marketed and branded series like Project 10 are attracting the largest young audiences in public television.

The US was represented by ten films in a broad range of subjects and styles. Nisha Ganatra's Cosmopolitan, one of five INPUT 2005 films broadcast on the ITVS series Independent Lens, brings a touch of Bollywood to the story of an unlikely romance between a newly-single Indian man (Roshan Seth) and his unconventional neighbor (Carol Kane). California Connected To Go: Vote! We Really Mean It! (Jose Coloner, dir.) is an energetic magazine show that follows a television crew hitting the road in an effort to animate, explain and otherwise clarify a thicket of statewide propositions, local initiatives and murky ballot issues for California voters.

Several views of Middle East conflict were on display. The Real Face of the Occupation, broadcast by Free Speech TV, is part of a 13-part Deep Dish Television series in which video activists takes an up-close look at the human consequences of the Iraq war. In Australian director George Gittoes' Soundtrack to War, American troops in Iraq talk about the music that keeps them going, from heavy metal to the Dixie Chicks (although the film fails to mention the flap surrounding the group after lead singer Natalie Maines criticized President Bush during the lead-up to the war).

Despite the abundance of energy and creativity, the specter of a politicized US public media--heightened by the front page headline in The New York Times on May 2: "[Corporation for Public Broadcasting] Chairman Exerts Pressure on PBS, Alleging Biases"--haunted the proceedings. At a luncheon sponsored by CPB, Michael Pack, senior vice president, television programming, sought to reassure a somewhat skeptical gathering of several hundred broadcasters, journalists and filmmakers that there would be no change in the "essence" of CPB, the largest single source of funding for radio and television programming in the US.

CPB, he said, will maintain its commitments to ITVS, the five minority consortia and other existing funds, and does not intend to place political pressure on filmmakers. Echoing concerns that circulated throughout the week, he called on public media to define itself in a multiplatform, multichannel universe, distinguish itself from commercial media, reach out to young audiences and open itself to a greater diversity of voices.

INPUT isn't just a place to screen films. Several panel discussions explored broad issues in public television programming. "Who Provokes Whom: Controversial Broadcast Decisions" dealt with the responsibilities of television programmers, who often walk a fine line between stimulating public discussion and arousing public wrath. Take the extreme case of Submission, which was written by Ayaan Farsi Ali, a Somali-born member of the Dutch Parliament and outspoken critic of Muslim fundamentalism. Dutch Muslims were angered by this portrayal of a sexually abused Muslim woman whose body (seen through a diaphanous veil) is inscribed with words from the Koran. The murder of director Theo van Gogh by an Islamic extremist shattered long-held liberal assumptions about civility, race and faith in the Netherlands.

"Public service media" has a particular meaning for indigenous people who placed media access in the forefront of their campaigns for rights and recognition. "Indigenous Media: Journalism or Identity Politics" panelist Tawini Rangihau, news editor for Maori Television in New Zealand, cited the 33-year fight for Maori public media, which now serves both Maori and mainstream audiences. "When you lose your land," she said, "language and culture is what you have." Media keeps language and culture alive.

Anne Wuolab of NRK Sami (Lapplander) Radio, Norway (left) and Tawini Rangihau of Maori Television, New Zealand served on a panel at INPUT 2005, "Indigenous Media: Journalism or Identity Politics?" Photo: Cathy Fischer

One upside to the relatively recent entry of indigenous media into television broadcast is that they are unencumbered by the production and transmission facilities that older organizations are being forced to divest in favor of digital technology. Jan Rune Måsø, a journalist with NRK, Sami Radio, highlighted the desire of indigenous broadcasters to collaborate on a news-gathering network. In order to avoid excessive cost, an Internet site for the exchange of broadcast quality news and programming among Sami, Maori and other indigenous broadcasters is now under construction.

It may be the newcomers who are pointing the way to the next generation of public service broadcasters.


Barbara Abrash is director of public programs at the Center for Media, Culture and History at New York University.