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ITVS: Keeping the 'Public' in Public Television

By Lily Ng

Two years ago, radio artist Ira Glass observed, “Documentary is like soccer and world music: a phenomenon perpetually waiting to happen. People are always talking about how documentary is about to be ‘the next big thing.’”

Maybe that's a good place to be, because in a sense, there will always be the faithful who await its imminent arrival. One of the best vehicles to usher in this impending documentary wave has been the Independent Television Service (ITVS), which this year celebrates 10 years of innovative and challenging programming for public television. Born from the foment of independent producers, ITVS has found a groove in the space between the filmmakers, PBS and the public viewers. With 88 open contracts at present, more artists applying for funding in recent rounds, and extensive outreach into the communities it serves, ITVS is a strong catalyst to keeping the “public” in “public television.” And yet, because of the changing political climate, several congressional threats to de-fund the organization, its own challenges with PBS and a changing-of-the-guard, ITVS still seems like a fledgling whose wings can be clipped at any moment.

ITVS was created in 1988 when a Democratic Congress passed legislation to allow funding to support “independently produced programs that take creative risks, advance issues and address the needs of unserved and underserved audiences.” The starting point of $6 million annually would come from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), with the programming being developed for PBS. In 1991, ITVS formally began funding independent programs.

Within the last decade, ITVS has brought over 250 shows to public television, with programming comprised of documentaries, narratives, animation, series and kids' shows. Among those, two have won Emmys, four have garnered Peabody Awards, three received duPont Awards and over 30 premiered at Sundance. “Most of the stuff you see on PBS or prime time is more mainstream,” asserts David Liu, executive in charge of program development. “We don't duplicate that.”

Liu has been part of ITVS since the mid-’90s, a time when Congress came close to pulling the plug on its independent experiment. “The environment changes all the time,” Liu says “Staffing changes at PBS and CPB, so people come and go. Relationships have to be rebuilt. All this affects us because we're not just a funder. The crux is that we're a service organization. We start with funding for a project, but that's only the tip of the relationship.

“We supervise production and keep it on track, on budget, on target and make sure it has as full an impact as possible,” he continues. “We handle distribution, packaging, PR, press, station relations and outreach for the broadcast itself. There’s a groundswell that gets built way before broadcast.”

Documentarian Kyung Yu agrees. “ITVS is not unique because it gives full funding, but because it’s a licensing agency. It's difficult for independent producers to maintain a long relationship with PBS, and ITVS facilitates that. There's nothing quite like it out there.” Yu received $278,000 for Test of Courage: The Making of a Firefighter, about a team of men and women proving their mettle in the Oakland Fire Department. PBS aired it nationally in September 2000. Despite its good work, ITVS still catches some flack. Because itendeavors to serve a triumvirate of constituencies—the independent producers, public television and the viewing public—there's a constant balancing act. This is not an easy task, as there can be gripes from all sides: frustrated filmmakers who may not agree with programming or contractual restraints; PBS, which has first right of refusal; and portions of the viewing audience who don't feel that they are being served.

Lois Vossen knows these issues first-hand. As the director of broadcast distribution and communications at ITVS, Vossen negotiates the area between production and broadcast and sees the ironies. “We've had a Native American filmmaker say there are films made about her communities by filmmakers who are primarily white, which is a problem. We need to give voice to different communities from producers within those communities. But if a compelling proposal about Native Americans comes to us from a white independent producer, do we say, ‘you can't speak for this group of people?’ What if it was a very strong idea for a film?"

Documentarian and four-time applicant Gail Dolgin sees the quandary of ITVS’ programming role. “ITVS has to fit into a structure that is not of its design.” ITVS programming for PBS must be either 26:40 or 56:40 in length, to allow for on-air promos of upcoming shows. This wasn't always so. In its first years, ITVS programmed films of varying lengths. For filmmakers who were set on doing a feature-length film, or in the PBS world, a running time of 86:40, the hour length was prohibitive. “Now, we ask filmmakers to indicate feature-length and justify it, " says Claire Aguilar, ITVS' director of programming.

Aguilar also quells the rumor that ITVS doesn't care about a film's scheduled broadcast that may jeopardize it qualifying for Academy Award® consideration. “We can work with filmmakers if they have conflicts around [that], but our first commitment is to get the film on public television,” Aguilar adds. "A lot of filmmakers want to be eligible for the awards because of the theatrical exposure, but we don't fund alternative versions of works.”

One ITVS-funded film producer cut a feature-length version of his work for Academy Award® consideration, but also had an hour-length version for TV broadcast. Aguilar contends that “ITVS wants to be supportive of theatrical releases, but having two versions out there causes confusion. If we air the shorter version, viewers may think they're getting some abridged piece, rather than the one they saw in the theaters.”

With regard to ITVS’ deadlines with PBS, Liu admits,“It's a strange marriage. Everything that we do does not automatically get shown on PBS…even though we're mandated to offer everything we fund to PBS. They have first right of refusal for NPS [a hard feed, which means that a show is broadcast on a certain date and time] and PBS Plus [a soft feed, which means a program is accepted for PBS, but has no assigned time on the national schedule]. And there are not that many given hours to show programming.

Some shows go to strands, like P.O.V., or they're joint ventures with Frontline, like Farmer's Wife or Gate of Heavenly Peace. We also do peddle from station to station. We just care that a show gets on public TV."

Although there is no actual guarantee that an ITVS-funded program airs on public television, each program has aired, at least to some degree. “A program can be refused a national public broadcast, but it can be picked up by a regional or local PBS station,” Vossen maintains. “Some programs have aired multiple times on NPS, and others may only air five times on local stations.”

“We've also been accused of only funding a certain kind of film,” Vossen continues. “But given our programming, how can people say a film about teenage girls, or African-American church burnings, or Native American homelands, or women boxers is ‘a certain kind of film?’” To a conservative Republican viewer, these issues may seem liberal in context. “This is true,” Vossen allows. “We overwhelmingly get most applications from liberal filmmakers. We don't get many from conservative, white Republicans. That's the argument — that we only fund liberal films. We would consider proposals from conservatives in the same way that everything is considered, but we don't get those applications.”

As there are gripes, there are also triumphs. The vast majority of viewer comments is positive and helps to sustain the notion that ITVS is heading in the right direction with challenging documentaries and dramas that enlighten, rather than merely entertain, television viewers.

Viewer feedback spurs ITVS on. In the last five years, the service has increased its community efforts by creating the Community Connections Project, which serves two functions: it seeks target audiences by linking community-based organizations with relevant independent programming, and it encourages the involvement of the local public television stations. Based in 12 major cities, the CCP organizers are charged with strategizing how to get independent projects into specific communities to create public forums for discussion and action.

For filmmakers, ITVS has also expanded some funding initiatives while paring away others. In addition to the bi-annual Open Call solicitations, ITVS puts forth specific initiatives like LInCS to promote collaborations between independent filmmakers and local public television stations. In this case, the producer needs to approach the station first, then apply to LInCS. Funding can come in the form of actual monies or station in-kind services, like use of production equipment and post-production facilities. Filmmaker Alex Beckstead secured LInCS funding in 1999 and went into a production partnership with KUED out of Salt Lake City on his film, Wagons West (working title).

“At the time, I was working at KUED and wanted to get back into filmmaking,” Beckstead recalls. “I felt very supported by KUED, but I can see where there's a catch-22. Getting initial support from a public station may be difficult for emerging filmmakers.”

Which is one reason why LInCS encourages “two-producer projects,” where an established producer mentors an up-and-coming filmmaker. “LInCS and KUED supported my efforts to shoot on film,” Beckstead maintains. “ITVS understands that it's not the biggest sum in the world, but they encourage me to make the film that I wanted to make.”

ITVS' other big initiative, the two-year-old DV Initiative, will be phased out, as more than 75 percent of proposals from the service's recent Open Call were DV projects. “The DV Initiative started out as a formal experiment with a time limit of six months for completion,” says Aguilar. “Little did we know that DV would revolutionize filmmaking!”

Johnny Symons’ film Daddies, which explores the concept of gay fathers, was produced under the DV 2000 licensing agreement. “I thought this would be compelling to ITVS because gay men are not depicted very often on TV as part of this very American tradition of family,” Symons asserts. “ITVS fulfills that vision by making a place for [Daddies], by making it possible,” says Aguilar. “We are the best kept secret and the best thing going,” Liu declares. “What other organization is going to give you a pretty sizable chunk of money, let you own the copyright and have editorial control amd the rights to theatrical, domestic and foreign, and the only thing you have to do is license to us the right to broadcast on PBS?”

As ITVS searches for a new executive director, Liu, Vossen, Aguilar and the rest of the staff keep the faith of the late Jim Yee's legacy (see May ID—“Short Takes”). “ITVS has become an entity that is functional, effective and respected by the system,” Liu offers. “We've made our independent producers more accountable. We've made people more aware of communities that we serve. We're not a foundation that just funds great films. We produce works that spark public discourse, encourage the average citizen to understand each other and talk to each other and make society more workable.” If the glass ceiling hasn't been quite lifted off the public perception of documentaries, Vossen offers that there are many levels of glass ceilings. “When ITVS started, there was nothing like it. We were the only ones churning out independent work. Now, there is HBO, Showtime, the Independent Film Channel and the Sundance Channel.

“Documentaries are not yet in the Cineplexes on Friday nights, but documentary has broken through some levels — cable, network TV,” she continues. “As long as audiences think of films merely as forms of entertainment, there won't be many docs on Cineplex screens. People still don't view docs as entertaining, but as medicine.”


Lily Ng lives in San Francisco and is Executive Producer for Hotbed Media.