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Minority Rules! Consortia Funds Work about Ethnic and Racial Identity

By Jun Okada

From Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer's <em>Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin</em>.

When Renée Tajima-Pena showed up in Detroit in 1983, looking to make Who Killed Vincent Chin? (1988), the award-winning documentary about racial hate crime, she and associate producer Nancy Tong met with a number of indignities, such as being robbed of all of their research notes and equipment at gunpoint. Luckily, Tajima-Pena encountered some supportive friends at the Detroit public TV station, WTVS. "They had a terrific executive producer, Juanita Anderson, and head of the station, Bob Larson," Tajima-Pena recalls. "They thought that this was a Detroit story and they understood how to work with independents, which was very unusual with PBS stations."     

 At the time, PBS and its funding body, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, were just beginning to recognize the importance of minority programming. Tajima-Pena recalls that in the mid-'80s, the public television system was still hesitant about a hard-hitting documentary about racial politics like Who Killed Vincent Chin?  "Asian- Americans were getting some financing for PBS programming at that time," she says, "but it was usually soft, cultural pieces; nothing investigative." 

Who Killed Vincent Chin? went on to open the premiere season of the PBS documentary series P.O.V. in 1988. This film and others continued an era of similar, high-caliber documentary work about racial and ethnic identity in America that aired on PBS. The impact of documentaries about the politics of difference in America on public television can be strongly attributed to a network of media organizations known as the Minority Consortia. The Minority Consortia assist in the funding of independent films and act as a pipeline for multicultural content to PBS. Cutting-edge documentaries such as Señorita Extraviada (2002), Great American Footrace (2002), Kelly Loves Tony (1998), Black is...Black Ain't (1996) and Storytellers of the Pacific (1996) have all been funded in part by the Minority Consortia, in cooperation with the Independent Television Service (ITVS) .

The Minority Consortia consist of five media organizations: Latino Public Broadcasting (LPB), Native American Public Telecommunications (NAPT), National Black Programming Consortium (NBPC),  National Asian American Telecommunications Association (NAATA) and Pacific Islanders in Communications (PIC). Each of these organizations represents a historically established minority group of the US and functions as developer, producer and distributor of radio and television programming that strive to narrate the obscured histories of US racial and ethnic minorities and propose alternatives to Hollywood and network television stereotypes. According to Terry Scott, director of producer services at NBPC, "Our annual Open Solicitations and Request For Proposals awards grants to projects that are unlikely to appear on the big Hollywood screen, but which generally offer a more realistic, historically accurate, diverse, authentic and non-stereotypical picture of the Black world." 

Formed as coalitions of independent producers and public television stations, most of the consortia opened for business during the '70s and early '80s. The National Latino Communications Consortium (NLCC) was the first consortium to form, in 1975, but due to financial problems, was dissolved in 1998, after which LPB, based in Los Angeles, took its place in 1999. NAPT also began as the Native American Public Broadcasting Consortium, Inc. (NAPBC) in 1974, but changed its name when Executive Director Frank Blythe opened the national office at the Nebraska Educational Television network headquarters in Lincoln in 1979. NBPC organized out of New York City in 1979, NAATA, in 1980, from San Francisco and PIC—from its headquarters in Hawaii—achieved recognition as a separate consortium from NAATA in 1991. Today, the consortia are thriving organizations that give financial support to many independent productions, which compete during annual funding cycles.  According to Scott, "NBPC funds every phase of the production process—research and development, scripting, production and post-production. This service helps to strengthen the infrastructure of support filmmakers require in order to succeed."

Although what primarily distinguishes the consortia from other media organizations is its major funding from CPB, this has not always been the case. Eddie Wong, executive director of NAATA, recalls, "In the early days NAATA had so little money that all you could do was acquire a couple of films and present them on public television." It wasn't until NAATA and the other consortia began to secure annual funding, primarily from CPB, as well as matching funds from foundations such as the Ford Foundation, that they began to be able to fund filmmakers and shape the course of self-representation on public television.

 "In the early '90s," Wong recalls, "when they actually got funding to create a Media Fund, NAATA got a lot bigger. They could actually give grants to independent producers and make new product for public television. At the same time, they started doing more exhibition and launched the idea of distributing the work. It revolved around serving our communities and serving our makers; those were our twin constituencies." The Media Fund at NAATA is an example of funds awarded to independent filmmakers by the consortia for the completion of a film, which will later be shepherded to the national PBS schedule, as well as to station schedules. 

Although filmmakers retain ownership of their films, according to Luis Ortiz, program coordinator at LPB, when LPB funds a program it has exclusive rights to make the production available for public broadcasting during a minimum of six releases in four years. However, this contract has some flexibility. PIC's Executive Director Carlyn Tani states, "PIC seeks to balance the needs of the producer with those of CPB and PBS by making the contractual process as transparent and accessible as possible. Many of the terms are non-negotiable, but for those that are, PIC makes available subsidized legal advice during the contracting process. We try to accommodate the needs of the filmmaker in the language of the agreement.

The contractual agreement between makers and the consortia has received some criticism from filmmakers who are caught between the demands of funding and the desire to control how and where their films are broadcast. According to filmmaker Amy L. Chen, when her award-winning film The Chinatown Files (2001)—about Chinese-American citizens who were arrested and jailed for suspicion of Communism during the McCarthy era—earned funding from NAATA, it forced her to finish the film in time to meet the demands of the funding stipulations, which entail that the consortia has final say regarding a film's premiere, whether it be on public television or other public exhibition. "I received PBS funding initially in order to show the film at the NAATA film festival, not on PBS," says Chen. "The show did not obtain a national airdate, which meant that the show was not on the national PBS schedule. Since it was offered to all of the PBS stations without a national airdate, each individual station had the choice to pick it up or not."

Since the Minority Consortia must offer films it has funded to individual stations if it does not fit on the national PBS schedule, many films fall by the wayside at the level of initial broadcast. According to Chen, the problem lies in the consortia's difficulty in developing an effective outreach campaign with the local stations to obtain or confirm airdates. "As a result," says Chen, "we didn't know who was airing the program until two weeks prior to the station's airdate, which resulted in no publicity. On the one hand, my film aired on PBS; on the other hand, it got no coverage." 

Although filmmakers appreciate the prestige of getting their films funded by the consortia and securing a PBS airdate, the system at times must cater to the PBS schedule, thereby shortening the publicity lead time. "Most productions have marketing budgets that are equal to or greater than their production budgets," Chen maintains. "So in order to have any impact, you have to have marketing dollars."

The consortia share this concern about publicity lead time with filmmakers and are trying to find ways to address it. PIC's Tani says, "Barring the lack of lead time, PIC has partnered with PTV stations, ITVS, corporate sponsors and community organizations to promote projects locally, regionally and nationally. Lack of money for promotion is an ongoing problem for projects in general—PIC has to be selective in the use of its resources for that reason. Promotion dollars go to national outreach in communities with large Pacific Islander populations, in addition to the major metropolitan markets on both coasts. We are exploring ways to build stronger corporate, community and industry networks to assist with our promotions and outreach."

One answer to the problem of publicity of individual films is through collaborations among the Minority Consortia, PBS and CPB on co-productions. The consortia's project ColorVision, which is, according to PIC's Tani, " a multicultural, short film showcase that is aimed at a much younger demographic-ages 18-34," may help the funding-to-broadcast process by grouping together films funded by various consortia to air as a series, thereby making sure that individual films have more of a chance of getting the most publicity possible. Along with ColorVision, the consortia have already initiated a series called Matters of Race, which comprises four hour-long programs that look at inter-racial issues. NBPC's Scott notes, "Collaborations are definitely being implemented. There may be opportunity for partnerships within the consortia—say a NBPC/LPB, reflecting the constituents of Los Angeles and New York."

 Particularly in light of the new administrations at ITVS, P.O.V. and CPB, new programming opportunities and an increased commitment to minority productions have hailed a new era for the Minority Consortia. P.O.V. is taking advantage of its long-running success with the consortia by creating a new mentorship program called Diverse Voices. According to Executive Director Cara Mertes, "P.O.V. has launched the first two-year installment of Diverse Voices with CPB this year. Our goal is to work directly with all of the consortia to identify promising emerging minority filmmakers that will be mentored during production and whose films will be presented as part of P.O.V. In addition, we hope to identify promising talent that needs additional help to bring their projects to a national level. This is a great step forward for emerging makers, and for our joint work with the consortia." Diverse Voices will select and support four films of distinction that target minority issues and bring to them a full portfolio of support, including an intensive press and promotion campaign and community engagement activities.         

ITVS will also be investing a lot of energy into its relationship with the Minority Consortia. Having co-presented many individual consortia films for over a decade, ITVS will launch a new anthology series slated for Spring of 2003 called Independent Lens, which will expand the "real estate" of broadcast space available to minority consortia productions. Executive Director Sally Ann Fifer believes that these new opportunities will certainly build on the decade-long relationship that the minority consortia had with ITVS. "Actually, working on the partnership with the Minority Consortia is a top priority for me and for our board and our staff," says Fifer. "And at ten years you are able to do that better because you have more capacity and more opportunities like Independent Lens."

Clearly, the most important development for the Minority Consortia lies in its partnerships with each other, P.O.V. and ITVS. As the consortia have matured in the last 20 years, their historic struggles for representation have certainly become easier with partners who share their vision of diversity. "Organizations are a lot like human beings and as you get older, you have more to offer," Fifer notes. "So I think all of us have more to offer each other and it's certainly going to be better that the environment is changing."


Jun Okada is a doctoral student in Critical Studies at University of California, Los Angel;es. She is a 2002-3 recipient of the Institute of American Cultures and UCLA Asian American Studies Center's Research Grant in Ethnic Studies.