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P.O.V.'s Interactive Experiment

By Pamela Beere Briggs

A black-and-white photo of a woman smiling, from Jane Gillooly's 'Leona's Sister Gerri.'

November 3, 1995: Leona's Sister Gerri filmmaker Jane Gillooly's documentary, airs. Millions of PBS viewers who watch the P.O.V. special program are invited to participate in an intriguing new experiment to be called Two-Way TV.


1964: Geraldine "Gerri " Twerdy Santoro dies naked and alone on a motel room floor from a botched illegal abortion. A police photographer captures the tragedy in one still frame: a woman crouched face down with her breasts to her knees, her head away from the camera, her feet and a blood­ stained towel in the foreground.

1973: The police photo of an anonymous naked womandead from an illegal abortion—is published by Ms. magazine and quickly becomes a symbol for the abortion rights movement. Leona Gordon is shocked to discover that the woman is her sister, Gerri Santoro.

1984: Gillooly learns about the story behind the photo from her friend, Gerri's niece. "I had seen the photograph, but knowing who she was made the photo so much more important," she says. "And then to discover that Geri had children and this huge family of brothers and sisters and this best friend who never got over her death—the circle around her just grew and grew. This story is not just about her. It's about the people who survive and have to move forward and the kids who have to grow up without a mother. It is a huge story."

1994: Jane Gillooly completes Leona’s Sister Gerri, one of 32 projects selected to be funded in the Independent Television Service Open Call 1993 solicitation. Soon after, she learns that the program has been selected by P.O.V., the prestigious PBS showcase for nonfiction films, for their summer 1995 season.

For three years, P.O.V. had experimented with "interactive television"—encouraging viewer responses and dialogue using home video letters, e-mail, online discussion groups, and an interactive World Wide Web site. Marc Weiss, P.O. V. co­-executive producer, felt that Leona's Sister Gerri offered an opportunity "to build on what we'd learned, using this very powerful, thought—provoking film to show that discussion of public issues can be much more than warring sound­ bites." He decided to pitch to PBS the idea of a direct response follow-up program.

When Weiss pitched his idea, a station advisory group requested a second program that would air immediately after Leona's Sister Gerri. Thus, P.O.V. developed A New Dialogue: Americans on Abortion, a pre produced hour-long program designed for stations to air after the film. Weiss's original Two- Way TV concept, combining direct responses to P.O.V.'s invitation to talk back to television via voice-mail, fax, e-mail, and homemade video letters, was produced and fed to stations two weeks after this broadcast.

With underwriting from ITVS, PBS, and CPB (WGBH/Boston came on as co producer), the ambitious viewer response program plans moved forward and made P.O. V. decide to push back the program airdate from summer 1995 to November, calling it a "special presentation of P.O.V."

P.O. V.'s enthusiasm confirmed that Gillooly had achieved her goal. "I wasn't trying to make a pro-choice film. I didn't want to debate the issues.

I really just wanted to get to the essence of why women choose when they have to choose and to present Gerri's story in all of its complexity so that the viewer sees her decision in the total context of her life." Yet she had misgivings about a viewer response program: "I wanted the film to stand on its own. And I wanted to respect the audience by allowing them the time to process the issues raised in the film and come to their own conclusions. That is, after all, why the film was made with so much restraint and why so many people appreciate it. I felt airing A New Dialogue: Americans on Abortion immediately after Leona's Sister Gerri would deflate the impact of the film and insult the integrity of the audience."

In previous seasons, P.O.V. had already experimented with integrating viewer responses into their broadcasts in segments called "Talking Back." Viewers were invited to send their own "video letters " to P.O. V. Selected video letters were then aired in subsequent weeks. Audience members could also send messages via e-mail.

The difference this time was that an entire show would be devoted to viewers' feelings on abortion. Pre­broadcast publicity and on-air notices informed audiences of the opportunity to express their views on the issue.

Publications printed a group of "framing questions" designed to encourage viewers to respond personally and thoughtfully. The questions and further details on the various options for sending comments could be heard or seen on an 800 number, which the series producers had not used before, and email address. In addition, public stations around the country invited viewers in their communities to come into the stations to record responses on videotape. These were forwarded to the production team in Boston, which incorporated a diverse range of comments into the final program. At the time, Judy Stoia, co­-executive producer for WGBH, stated, "We want to engage Americans who have had no voice in the public discussion of abortion and find out what they think and why. This program will give them the chance to communicate their opinions, through television, to millions of other Americans who feel the complexities of the issue are too often overlooked in favor of confrontational images."

On November 3, 1995, 30 years after Gerry's death, millions of viewers across the United States see Leona's Sister Gerri. Gerri's story inspires more than 1,000 viewers to tell their own personal abortion stories. For a few days, the stories just keep flowing in, from both men and women. Middle­ aged and older women, who were sexually active when abortion was not legal, share their experiences for the first time.

With her film, Gillooly had broken through a wall of silence. "I think that the film is about silence," she says. "Silence affected so many of Gerri's decisions. It seems that much of what happened in her life happened because she was afraid or ashamed to go for help or because someone was afraid to confront her about something. I think the same issues of silence and secrecy and shame still exist today."

"Here was finally an opportunity to step out of the constructive debate as posed by the media," P.O.V.'s Weiss recalls thinking. He was not surprised by viewers' responses. Leona's Sister Gerri "deals with an emotional subject in a moving manner, and its complexity raises lots of issues." Like the film that inspired them to call, viewers' reactions often were stories of experiences that families rarely talk about. No other program had ever initiated such a response.

In spite of the perceived success of the viewer response programs, Gillooly has questions about the final impact of the experiment. "I think PBS's intentions were good, and certainly many more viewers saw Leona’s Sister Gerri, because some stations would only broadcast the film with A New Dialogue following it," she says. "But it is frustrating as an independent to see money spent this way. Does this kind of dialogue resonate with audiences? I think of the filmmakers who can't get great work on the air and would rather have seen PBS commit the funds they spent on the follow-up shows to airing more independent work."

Independent producers are indeed living through difficult times: funding sources have dried up, and broadcast venues have not multiplied as hoped with the cable expansion. Ironically, PBS is going through its own challenging period with their own funding cuts.

Weiss, an IDA regional board member who since 1987 has brought together the two worlds-PBS and independent filmmakers—knows better than perhaps anyone else the high quality of work independent media makers are capable of producing. With that it mind, P.O.V. is preparing to test another new idea: brokering independent producers' projects to CD-ROM publishers, which in Weiss's opinion has been a predominately "contentless medium." Submission procedures will be finalized in the coming months, and a related workshop is planned for June in New York, with tentative future workshops in San Francisco and Boston.

Pamela Beere Briggs is the producer of Funny Ladies and the upcoming Women of Mystery. She is on the film production faculty at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and is a member of New Day Films, the distribution cooperative for social issue media.