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Revenge of the Indies: ITVS@XV

By Lily Ng

'Off the Map,' an ITVS Interactive Project created and produced by Lisa Ko, gives visitors a chance to build a paradise of their own online. Pictured here is Leonard Knight's truck and home at Salvation Mountain in Slab City, California.

In 2006, the Independent Television Service--better known as ITVS--celebrates its 15th year as the magnanimous liaison between independent producers, public television and its audience. The organization has funded over 600 projects since 1991, and every one of them has been broadcast on public television, either nationally or regionally. Aided by the groundswell of growing public appreciation for documentaries, ITVS has altered the public television landscape with its provocative and fierce programming.

"Fifteen years ago, ITVS was fighting to get programming on public broadcasting; now, independents are viewed as a really important asset to the public broadcasting system," observes Sally Jo Fifer, ITVS' president and CEO.

In 2003, ITVS and PBS became co-curators of the Independent Lens series, which meant an increase in carriage for ITVS-produced projects. Prior to producing Independent Lens, ITVS worked with PBS, PBS Plus and other strands such as Frontline and Wide Angle, as well as with individual public television stations to get its programming on the air. Claire Aguilar, ITVS' vice president of programming, and Lois Vossen, series producer, curate the series with Sandy Heberer and Kathy Lo, senior director of primetime programming and associate director of program development and independent film, respectively, at PBS.

The team looks at ITVS' slate of funded programs and makes selections. In addition to the curatorial process, the team also reviews over 500 submissions to Independent Lens during the annual open call in the fall. Other considerations come from the Minority Consortia-funded programs, as well as from station programs. The team attends film festivals for possible acquisitions and reviews possible shows through distributors.

In terms of how Independent Lens programs are funded, according to Aquilar, if ITVS funds a show for Open Call or any other initiative, or if the show is funded by the Minority Consortia or any other PBS entity such as a station, then there's no license fee for that program on Independent Lens. For acquisitions, the average fee is $30,000 for a four-year license.

Twenty-six episodes of Independent Lens run from October through May in the fixed time slot of Tuesdays at 10:00 pm. P.O.V., another documentary series on PBS, takes over the same time slot during the summer months. "If you take a look at what we did in the first 10 years, we were putting out maybe 10 programs on the NPS [National Program Service] or the hard feed [the primetime schedule]," says Fifer. "Now, we're putting on closer to 40, 45 programs. Independents have always been able to find the untold stories from unheard voices, but the craft and the quality keep getting better. At the same time, the landscape of media is changing radically."

In the last five years, ITVS has expanded its reach beyond television broadcast in order to introduce independent documentaries to new audiences and engage more viewers in multiple ways. Launched in 2005, ITVS International seeks works from non-US producers for broadcast in the US. The initiative came out of a "desire to be able to engage American audiences with global programming," says Aguilar. "Specifically documentary; to give them a better view of the world and also a much more enhanced view of the world than the media cover."

ITVS licenses the US broadcast rights for an international program, and the producer can use the funds to go toward production or completion costs of the film. Licensing agreements can range from $50,000 to $150,000 per contract (For domestic projects, the range is $50,000 to $350,000.).

ITVS' preference for being the last monies in on domestic projects doesn't extend outside the border. "We're finding that, very often, we're not the last monies in," Aguilar notes. "We're not making it a stringent requirement with these co-productions because sometimes the international projects are not in a position where they've raised enough money. Sometimes, we're putting money in at the mid-production range, but it's always production, not development."

Since May 2005, ITVS has commissioned 24 projects from Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, Europe and Australia. Funding comes solely from private foundations, including the Ford Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation, so no public monies are used to fund international projects.

The broadcast of international works on the slate won't detract from the presence of American-based projects on public television. "We really wanted to make sure that the independent community didn't feel like we were taking away the resources that we have for them," says Aguilar. "In fact, the support from CPB for independent producers hasn't decreased at all because of this. It's increased because we've gotten more money from CPB." Because the funds are from private entities, ITVS is allowed to work with different broadcasters that air documentary programs. (All ITVS domestic projects air exclusively on PBS).

"We have some programs already slotted for the Sundance Channel," notes Aguilar. "We've aired a program on Wide Angle, which is an international series on PBS. As the programs progress through production, we make deals with broadcasters ahead of time. We look for the right slot for it. So, it's everything from Discovery Times, to CNN, to Sundance, to PBS--and we hope to get a vast array of different broadcast outlets for these films."

Through ITVS' True Stories: Life in the U.S.A. series, American documentaries can be licensed for overseas programming. "They're selected internally from ITVS programming," Aguilar explains. "We're looking for documentaries that show a panorama of American life and culture." ITVS negotiates international licensing rights with the documentary producers whose works are selected for True Stories. Currently, these programs will air on public television in Peru, Malawi and Egypt. Other markets are in the works.

Another initiative, Electric Shadows, was conceived in 2002. Utilizing Internet technology, the project has funded four interactive sites to engage users in non-linear storytelling. The current site, "Off The Map," ( lens/offthemap) features 10 stories about found art and artists who've created villages, castles and gardens out of found objects. Users go through different portals, which contain stories, videos, slideshows, interactive games, feedback functions and more.

Currently in production for Electric Shadows is a commissioned site with the working title "Fat World." Users will be able to find stories and games focused around nutrition and health. "The themes that resonated were the kind of themes that we focus on at ITVS," Aguilar maintains. A previous site compared the experiences of Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II and those of Muslim-Americans, post-9/11. Another site featured the stories of teen refugees living in the United States.

Although the sites don't have tracking functions that monitor traffic, all of the sites have won multiple awards from the tech industry's big names such as Yahoo! and Macromedia, and from top festivals such as Sundance and SxSW. "We're able to do this pretty modestly and work with independent producers and game developers from all over," Aquilar says. "It's a great way to get that content out in a different way."

In terms of community building, ITVS looks to Dennis Palmieri, National Community Relations Manager. "The purpose is to promote community and civic engagement through community screenings and events," says Palmieri. His department and his team of nine regional outreach coordinators in 20 markets seek to expand the reach of these documentaries beyond broadcast.

"We're raising the profile of these films," says Palmieri. He cites the outreach campaign for the recently aired A Lion in the House (Steven Bogner, Julia Reichert, dirs./prods.) as a landmark for how successful their efforts have been. The four-hour film explores five individual stories of pediatric cancer and follows five kids through seven years of struggle with the disease. When A Lion in the House was in production, ITVS conducted a two-year national community relations campaign involving focus groups, 18 professional health and medical groups, strategy sessions, panel discussions and workshops. The campaign culminated in a conference at the US Capitol with 350 public television organizations along with ITVS' national partners, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Cancer Society. "These are the organizations that shape health and social policy in the US," says Palmieri. "This campaign was a pioneer in civic engagement."

In 2005, ITVS launched Community Cinema, a 10-city monthly screening series of some of ITVS' Independent Lens programming. In September 2006, the series expands to 20 cities. Depending on the region, the free screenings take place at centers of civic gathering: libraries, cultural centers, bookstores and university campuses.

Palmieri believes the screenings enhance "social capital," citing Harvard professor Robert Putnam's description of the worth of social exchange, and how we live in an increasingly isolating society. "ITVS' purpose is to convene, not to tell people what to think, but to spark social discussion," Palmieri emphasizes. "If we can do that, we are helping those documentaries have a direct connection to the communities they would affect."

Despite the familiar grumblings in Congress and from the right about tweaking PBS or getting rid of it altogether, ITVS has proven the need for stories from diverse voices. The organization is forward-funded every three years, so its current annual budget of $10 million is guaranteed through 2007. With operating costs at under $1 million, that means that over $9 million goes towards the independent producers, license agreements and contracts.

Fifer sees a bright future for ITVS and also for independent filmmakers. "It's kind of been the best of times in a certain way, although always difficult, always challenging," Fifer admits. "The American public is really acclimatized to documentaries. We now, as a field, have to look forward to being available to viewers on multiple kinds of platforms, experiencing the material in different ways."


Lily Ng is a freelance producer and writer in San Francisco.