James Yee succumbs after long struggle with cancer

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James YeeJames T. Yee, former executive director of the Independent Television Service (ITVS) died March 17 in Piedmont, Calif., after an 18-month battle with cancer. He was 53. The former producer and community organizer headed ITVS for seven of its 10 years, 1994-2000. He fought off numerous budget cuts for the CPB-funded service, while building connections between public TV and his constituency of independent producers.

Before joining ITVS, Yee co-founded and served as first executive director of the National Asian American Telecommunications Association, helping to raise the profile of Asian-Americans in TV and film. He helped many producers do award-winning work through ITVS and personally received an Emmy for the 1997 documentary a.k.a. Don Bonus, co-directed by Spencer Nakasako and Sokly Ny, which aired on PBS.

He also produced Freckled Rice, directed by Steven Ning; The Kiss, directed by Philip Kan Gotanda; and the radio program The Last Game Show, directed by Norman Jayo. Yee received a master’s degree in early childhood education and served as an associate producer of WGBH’s multicultural teen series Rebop.

Before his media career, he had served as a VISTA volunteer in rural Nebraska, working on tenant organizing and child care, and a middle school teacher in Vermont.

A tribute to Yee on the ITVS website noted that “his entire professional life has been driven not by ambition, but by commitments to justice, fairness and equity, especially every community’s right to accurate representation in the media.”

Yee also served on the White House-appointed Gore Commission, which made recommendations on federal policy toward digital TV, and the PBS Interconnection Committee.

He is survived by his wife, Betty Quan Lee, and his children, Jane and Liam, of Piedmont, Calif., a brother and two sisters.

Contributions to the family may be made to the James T. Yee Family Fund, c/o NAATA, 346 Ninth St., San Francisco, Calif. 94103. Donations may also be made to the James T. Yee Mentorship Program, also administered by NAATA. A memorial service was held March 23 in Oakland.

Yee retires as director
of independent service

Originally published in Current, Nov. 13, 2000

James T. Yee, executive director of the Independent Television Service (ITVS), resigned from his position on Nov. 5, 2000, for medical reasons.

Yee, who has been gravely ill, led the San Francisco-based organization since 1994. Judy Tam, director of finance and operations, is serving as acting executive director.

The second person to head ITVS, Yee developed a number of ways to increase stations’ use of the independently produced programs that it supports. Programs like The Farmer’s Wife were presented in cooperation with Frontline and other major PBS series. ITVS also offered matching grants for projects undertaken jointly by indies and public TV stations.

Last year’s call for projects produced with small digital video cameras drew 475 submissions.

With a background in community organizing, Yee came to ITVS after serving as executive director of the National Asian American Telecommunications Association — another CPB-funded group that aims to diversify the programming on public TV.

ITVS grew out of a campaign by independent producers to increase CPB funding of their work. Congress mandated the creation of the service in 1988, and it began to distribute a portion of CPB’s funds in 1991. The service has backed more than 375 programs and series.

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