Twin ITVS goals: capturing diversity on videotape, getting it seen

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Current Q&ALast year was a good year for the Independent Television Service. ITVS had weathered its first 10 years as a funder and presenter of independent productions for public TV. It was feted with retrospectives at museums and film festivals across the country, which highlighted such fare as The Farmer’s Wife, La Ciudad, First Person Plural, The Devil Never Sleeps and Still Life with Animated Dogs. And it brought in a new executive director, Sally Jo Fifer.

Having worked nine years as executive director of the nonprofit Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC), Fifer was uniquely qualified to steer the difficult course between stations and independents. One of San Francisco’s most important media arts organizations, BAVC serves as a high-technology center with a focus on postproduction and occasionally acts as executive producer for programs that come through its door.

Fifer talked with writer Patricia Thomson during the Sundance Film Festival and again in a followup interview in May. This is an edited transcript.

Thomson: When you came to ITVS last August, succeeding the late James Yee, did you feel certain things needed fixing, or did you believe the house was in pretty good order?

indies0211fiferFifer: Jim Yee and ITVS made a lot of progress in serving public television and really understanding what programmers need. In fact, right before I came, ITVS did some programmer focus groups. That’s the track ITVS was on and has benefited from.

What specifically did ITVS learn about stations’ needs from those focus groups?

Programmers want good shows, first and foremost. We already knew that, but the focus groups reiterated that programmers want shows that will help them reach new audiences. They are very aware of the changing demographics of their communities, and they look to us to bring new programs that’ll help them reach out.

An example of this is The Split Horn, co-presented with the National Asian American Telecommunications Association (NAATA), which looks at the life of a Hmong shaman living in America’s heartland: Appleton, Wis. That allowed stations to reach out to Asian-American and immigrant communities.

Under Jim Yee, the executive director who died last year, ITVS also made a great effort to explain to independents that it does not make outright grants but it gives its assistance by purchasing broadcast rights for public TV. Do you think they understand that adequately now?

I think so; television is our middle name. ITVS funds are in the form of a production licensing agreement because Congress had a specific goal in mind when they created ITVS: they wanted independent programs to be made for and distributed by public television.

Has this understanding made a difference in independents’ attitude towards ITVS?

Hugely. It’s an ongoing education, because we’re always reaching out to new independents. When people think about funding, most think about foundations. That’s very different from ITVS, which focuses on completion funds and back-end services.

But there’s constant reeducation. To help with that, we’re trying to increase access and accountability, making sure there’s an easy way for people to track what’s going on in the organization. We’ve upgraded the website, which has a lot more toolkits and ways to penetrate into what we’re doing. We’ve also redesigned our twice-a-year publication to serve as a bridge between broadcasters and independents.


One of ITVS's services is to work with stations and indies to develop programs that supplement the stations' output, such as Sun River Homestead. Above: the granddaughter of a woman who settled in Montana in 1909. (Photo: Andrew Kemmis.)

One of ITVS’s services is to work with stations and indies to develop programs that supplement the stations’ output, such as Sun River Homestead. Above: the granddaughter of a woman who settled in Montana in 1909. (Photo: Andrew Kemmis.)

How many submissions does ITVS get each year?

The last Open Call round, we received more than 600 submissions. Per year, that number is well over 1,000. We fund about 2 percent of the Open Call proposals we get.

Meanwhile, PBS itself receives around 3,000 applications annually.

Which tells you we need to find more support for independents.

So, given these numbers, it seems independents must be turning increasingly to new outlets on cable — like HBO, now a formidable player, as well as the Sundance Channel, Independent Film Channel, Court TV, A&E, MTV and Discovery, and they eventually may go to the new Sundance Documentary Film Channel. Should public television feel threatened?

Public television has access to 99 percent of the audience. The difference between the number of households you can reach with public television versus cable is still vast. What’s more, public television has the public’s trust. Independents and public television need to stand together and support public media. Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t look at the marketplace and see what we can do to celebrate independent filmmakers, pay them adequately, and work on the barriers that are preventing them from making great works and getting on this conduit. We need to constantly support our content makers.

How has the relationship with PBS changed since Pat Mitchell came aboard?

She’s an important spokesperson for independents. She has been an independent, she understands independents, and she has brought independents into public television’s description of what it does. That’s terrific. Some of the specific things she’s done, like making sure that PBS can report to producers the status of their projects, are really important.

The issue is, we want independents to have a strong voice on public television. She wants that to happen, too. Pat speaks to that very articulately. She says independents are American heroes. The philosophy of individualism in America really strikes home with independents.

We know what’s happened in the media environment, with fewer companies holding almost all of the media outlets. At the same time, media outlets are multiplying, audiences are fragmenting–but where are those diverse voices? Everything looks the same.

Bringing diverse opinions to the audience, creating a thriving citizens’ debate — those are not the priorities of commercial media outlets. They’re going after the consumer and have the pressure of selling products. Public television, on the other hand, is thinking about what Americans need to hear and bringing diverse viewpoints, and independents are a strategy to achieve those objectives. So public television, especially with Pat Mitchell at the head, is making an effort to recognize the importance of the independent voice in public media.

For some time in recent years CPB lobbied in Congress to free itself of the mandate to support ITVS. How are your relations with them now?

We actually have good relations with both. In Congress, there’s now a realization that ITVS serves a vital role by bringing independents to public television. We have a number of specific supporters on the Hill, including Nancy Pelosi, Lynn Woolsey, George Miller, Barbara Lee, Tom Lantos, Henry Waxman and Ed Markey, who’s the ranking minority member of the CPB reauthorization committee.
As for CPB, they also see the value of ITVS. At Sundance this year, we had five of the 16 documentary programs! Diversity is critical for them, too. And in terms of back-end services to make sure the programs are seen, we have capabilities that they appreciate.

From your vantage point, what’s happening in independent production right now? What trends pop out — creative, technical, aesthetic or otherwise?

You’re right to ask that question; ITVS does see the trends coming before anyone else. You might remember our series The Ride, which followed six teens as they traveled across the country. Soon after that, MTV began its reality series Real World.

The thing we’ve noticed recently is the effects of digital video coming into content. The new breed of small and cheap digital cameras gives filmmakers greater access to stories. One example is Jon Else’s Open Outcry, which was filmed in close quarters in the trading pits of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. That story wouldn’t have been told without a DVcam. A second trend is toward more international stories, especially after 9/11.

There’s a lot of talk about how these new camcorders will change the place of the independent. But what’s interesting to think about is the marketplace, not just the tools. The tools disrupt the marketplace.

It’s a time when independents can get their foot in the door–much in the same way that ITVS was founded, by getting its foot in the door in 1978 with the Public Telecommunications Financing Act. [In that law, Congress directed CPB to promote innovative programming drawn from diverse sources and mandated a “substantial” portion of program dollars for independent producers. The bill’s sponsors defined “substantial” as meaning at least 50 percent. Independents lobbying for the creation of ITVS in the ’80s constantly referred back to this legislation.] The legislation that created ITVS was passed in 1988, we were legally incorporated in 1989, and we started operations in 1991. So it took over 10 years from that initial foothold until the founding of ITVS.

What kinds of program proposals are you seeking now? I’ve heard there’s discussion of ITVS issuing a new RFP for drama.

That initiative is being developed outside of ITVS. We would like to be a part of it, however it comes to flourish. It would be something separate from the current drama strands. Right now PBS is in the development phase, and we’re talking with the programming staff and potential station partners about how we might become involved as a funder or presenter.

ITVS jointly funds many productions with the Minority Consortia. Do they typically put money into a project first and you provide the last piece of funding needed?

We’re really grateful to be part of the team with the Minority Consortia and had four films with them at Sundance: Ralph Ellison: An American Journey, with the National Black Programming Consortium (NBPC); Daughter from Danang, a collaboration with NAATA, which won Sundance’s top documentary prize; Senorita Extraviada, in association with Latino Public Broadcasting (LPB), and Two Towns of Jasper, also with NBPC.

The Minority Consortia provide vital seed money to programs that receive completion funds from ITVS. The average ratio might be 10-20 percent from the consortia and 80 percent from ITVS. Sometimes a small percentage comes from other sources.

What co-presentations are coming up?

Daughter from Danang will be broadcast on American Experience in 2003. We’ve been working with producers and Native American Public Telecommunications (NAPT) for several years on The Great American Footrace, which we just sent to PBS for consideration. Pacific Islanders in Communication (PIC) will be offering Heart of the Sea, a profile of a female Hawaiian surfing legend, which we co-funded. And we have several co-presentations with Latino Public Broadcasting, including the new Foto-Novelas series by Carlos Avila. In the near future, P.O.V. will air two NBPC copresentations: Two Towns of Jasper and Brother Outsider: The Bayard Rustin Story, about a colleague of Martin Luther King, for which we’ll share outreach activity.

How does “outreach” different from “promotion?”

There’s a lot of confusion about that. We make a clear distinction: promotion is working with the press to get coverage, while outreach is working directly with organizations, national partners and station outreach staff to engage audiences and communities directly. ITVS has been committed to outreach since we opened our doors in 1991. In 1996 we formalized those activities as our Community Connections Project, which now includes local ITVS representatives working with their public TV station in 12 cities across the country.

For example, we had four successful outreach efforts at Sundance. There was a screening and Q&A with the filmmakers of Two Towns of Jasper, which more than 450 people attended. That film is about the dragging-death of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas, and how local blacks and whites felt about the trials and issues of race. The turnout, on a cold January night, demonstrates that people want to talk about the effects of racism on a community and also develop positive outcomes.

A few days later, a Utah state legislator screened a portion of the film for his colleagues in the state legislature, where a Hate Crimes bill was pending. Again, the dialogue sparked illustrates how media is an effective tool for building citizen engagement.

Does ITVS have any ambitions to fund and present major new series in the same league as David Sutherland’s The Farmer’s Wife, which you backed along with Frontline? Those are the kinds of programs that get the promotion spending that PBS focuses on a few projects a year.

In fact, we’re co-funding David Sutherland’s next series with WBGH, called Coming of Age in Appalachia. It’s very big and ambitious — between 6 to 10 hours. Right now, it’s scheduled for completion in 2005.

We have several other long-format series that address the issue of race. There’s The New Americans, from Kartemquin Educational Films, which looks at the search for the American dream through the eyes of immigrants and refugees, and Larry Adelman’s Race: The Genealogy of an Illusion, which deconstructs the concept of race and the “science” that justified it. They’re both slated for the PBS National Program Service in 2003.

The shrinking real estate on the PBS schedule is a critical issue for independents. According to an article in your newsletter, PBS gets close to 3,000 proposals a year, representing about 10,000 hours of potential TV time.

The article says there are 846 hours available in the primetime schedule in the September to June season, of which 500 hours are committed to existing strands. That leaves 346 primetime hours for new material from all sources–stations and independents. What are your strategies for dealing with this bottleneck?

That’s not a new bottleneck. It’s been talked about for years.

True, but the hours available for one-offs are getting fewer, given PBS’s increased emphasis on national strands. And probably 95 percent of independents make stand-alone programs. The current solution is to put them into series like Frontline, Nova and American Masters, as well as the indie showcases P.O.V. and Independent Lens.

And we’ve done a good job at that. In February, we had Ralph Ellison on American Masters and next year Daughter from Danang will be on American Experience. There will be seven shows on P.O.V. We have a consistent number of shows on the NPS every year and a consistent number of shows on PBS Plus.

Is this consistency by design or chance?

We have a really hard-working broadcast group–Lois Vossen and her team–which works closely with PBS to find the right place for these shows. The short-term solution is to continue to increase the visibility of these very excellent shows. That means talking to programmers and doing the back-end support of community outreach campaigns that make them attractive.

The long-term strategy is to show the American public who the independent is. It’s really core to the discussion about having pluralistic points of view.

Some independents would argue that series like Nova or Frontline have their own identity and format, which gives independents less elbow room for their personal style and vision. Independents are somewhat wary about existing strands being the primary solution.

There’s ups and downs to working with series. But for everything that comes from ITVS, producers have final editorial control. Plus, if the show is picked up for a strand, you have a built-in viewership. Many audiences follow Nova or American Masters or American Experience. That’s an advantage if you want people to see your film, which every filmmaker does.

If you’re targeting a series, does ITVS introduce the filmmaker’s project to the show’s executive producers during preproduction, or do you present the program when it’s completed, as a potential acquisition? When does this relationship start?

The relationship with all of our PBS partners is ongoing, and the acquisition process differs for every program. We try to start talking as early as we can, if we see something that we think might be a fit. We’re always pitching, always trying to find out what they need and letting them know what we have.

Let’s talk about the works you had at Sundance as an example: Ralph Ellison and Daughter from Danang, showing on American Masters and American Experience, respectively. At what phase did the producer and series hook up?

With Daughter from Danang, our director of broadcast took the film to American Experience in winter 2000 and continued to show them fine cuts as their interest grew. They made a decision to acquire in May 2001. The relationship is a “collaborative acquisition” in that we encourage all parties to have a stake in making the best show possible. The American Experience staff offered suggestions such as a title change and minor edits. ITVS and American Experience have an agreement to co-present — we did the Sundance launch and will implement the outreach campaign and long-lead niche press, and American Experience will do the broadcast press campaign.

In the case of Ralph Ellison, producer Avon Kirkland forged a relationship with American Masters very early on. NBPC provided critical initial funding. ITVS provided finishing funds and pre-broadcast support at Sundance; NBPC and ITVS both did some outreach.

That’s what’s great about ITVS — it’s in the producer’s hands. ITVS distinguishes itself by backing final editorial control for the producers. We encourage producers to listen to series producers’ input. The editorial control remains with the independent producer. But, in the case of acquisition by a series, the series executive producer may want their editorial input heard before they execute a contract. If the strand and the producer don’t have a common vision, we stand behind the producer and offer the show to PBS.
Still, producers want to make the very best show. If great ideas come to them from the series producer, they often like to implement those ideas.

What happens to all those stand-alone shows that don’t make it onto the national schedule? Has carriage been going up as stations become more comfortable with ITVS, or is it slipping because of the shortage of real estate?

There isn’t just one answer to that question. The ITVS station relations staff has developed strong relationships with programmers and we have been effective in getting broadcasts of “ITVS offers” — that is, shows not accepted for the NPS or PBS Plus.

The level of carriage varies dramatically. In the case of David Yanofsky’s Poetic License, we secured 74 airdates, and Andrea Torrice’s Rising Waters had 87 airdates. Both shows are still being used, so those numbers will increase. This winter we offered Jack Silberman’s documentary Bombies about cluster bombs in Laos and the after-effects of war. Given the timeliness of the topic, we’re pleased there have been 57 airdates and more broadcasts are scheduled.
Obviously, there are increased demands on programmers for the limited broadcast time they have to schedule, so we work creatively with them to make sure ITVS programs get initial and repeat broadcasts.

This is how ITVS is different from any other kind of funder, foundation or agency: We fund shows and ensure that they get done, launched into a marketplace and find audiences. The service part of ITVS is what really distinguishes it from any other shop.

Are you at the point where stations are calling you, looking for work?

Yes. We’re calling programmers, but they’re also calling us. Over the years, it’s become a two-way conversation. Independents are making the programs that aren’t being found anywhere else. They bring that diversity to public television, and that is very powerful philosophically.

As executive director of the Bay Area Video Coalition, you had a close-up view of the relations between a large public TV station, KQED, and independents. Has that relationship been changing?

The Bay Area has more independents per capita than anyplace else in the U.S., so there will always be a tension between this very active community and the station, because independents want more of a relationship.

But I would say that over time, as we pressed for that relationship, they responded with new initiatives, like Bay Window, an Emmy-winning weekly series of documentaries about local topics. Mary Bitterman, the president of KQED until recently, did a terrific job stabilizing KQED so they were able to reach out to indies, and that made a big difference. We’re looking forward to working with KQED’s new president, Jeff Clarke, to assure a space for indies on KQED.

Your funding program LInCS [Local Independents Collaborating with Stations] is designed to foster partnerships between independents and stations by providing incentive and matching moneys to stations of $10,000 to $75,000. Have some stations come aboard that had not previously worked with independents?

We’ve now worked with 55 stations–small and large–through the LInCS initiative, and their history with independents varies greatly.

Stations like KQED worked extensively with independents but as a result of LInCS and other incentives they have increased the number of independent projects they support.
Other stations like Montana PBS don’t have resources to produce a lot of original programming. We worked with them and independent producer Margaret Carey to co-fund Sun River Homestead, which was broadcast on the NPS in May.

LInCS began in ’96, so we’re starting to see ongoing relationships develop. For instance, KLRU in Austin has done two projects with two different producers and Kentucky ETV has done three projects with three producers.

Have you learned which ingredients are necessary to make a LInCS project go smoothly? What’s the missing factor in those that don’t?

What is critical is to have active station partners. ITVS supports the broadcast of our shows with a website, PR, station relations, and so forth, to ensure audiences for the program. What we’re looking for in a station partner is someone who can bring some or all of these components to the show’s launch.

Over time, our relationship with stations has gotten better and better, and there’s an increased understanding of how to be partners on this.

Have many of these independents never worked with a public television station before?

About 50 percent are brand new to the system. That’s where ITVS is a critical partner. We can be the bridge–helping independents learn the realities of public television and stations’ needs, and helping stations understand what independents are working toward. We’re able to do that, because we speak both languages.

Do LInCS productions have a better shot at national release by PBS?

That’s actually a challenge that we’re continually working on. It’s about 21 percent now.

In general, do you find there’s a cultural gap between the interests of independents and those of the public television audience? Even a generation gap, given the aging demographics of PBS?

Yes. When we were talking about longer-term strategies, independents can bring those new audiences to public television.

Does public television want them? They talk as if they do, but what have we seen in terms of demonstrable changes in programming, beyond a few isolated shows like American High?

That’s where we need to continue to encourage that relationship, and why ITVS is such an important player. We’re tracking all the new programs in the pipeline that can do those things for public television, and we can help start those conversations, help negotiate for independents, and help independents understand what the constraints are for public television.

In the past, many independent producers felt exploited by public television. If they weren’t picked up for the National Program Service but were selling their program market by market, a station might say, “We’ll air your work, but we don’t have any money to pay you a license fee. And you have to cover the cost of promotion and deliverables yourself.”

It’s the gap that we fill, because we do the entire public TV campaign, including web, PR, outreach and station relations. Most foundations have no budget for that, so it’s pretty tough for the filmmakers. While I was at BAVC, I can’t tell you how many houses I heard about that were mortgaged to pay for the final pieces of a project. It’s credit cards and mortgaged houses.

ITVS wants independent filmmakers to be able to make a living. Their effort is heroic in so many ways. We’re not supporting martyrs — we’re supporting professionals who make high-quality programming. And they need to be paid.
We’ve looked at thousands of budgets and have a competent team of, in effect, executive producers, who help producers come up with realistic budgets that pay a fee for producing or directing their show. We’re not trying to get producers at cut-rate salaries — we want them to earn a decent living.

We’re looking to support this community and nurture it, so that there’s a strong pipeline of producers coming to public television. There isn’t going to be that pipeline if there isn’t an ITVS, which actually pays them in whole for a program.
ITVS isn’t perfect; it’s a work in progress. It’s only 10 years old, and it’s better every year because the stakeholders care about ITVS. They’re candid, they’re critical — just like they are with public television. But to me that’s valuable.

It’s pretty tough when you can fund only 2 percent of the constituency that comes to you. Are the other 98 percent angry at ITVS? Probably. But do they want ITVS to go away? No. It’s a stronghold for independents. And it means something even to people it can’t fund. It says to the American public and to Congress, “This is important, that citizens have a way to promote a lively debate about what’s going on, to make our country be the best it can be.” That’s a moral imperative for public media.

Patricia Thomson, former editor-in-chief of The Independent Film & Video Monthly, writes frequently about film and television.

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