NEA slashes funds to WNET arts series, elevates digital media

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With NEA funding, American Masters produces programs about art and artists for PBS’s primetime schedule. This season featured an exploration of Cab Calloway’s music that used animated caricatures created by illustrator Steve Brodner (pictured) and French cartoonist Cabu. (Photo: Artline Films.)

The Arts on Radio and Television fund of the National Endowment for the Arts, a source of millions of programming dollars for public media, is distributing matching grants to a wider range of recipients this year — from a smaller pool of money.

Pubcasters are anxious about the plunge in funding to flagship programs and independent projects now that the Endowment’s revamped Arts in Media fund also supplies cash to digital-game designers, app designers and artists working on web-based interactive platforms.

In 2011, almost all of the grants went to public TV and radio programs. This year about half did.

The number of grantees was up from 64 to 78 and the total amount committed was down from $4 million to $3.55 million.

In the past, two major beneficiaries of NEA funding are the PBS arts showcases American Masters and Great Performances, both produced by New York’s WNET. The biographical documentary series and the performance strand each received $400,000 from the NEA last year. This year, WNET is receiving $175,000 altogether for those two major series plus The Electric Animation Festival.

The second largest grant is to NPR for its Alt.Latino multilingual podcast and website and for the NPR Music site.

Other public media grants on the list released April 25 include $20,000 to Latino Public Broadcasting for Mariachi High, an hourlong documentary on a year in the lives of students in a Mariachi music ensemble in Texas; $50,000 to the National Black Programming Consortium for its pubTV show AfroPop, now in its fourth season; and $50,000 to WETA for PBS NewsHour arts coverage.

Alyce Myatt, a former PBS programming v.p. who now directs the media-arts program, is spearheading the change. Myatt told Current that after she arrived at the agency in early 2011, the staff decided to examine “how artists were using media to create art and how the public was consuming art through different media platforms.” They concluded that NEA’s grants should go beyond broadcast, supporting media artists and developers working on digital and interactive platforms.

The NEA wanted to be responsive to changes in the field, support creation of new work and ensure that the public “had the opportunity to experience art anytime and anywhere,” she said.

“We also noted that many radio and television organizations and past grantees — such as broadcasters and producers affiliated with PBS and NPR — were increasing their digital offerings in exciting new ways,” Myatt said, so the NEA “could serve both new and previous grantees by broadening eligibility.”

‘Entirely shocked’ by cuts

The NEA notified past recipients of reduced grant amounts earlier this month. Susan Lacy, creator and executive producer of American Masters, learned that the 26-year-old program would receive $50,000, an 87.5 percent reduction from last year. “We were entirely shocked at the extent of the cut this funding round,” Lacy said.

NEA grants to American Public Media’s classical music programs, including Performance Today, will be cut by 90 percent, according to APM spokesperson Bill Gray. KQED in San Francisco won’t receive the $350,000 it requested, its spokesperson Scott Walton said, but it was encouraged to reapply. POV’s grant of $100,000 will be 60 percent smaller than the $250,000 provided last year. The lost grant money and the matching funds it brought in for POV make up 5 percent of the series’ budget, said Simon Kilmurry, executive director.

Kilmurry was puzzled by the drop because multiplatform content was already a key focus for POV. Producers have added short-form documentaries and have been working on games, special web content, and iPhone and iPad apps. “I appreciate trying to reach as many people as possible on various platforms,” he added, “but we at POV — and public broadcasting in general — are doing just that.”

Myatt described one of POV’s recent innovations during a webinar explaining the category changes last August. A documentary about the Hague-based genocide tribunal, The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court, demonstrated innovative content distribution, she said. Skylight Pictures partnered with the International Center for Transitional Justice, a nonprofit fighting mass atrocities, to produce the website Myatt described it as “a hub for reporting human-rights abuses around the globe.”

POV provided key support to efforts to extend the film’s impact, Kilmurry said. “The filmmaker took the lead on the ICTJ partnership, but our digital team and community-engagement teams were involved,” he said, adding that “it’s always nice when one of our projects is cited as a good example.”

Stoking a shifting campfire

In public media’s complex and increasingly challenged system of paying for national programs, NEA funding is a key source of money for producers who choose art and artists as their subjects, according to several grantees.

“It’s important as base funding, as part of a larger strategy of seeking support for programs,” said Sue Schardt, executive director of the Association of Independents in Radio (AIR). “Funding for independent producers, especially in radio, is difficult to secure.” In 2011 AIR received $50,000 from the NEA for Localore, its project pairing independent producers and public stations for projects experimenting with new forms of community-centered content.

NEA cash sends a signal to other funders, said Davia Nelson of the Kitchen Sisters, a San Francisco-based indie production team. “If the NEA endorses a project and supports it, that says, ‘These are producers who have a track record.’ It’s a vote of confidence.” Nelson and Nikki Silva, her partner in Kitchen Sisters, received $50,000 from NEA last year for Hidden World of Girls, a pubradio series about “women who crossed a line, blazed a trail, changed the tide.” Their stories aired on NPR’s newsmags and were adapted for a two-part special distributed last fall by Public Radio Exchange.

NEA funding “enables us to create programs on subjects that the marketplace more than likely can’t support,” Lacy of American Masters said. Annual grants from the endowment have enabled Lacy’s show and other arts-focused series to “keep a broad range of subjects in primetime, reaching literally millions of people.”

“Americans are more than a Twitter society,” she added, “and many of them want more from television than they are getting in most places. We have been serving that audience, but the NEA cuts will make it much more difficult to continue to do that.”

Lacy doubts that new delivery systems will actually be able to provide wider access to documentaries, given the cost of third-party rights.

Nelson understands why the NEA wanted to enlarge the category. “Different mediums speak to different people,” she said. “It’s who we are as a species. We’re always craving gathering by the campfire for a story, but the campfire keeps shifting — on screen, over the radio, by podcast, it’s still all that same fire.”

“I like the thought of the NEA nurturing artists in all mediums. Some of those can be so rich and inventive and revelatory,” Nelson said. “But it’s disturbing that there’s such a little piece of pie for everyone to share.”

Editor’s note:  This post has been updated with the final number of grantees in the round, which fell from 82 to 78, and the total amount, which also fell from $3.64 million to $3.55 million.

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