Powerfully positioned San Francisco-based champion of independent docs and dramas for television begins to navigate its third decade.
The Independent Television Service (ITVS), the crucially important San Francisco-based funder of independent productions for public television, celebrates its 20th anniversary this month in a radically different world than the one in which it was conceived. Television is still America’s primary medium for entertainment and information, but its hegemony has been eroded by YouTube channels, movie streams and video games.
A new picture is gradually coming into focus, as the mass adoption of cable, TiVo, smartphones and tablets dramatically alters both the viewing experience and the role of television. But a willingness to adjust and adapt has always been one of ITVS’s hallmarks, and it is solidly positioned with an entrenched, nationally broadcast weekly documentary series, “Independent Lens,” and an innovative Web presence that works with any platform.
“We are excited about reaching citizens in the public interest,” declares President and CEO Sally Jo Fifer, “and for ITVS and our makers that means having audiences access independent films through any kind of device, most of which offer opportunities for more collaboration, more participation, more voices contributing to the conversation. It’s public media’s job to make sure that happens—and happens in a productive way that fills the gaps in our national knowledge, serves underserved audiences, and enriches our conversation. Wherever the audiences go, we intend to be there for them.”
Independent producers keen to reach those diverse and oft-ignored viewers, yet deprived of access to the public broadcasting system, were the gutsy catalysts for the creation of ITVS. Led by Lawrence Sapadin, then-executive director of the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers, California Newsreel co-founder Larry Daressa and Larry Hall, a member of the Association of California Independent Public Television Producers, filmmakers from across the country took their case that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was a closed shop all the way to Congress.
A key turning point, it’s worth remembering, was the arrogant (and self-defeating) testimony of CPB honchos at a hearing convened by Los Angeles Rep. Henry A. Waxman. CPB’s attitude only confirmed the indie producers’ arguments, and led to the founding of ITVS in the Public Telecommunications Act of 1988.
Congress decided that ITVS would be funded from the CPB budget, yet CPB resisted, wrangled and split hairs for a couple of years before finally acceding to the directives. ITVS was set up in 1991 with offices in Minneapolis, with visionary executive director James Yee soon relocating the organization to San Francisco.
From the beginning, ITVS’s process of commissioning independent producers on subjects of interest to minority and underserved viewers did not focus exclusively on content. Programs that were non-traditional in form were enthusiastically encouraged.
“The United States of Poetry was groundbreaking in its visual treatment of contemporary poetry,” recalls longtime senior programming manager Richard Saiz. “Nobody's Business and Death by Design are two others from those early years which I consider original in their approach to storytelling. More recently, Herskovits: At The Heart of Darkness and Waltz With Bashir are examples in which the directors took creative risks and succeeded both in terms of artistic style and audience accessibility.”
Fresh approaches and techniques were a rare commodity on American public television at the end of the Reagan era. Unfortunately, audiences were not particularly receptive to programs that broke rules and took chances, especially in what used to be called the Bible Belt.
“The ITVS mandate to support innovation has not really changed in terms of our central mission,” says Saiz. “What has changed since the early years is how ITVS, through peer review and internal vetting, identifies what kinds of innovative programs are viable for public broadcasting. We learned early on that while we appreciated and valued experimentation on the part of directors, those programs also had to play to a mass TV audience.”
Claire Aguilar was the program director at KCET, L.A.’s public TV station, and a member of ITVS’s board of directors throughout the 1990s. A highly rated station in a multi-cultural market, KCET aired countless ITVS-funded programs presented through various PBS strands, including A Healthy Baby Girl (P.O.V.), The Gate of Heavenly Peace (Frontline) and Daughter from Danang (American Experience), as well as series and one-offs like The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers’ Struggle. But not every station was as receptive.
“ITVS's reputation was [for] programming that was either about minorities, or gays or lesbians, or controversial (about abortion, Middle East or LGBT issues),” Aguilar remembers. “What turned around, I think, was programming for underserved audiences and populations like The Farmer's Wife that spoke to rural communities and represented a way of life that urban America never saw. When it aired on Frontline as a special long documentary, stations were compelled to air it on prime time.”
Under Yee’s leadership, ITVS was proactive about meeting with small-market PBS affiliates to strategize about getting more of its programming on the air. Aguilar, now ITVS’s vice president of programming, attests to the results of that outreach.
“Now ITVS has a very healthy relationship with all PBS stations, not only those who only use the PBS primetime schedule but with other stations with specific community and station needs,” she says. “The ‘marginality’ of ITVS' programming doesn't hold water anymore, and with Independent Lens and other film acquisitions the inventory is wide-ranging. Once during that 1990s period a PBS executive described ITVS as a little ‘fanzine’ where it really needed to be a big ‘coffee table book.’ I don't think we're quite at the coffee table book stage but we're certainly not the ’zine anymore.”
As Aguilar suggests, programming for underserved audiences has the laudatory side benefit of exposing the experiences and problems of minorities and subcultures to mainstream audiences. The goal of expanding the audience, though, is somewhat at odds with that of producing formally innovative programs, particularly for a population largely averse to challenging storytelling techniques.
“Innovation always signifies the highest bar in any creative form,” Saiz declares. “That may explain why we don't receive many projects which are truly innovative, although they may be exceptional in other ways. We remain strongly committed to the mission of creative risk taking and that's why we continue to encourage filmmakers to bring us projects that attempt to expand the documentary form.”
At the same time, ITVS has to keep one ear on the mindless mutterings from our elected representatives in Washington, D.C., to cut every item of “discretionary” government spending. To be sure, ITVS has successfully navigated and negotiated every hurdle it’s encountered in its remarkable existence, from CPB’s initial resistance to affiliate indifference to the fragmenting of the TV audience through cable, time-shifting and Web-streaming. Under Sally Jo Fifer, who took ITVS’s reins in 2001 following the premature death of Jim Yee, the organization has achieved an unprecedented level of stability while nimbly responding to the shifting TV—and budgetary—landscape.
“We need to hold the media, which determines how we see the world and share our knowledge, accountable to democracy as well as commerce,” Fifer asserts. “That is where public broadcasting comes in. Public broadcasting is not discretionary funding; it is essential to maintaining a working democracy. The 2011 federal budget largely preserved short-term funding commitments for public broadcasting—about $1.35 per citizen per year. As the 2012 election approaches, we will undoubtedly face another long and hard fight to keep unheard voices in the public square, even as 80 percent of Americans rated public broadcasting as an ‘excellent’ use of taxpayer dollars in a recent Roper poll. It will be important for everyone to join ITVS in supporting the campaign 170 Million Americans For Public Broadcasting as the Congress moves forward.”
ITVS hosts a free, rotating online festival, through Sept. 23, of 20 of the documentaries it funded, at itvs.org.
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