Independents in the Public Eye

ITVS Turns 10

You'd think the Independent Television Service (ITVS) would be universally adored by filmmakers. Now 10 years old, it's got significant cash and cachet, providing over $7 million each year to between 30 and 40 projects destined for public television. What's more, it was created by independent filmmakers. Their persistent lobbying of Congress led the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) to redirect some of its federal dollars toward this new entity, created to fund more diverse and risky programming. But filmmakers' feelings about ITVS (subject of a MOMA retrospective July 5 through 22) are far more complicated and ambivalent.

Ask them about ITVS, and you'll hear words like "restrictive," "controlling," "rigid," even "evil," mixed in with "heroic," "brave," and "life-saving." You'll get an earful about contract disputes over running times and revenue sharing. Behind some voices, there's even a sense of betrayal. As one filmmaker put it, "This was supposed to be ours! We fought for it; we got it. Then it got taken over by a bureaucratic us-versus-them attitude, and it was no longer ours."

But dig deeper, and it becomes apparent that many of these sentiments are based on old information. In reality, ITVS shaped up years ago, and independent filmmakers are only now catching up. Part of ITVS's problem is embedded in its genetic code. Simply put, it was created to serve three masters: independent producers, the public television system, and viewers. Lawrence Sapadin, who co-led the lobbying effort as executive director of the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers, explains, "If we had taken the position that there needed to be this fund for independents—for good people who do good work—it never would have happened. The only way to get support in Congress was to position it as solving a public problem and providing a public service. Bundled in that was the recognition that the vehicle was the independent production community. That's a little different than saying, 'It's ours.' "

The people’s choice: Juanita Buschkoetter in The Farmer’s Wife
photo: MoMA
The people’s choice: Juanita Buschkoetter in The Farmer’s Wife

ITVS's constituents are sometimes at cross purposes. For instance, most documentarians are convinced their subject warrants at least 90 minutes, if not a Hoop Dreams-like epic. But station programmers, having learned the hard way that viewer interest wanes after 60 minutes, want hour-long shows, and believe in any case that most nonfiction stories are better served by being tightly constructed.

In the beginning, ITVS addressed such conflicts by taking an adversarial and patronizing stance toward producers, issuing contracts that were indeed restrictive, controlling, and rigid, if not exactly evil—so much so that filmmakers banded together after the first contract and refused to sign it. The agreement "would have made independents independent in name only," recalls Jim Klein, director of Taken for a Rideand editor of Scout's Honor. ITVS wanted ultimate control over the production, over directors' speaking to the press, and over the film's premiere. What's more, filmmakers were troubled by the selection process. As Klein recalls, "In the first round, my project and Marlon Riggs's were the only two they funded by established independents. The rest were by painters, poets, or artists. ITVS just had the sense that they could figure out much better than media producers how to make television—and it was disastrous."

The tide started to turn in 1993, when ITVS's leadership changed. "After Jim Yee came in, it got a thousand times better," declares Klein. Yee, who succumbed to cancer earlier this year, assiduously courted independents, stations, and CPB during his tenure, and ever so slowly opinions shifted. Public television has come to see ITVS as an ally, particularly as it has watched its core audience erode. "Demographics are changing, and stations realize they need to provide programming that reaches out to new audiences," says Lois Vossen, ITVS director of broadcast distribution and communications. "Our mandate is to do just that."

A major breakthrough came in 1998 with The Farmer's Wife, David Sutherland's verité series that followed the struggles of a Nebraska farm family. Its overwhelming success with audiences made station programmers realize "they should take seriously everything we bring them," says Vossen.

Meanwhile, independents are finding a kinder, gentler ITVS. "Year by year, you could watch improvements," says Klein. Filmmakers who have recently negotiated contracts have been pleasantly surprised at the level of give-and-take. Even those who disagree with certain terms have come away staunch supporters of the funding agency.

Ironically, now that ITVS seems to be on track, it faces a new threat. This time it's not a hostile Congress or a right-wing lobby (though the latter still rears its sputtering head; just recently, Donald Wildmon's American Family Association and the Concerned Women for America organized a hate-mail campaign against Tom Shepard's gay-themed Scout's Honor). Rather, ITVS's challenge comes from an ally. PBS head Pat Mitchell recently urged stations to increase their carriage of "core programming"—the major strands like Frontline, Nova, and Masterpiece Theatre—in order to aggregate advertising dollars and better compete in a crowded marketplace. Since ITVS programs rarely make it on to such series, they'll be scrambling for a shrinking slice of public TV's remaining airtime. Some ITVS staffers are nervous, but their hope is that, as director of production Patrick Wickham puts it, "excellence will out." If not, right now might just be ITVS's finest hour.

 
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