When and how did ITVS emerge?
Community and viewer activists, and local and national coalitions of independent producers (including AIVF) worked together to lobby Congress to ensure that public television monies were allocated to independent makers. In 1988, Congress passed legislation directing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) to negotiate with a national coalition of independent producer groups to establish the Independent Television Service. In late 1991, ITVS began to fund programming.
Who are the program officers of ITVS?
There are no program officers at ITVS, since we are a public television organization, not a granting foundation. For each funding initiative we convene a selection committee of readers and panelists from the independent media and public television communities to evaluate submissions. Executive director James Yee and David Liu, the executive in charge of programming and development, direct the process of determining which projects get funded, drawing upon the recommendations of the committee.
What is ITVS’ relationship with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, in terms of your budget, your board, and your programming mandate?
CPB is our principal source of funding, and we share a common mission to fund innovative, diverse programming for public television, but ITVS is autonomous of CPB. The ITVS Board is nominated by a national coalition of filmmakers [specifically, one representative from AIVF, Film Arts Foundation, the International Documentary Association, and two individual filmmakers] who then present a board slate to CPB for approval.
The driving philosophy of ITVS is…?
ITVS brings independently produced programs to public television—programs that take creative risks, advance issues, and represent points of view not usually seen on television. ITVS is committed to programming that addresses the needs of underserved audiences and to granting artistic control to the independent producer. In an era that encompasses both the explosion of commercial information enterprises and a consolidation of media empires, the role of public sector media is critical to a free, open, and informed society.
Specifically, how has ITVS fulfilled its mission?
In our eight years, ITVS has brought over 260 single programs and limited series to public television. These programs cover a broad range of topics and emanate from diverse communities. We have three constituencies, and we endeavor to serve all three: the viewing public, the independent media community, and the public television system.
We expand the public’s horizons with adventurous, powerful programming; we support independent makers by providing them with a full range of services, including developing and funding their work and then advocating to have it presented on public television with effective marketing, promotion, and audience outreach; we serve the public television system by making available energetic new independent programming.
What is your total annual budget, and how much is specifically for production?
Our current annual budget is approximately $7.2 million, of which 91% ($6.6 million) is earmarked for production.
How many projects does ITVS fund per year?
Twenty to 35 projects per year, depending on their budget size and scope.
What is the average size of an ITVS grant? Does this generally represent full funding? Completion funding? Start-up?
ITVS does not give grants; we enter into a “production licensing agreement.” The amount of funding varies greatly depending on the genre, length, format, and whether it is a new project or a work-in-progress. Funding has ranged from $10,000 to $1.4 million, with the average being $166,000 per programming hour. ITVS is always the last money in on a project, whether we are providing full or partial funding.
So monies from ITVS do not constitute a grant. What specifically does a filmmaker get and what do they give you in return?
The production licensing agreement with the maker gives ITVS exclusive domestic television rights for a limited time period. As mentioned above, ITVS provides a comprehensive service including funding, creative development, feedback during production, and—unique to ITVS—we do thework to try to secure a successful public television launch, including marketing, website, station relations, and outreach.
What percentage of applicants actually get funded?
Between two and five percent, depending on the number of submissions, which fluctuates with each funding round.
What type of projects does ITVS seek?
We envision television as a tool for empowerment, so we’re looking for projects that stimulate and expand civic participation by bringing new voices to public discourse. We’re looking for provocative, well-crafted stories that not only entertain, but compel a viewer or a television programmer to sit up and be moved to action. Whether a project is documentary, narrative, or experimental, telling the story well and in a fresh new way is central. We’re always seeking masterful, passionate storytellers. Of course, the project must also be right for television.
Are the bulk of projects funded through your Open Call? What are its funding cycles and deadlines?
Open Call is an on-going solicitation. Submissions are evaluated twice a year, in mid-March and mid-September. In addition to Open Call, we have other funding initiatives, such as American Stories and LInCS, which facilitates production partnerships between independent makers and local public television stations. We’re about to announce a new initiative for projects shot on digital video. Information on current funding initiatives is always available on our website at www.itvs.org and in our publication, Buzzwords. To receive Buzzwords, call (415) 356-8383 x. 0.
What do you hope to accomplish through your new station partnership program?
LInCS (Local Independents Collaborating with Stations), the continuation of our Station-Independent Partnership Production (SIPPs) funding initiative in 1996 and 1997, is designed to reinvigorate production partnerships between independent makers and local public television stations. The initiative requires that ITVS funding be matched with in-kind services or cash from the station. Stations benefit by being involved with local productions, while the indies get financial support and access to resources that will help bring their projects to fruition. Hopefully, both sides build mutually beneficial, long-term relationships.
Have these partnerships worked in the past?
On the whole the partnerships have worked very well. Many successful regionally and culturally diverse shows have resulted from the initiative. Among the 38 programs funded have been the 1999 Sundance Film Festival Filmmakers Trophy winner Sing Faster: The Stagehands’ Ring Cycle, by Jon Else with Oregon Public Broadcasting; Tobacco Blues, by Eren McGinnis and Christine Fugate with Kentucky ETV, featured on P.O.V. in 1998; Escape from Affluenza: Living Better on Less, by John de Graaf and Vivia Boe with KCTS/Seattle; and Vanessa Roth’s DuPont Award-winning Taken In: The Lives of America’s Foster Children, made with WNET/New York.
What problems arose during SIPPs, and how have they been addressed through LInCS?
Like all relationships, some of the partnerships have been more successful than others. With LInCS, we’ve now streamlined the project so that ITVS will be the direct contact between the makers and the station partners.
We have also increased our financial commitment to the number of shows and budgets we will fund, and have expanded the definition of what constitutes a match from the station partner. We have improved our communication to the field, generating more visibility for LInCS in the independent media community as well as among stations. Also, ITVS will be taking a more active role in the public television launch of these programs.
Are there any other initiatives ITVS might introduce this year?
As mentioned above, we have a new call for projects shot on digital video. We’re excited about this initiative, because it represents a new kind of liberation for the maker: lower budgets, unencumbered shoots. We are eager to see how this new technology will transform the field in unforeseen ways. We’re also looking for proposals for interstitials, having just worked with the Minority Consortia to create a new batch of “Kids Spots” interstitials. Information is available on our website and in Buzzwords.
You have recently developed a funding mechanism for dramatic films. Was this in response to the demise of American Playhouse?
Actually, ITVS began its funding in 1991 with a call for works in the “TV Families” series, which gave us Todd Haynes’ Dottie Gets Spanked and Tamara Jenkins’ Family Remains, among others. Drama has always been part of an ITVS mainstay with programs like Pharaoh’s Army and Foto-Novelas. Our Open Call application invites proposals in any genre, and we’re currently funding one-hour dramas. Unfortunately, we don’t get as many proposals for drama as for documentaries, so we did the American Stories initiative to increase the number of drama proposals we get.
Will films funded through American Stories Script Development and Production programs be limited to 56 minutes? If not, will ITVS accommodate a theatrical window?
We are currently funding one-hour dramas. We work with producers on a case-by-case basis if the opportunity for a theatrical release arises.
Our primary goal remains to bring creative excellence to the television medium. We’re looking for programs that can keep the viewer’s interest; the bulk of narrative projects submitted to us are not sustainable for longer than one hour. Most people making drama don’t think of TV as their first choice; they may have budgets outside ITVS’s scope or don’t want to be bound by television requirements.
Why is the Script Development program not currently being offered? Any foreseeable date on when it will resume?
Right now we’re ushering a large number of scripts from development toward production, which can sometimes be a long process. Once a portion of them is completed or in production, we may invite a new batch, but at the moment we’re not sure when that will be.
Are there any other ways filmmakers can get dramatic work on public television?
Yes. Filmmakers should check the PBS website [www.pbs. org] and CPB’s [www.cpb.org] for their new drama initiatives.
Advice for media artists in putting forth a strong application?
Communicate your passion and articulate the urgency and strength of your story clearly. Whether you’re making a drama, a documentary or an experimental piece it’s essential that you show us that you are a storyteller. Surprise us.
Most common mistake applicants make?
Unfortunately many applicants don’t read the guidelines as carefully as we wish they would. The most underwritten section of the proposal is usually the treatment, which is often generic and unspecific as to how the story will be told.
What most aggravates filmmakers about ITVS?
We can’t presume to speak on behalf of filmmakers.
What’s your biggest complaint about independents?
Working with independents in each stage of a project’s life is our mandate. It is a privilege to work closely with so many talented storytellers.
What would people most be surprised to learn about ITVS and its founders?
Many people are surprised to learn about the comprehensive range of services we provide for the makers. (Service is our last name.) Once we fund a program, we nurture and support it through broadcast and beyond. People also forget that television is our middle name. That is, our mission is to present works for television and not for theatrical release.
Name other foundations and funding programs do you admire and why.
We admire the Minority Consortia groups—the National Asian American Telecommunications Association (NAATA), Pacific Islanders in Communications (PIC), National Black Programmers Consortium (NBPC), Native American Public Telecommunications, Inc. (NAPT), as well as the interim Latino Public Broadcasting Project (LPBP)—because these organizations fund programs from within communities, contributing to the healthy mix of media out there. No one group can do it alone. The more funders for independent media the better!
Famous Last Words:
Television is changing rapidly in the face of digital environments and new venues. The independent community should be poised to take advantage of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.