As the world of independent media evolves, some things remain the same. One is the importance of public television as an outlet for independent work. This article presents a sampling of the acquisition series–those that buy completed work–at both the national and local affiliate level.
Even at its highest, the pay scale on public TV may not allow you to break even on your film. But one primetime airing on PBS will allow you to reach more viewers than a typical blockbuster in theaters. PBS has nearly 350 member stations and approximately five million cash-contributing viewers. National PBS programs play to a weekly audience of approximately 96 million viewers. And unlike cable, the Internet, public access, or even network television, PBS is available in 99 percent of television households in the United States.
The scope and quality of independent acquisition series are as varied as the works themselves. Some shows have enjoyed a long history and effectively tracked the progress of independent film in America for decades. Others exist intermittently, when funds allow. Still others are in their first year. Some stations lack anthology series altogether, and instead deal with independent producers on a case-by-case basis. The series listed below–divided into national and regional–are by no means exhaustive, and doing your own research is always recommended. Submissions to all series should be made on VHS; if chosen, a broadcast quality version will be expected and accepted formats may vary.
There’s good news for independents in the brand new acquisitions series that is originating from PBS’s national headquarters. Donald Thoms, Vice President of program management at PBS, is the moving force behind the national show, called Independent Lens, which will premiere this August with a 10-week line-up mixing documentaries and fiction films focused on a particular topic. Thoms hopes to achieve a sort of synergy with the combination of genres and styles. "People ask me ‘what’s the theme?’ I think the theme is that these are wonderful pieces of work that deserve to be shown on public television," says Thoms. Many of the films will be drawn from the pool of work coming out of the CPB-funded ITVS and Minority Consortia. "A lot of times we hear that there should be more places for work to be seen," says Thoms, "and I think this will be an excellent outlet. We’re quite happy about it."
Season: 10 weeks beginning in August. Deadline: On-going. Payment: no payment, finishing funds available on case-by-case basis. Rights: 4 broadcasts/3 years. Length: Standard PBS lengths preferred, see website for details. Contact: Donald Thoms, PBS, 1320 Braddock Pl. Alexandria, VA 22314; (703) 739-5010; fax: 739-8440; www.pbs.org/independents
P.O.V. (Point of View)
P.O.V. is PBS’s flagship for nonfiction independent work. Produced by American Documentary Inc., P.O.V. was the brainchild of Marc Weiss and debuted in 1988. Though running only 10 weeks in the summer, the series’ impact is significant. P.O.V. has put considerable effort into audience development through outreach programs and web support. The Television Race Initiative, for example, involves a well-coordinated outreach campaign to harness the power of film to further racial understanding. (Emiko Omori’s Rabbit in the Moon, on the Japanese internment camps during WWII, is up next in this initiative.) High Impact Television targets several broadcasts each year to link with outreach programs of relevant national organizations. And P.O.V. Interactive provides program-related website links, electronic exchanges, and listserves that bring the level of intelligent discourse on the Internet to new heights.
P.O.V. receives over 600 submissions each year for consideration, so competition is fierce, but the show’s scope, history, and established audience are well worth making a pitch for. Traditionally, P.O.V. looks for national broadcast premieres of completed works. However, it now offers two programs that enable works-in-progress to be considered: Fine Cuts and In the Works.
Est. audience: Top programs have 4-6 million viewers. Season: June-August. Deadline: This is the first year that P.O.V. accepts entries all year round. The former deadline of July 31, 1999 is now the cut-off point for submissions eligible for the 2000 season. Payment$500/min. Rights: exclusive; 4 broadcasts/3 years. Contact: 220 W. 19th St., 11th Fl., New York, NY 10011; (212) 989-8121; (888) 456-9050; www.pbs.org/pov
The Short List
Touting itself as "the nation’s only weekly short film showcase in North America" may seem a bit of a stretch, but there’s little doubt that this show has emerged as a new haven for shorts. Begun in 1992 as a springboard for filmmakers’ debut works called 1st Frames, the show expanded as the range and quality of the submissions increased. The national series is now entering the third season of its current format, which features both international and domestic shorts. "Too often, outstanding short films languish for lack of a venue once they have toured the festival circuit," says executive producer Jack Ofield, who has produced over 170 documentary and narrative productions and brings 30 years of film experience to his position. "Short films are a distinctive and entertaining art form, deserving their own series and appealing to a mass audience."
Unlike many anthology programs, The Short List is unhindered by short seasons or funding limitations. Supported by Kodak Emerging Independent Filmmakers Program, Cox Communications, and the Firestone Graham Foundation, the series purchased over 100 films in all genres from 19 countries during last year’s season. It’s on for 52 weeks out of the year, and is currently available on approximately 160 PBS affiliates. The show is produced out of San Diego State University with WXXI in Rochester, New York as its presenting station.
Est. aud.: 12-15 million accum. SeasonYear round; check local listings for day and time. Deadline: On-going. Payment: $100/min. Also awards five $2,000 Kodak product grants annually to selected filmmakers from the series. Rights: non-exclusive; 3 years/multiple viewings throughout U.S. & Canada. Length: All genres, 30 sec. to 19 min. Contact: Jack Ofield, Director, The Production Center, SDSU, 550 Campanile Dr., San Diego, CA 92182; (619) 594-6902; fax: 462-8266; email@example.com
Image Union, KTTW/Chicago
One of the oldest shows of its kind, Image Union was started by Tom Weinberg in 1978 to provide Chicago with an on-going televised film festival. Last year the show celebrated its twentieth anniversary with a retrospective of clips (highlighting such now-famous actors as Gary Sinise and the late John Belushi). The show’s host has been with it since the beginning: Bob, a besuited, animated character whose likeness is also the design for the show’s yearly awards called, not surprisingly, the Bob Awards. Series producer Jay Shefsky is looking for quality films of any kind, though he does have his preferences. "I shy away from straight narratives that aren’t from Chicago," he says. Shefsky is especially looking for personal and innovative documentaries, preferably 30 min. or under. Interviews with the filmmakers add extra dimension to this season’s programs.
Est. Aud.: 75,000 (two airings). Season: 16-week season of half-hour shows beg. in the fall. Airs Fridays at 11 p.m., repeated on Tuesdays at 1:30 a.m. Deadline: May 31 (for 1999-2000 season). Films must be under 25 min. Payment: Standard fee is $25/min. Rights: non-exclusive; 4 broadcasts/3 years. Contact: Image Union, WTTW/Channel 11, Attn: Jay Shefsky, 5400 North St. Louis Ave., Chicago, IL 60625; (773) 509-5593; imageunion@ wttw.pbs.org; www.wttw.com/imageunion
Viewpoints & Docs of the Bay, KQED/San Francisco
In the past decade KQED ("the most watched public television station in the country") has provided double helpings of independent documentary programming by producing two shows simultaneously: the locally focused Docs of the Bay, which showcases works by local filmmakers or stories filmed in the Bay Area, and the broader, geographically diverse Viewpoints. Both shows look for docs on a year-round basis (anything from 20 minutes to two hours). Although the works featured are 90% documentary, narrative/dramas are also shown on occasion. Experimental films are rarely selected. The shows’ producer, Scott Dwyer, is willing to aid films beyond their KQED screening. "If it is a show I think may have wider appeal, I help them to find a way to distribute it and get wider exposure."
The series air year-round, averaging 13 episodes of Viewpoints and 30 Docs of the Bay each year. But KQED doesn’t limit its work with independent producers to two shows. "If there is a work I think the Bay Area would be interested in seeing, I will buy it and air it outside either of these two series," adds Dwyer.
Est. aud.: Approx. 55,000 (per episode). Season: Year round. Deadline: On-going. Payment: $10-$20/min. Rights: non-exclusive; 4 broadcasts/3 years. Contact: Scott Dwyer, KQED, 2601 Mariposa St., San Francisco, CA 94110; (415) 553-2218; firstname.lastname@example.org
The Territory, KUHT/Houston
Begun in 1975 by a Houston media arts center called the Southwest Alternative Media Project (SWAMP), The Territory is the oldest show of its kind in the country. Seen in 10 Texas cities, The Territory is a collaboration between SWAMP, Houston Public Television/KUHT-TV, and the Austin Museum of Art, with cooperation from the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. For 23 seasons, the show has acted as an electronic art gallery, on-going film festival, and opportunity for Texas audiences to see works by independent filmmakers from around the globe. The works aired are diverse, from digital animation on video to short narratives on film. Each show is a half-hour and focuses on a single theme, such as Crazy Love, Childhood Visions, or Unruly Women.
Est. aud.: 12 million (potential). Season: 12 weeks (late Oct.-Jan.). Deadline: April 30 for 1999 season. Payment: $35/min. Rights: non-exclusive; 2 broadcasts. Contact: SWAMP, 1519 W. Main, Houston, TX 77006; (713) 522-8292; fax: 522-0953; email@example.com; www.swamp.org
MN-TV, KTCA/Twin Cities, MN
Suspended in 1995 after five seasons due to cuts in CPB funding, MN-TV will return this fall. During the interim, the station maintained its relationship with independents, airing works as part of independent and new television presentations. Now that MN-TV is returning, there will again be a venue for shorts. The return season will premiere this fall with four one-hour programs. MN-TV is a collaboration of Cable Access St. Paul, the Independent Feature Project/North, Intermedia Arts, the Minnesota Film Board, the Playwright’s Center, the University Film Society, and the Walker Art Center. The last season included 15 programs comprising 37 pieces, with each program centered around a theme, such as Loss, Therapy, or Americana.
Est. aud.: approx 30,000 (per episode). Season: Late fall. Deadline: On-going. Payment: Under 10 min. $300/ $20 each additional min. Rights: non-exclusive; 4 broadcasts/3 years. Contact: KCTA TV, Twin Cities Public Television, 172 East 4th St., St. Paul, MN 55101; (651) 222-1717; fax: 229-1282.
video i, KTEH/San Jose
The sixth season of this showcase for Bay Area filmmakers began in February. Initially begun as a local forum for KTEH-produced works, video i now accepts submitted works. Genre is unimportant; documentary, animation, dramatic, and experimental works have all found an outlet to new audiences through video i’s consistently dynamic approach. This series is heavily publicized by the station, which often features the show on the front of its program guide. video i is headed up by Danny McGuire, who himself has been producing independent works for the station for the last two decades. McGuire keeps the red tape to a minimum, taking the time to answer filmmaker inquiries, personally when possible. The scope of the show has expanded with help from outside funding sources such as the San Jose Arts Commission. The series broadcasts on Monday nights at 10 p.m.
Est aud.: 700,000 (weekly station accum.) Season: Feb.-Sept. Deadline: On-going. Payment: $250 (40-60 min.); $125 (25-40 min.); $75 (15-25 min.); $50 (under 15 min.) Rights: non-exclusive; 2 broadcasts/1 year. Contact: Danny McGuire, KTEH, 1585 Schallenberger Rd., San Jose, CA 95131; (408) 795-5400; fax: 995-5446; www.kteh.org
Midnight Theatre, KCTS/Seattle
For several years now, Seattle has unveiled its independent showcase at the stroke of midnight. Midnight Theatre showcases Washington, British Columbia, and Portland independent film- and videomakers, gathering submissions from area artists with the aid of area media centers like 911 and Wiggly World. In addition to its Seattle-area viewership, the show is seen on cable in southwest Washington and Vancouver, B.C. and via satellite in select areas throughout the rest of Canada. Midnight Theatre shows a wide variety of lengths (from 30 seconds to 2 hours) and genres (including dramatic narrative, documentary, animation, performance, and experimental video art). A three-member panel consisting of film festival jurors curates the show.
Est. aud.: 50,000-100,000 (per episode). Season: Saturdays at midnight; 12 episodes/41 films. Deadline: Undetermined; early submissions welcome. Payment: $10/minute; $600 maximum. Rights: non-exclusive; 3 broadcasts/3 years. Contact: KCTS 9 Television, Midnight Theatre, Ted Esser, 401 Mercer St., Seattle, WA 98109; (206) 443-4291; fax: 443-6691; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.kcts.org/productions/midnight
Reel NY, WNET/New York
After the independent showcase series Independent Focus was pulled off the air in 1992, New York’s media community rallied. Then AIVF executive director Ruby Lerner, Media Alliance’s Mona Jimenez, and Women Make Movies’ Terry Lawler approached WNET’s Garrison Botts with an idea for the show that would become Reel NY. Begun as a week-long televised film and video festival, Reel NY has become became the Big Apple’s primary outlet for independent work on television.
Produced by Botts, the summer series runs eight weeks, with the hour-long show traditionally on Sunday nights at 11 p.m. This season it moves to Fridays at 8 p.m. starting June 11 in hopes of attracting more viewers. The shows are repeated in a late night slot during the course of the season. In the first three seasons, Reel NY had different celebrity hosts (Laurie Anderson, Fran Lebowitz, and Rosie Perez), but this year the films will be introduced by the artists themselves. Other additions are an interactive website and the inclusion of some classic works about New York, such as Francis Thompson’s N.Y., N.Y. and D.A. Pennebaker’s Daybreak Express. "I’m very excited about this season and the new element of complexity the older work will bring," says Botts.
Est. aud.: Season three reached a total of 685,000 households. Season: Eight weeks/approx. 26 films. Deadline: Ongoing. Payment: $55/min.; $50 flat fee/under 10 min. Rights: non-exclusive; 3 broadcasts/3 years. Contact: Reel NY, 450 West 33rd St., New York, NY 10001; (212) 560-1313; fax: 560-1314; www.wnet.org/reelnewyork
Independent Images WHYY/Philadelphia-Delaware
Begun in 1985 with a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, Independent Images’ current format is a week of hour-long shows exhibiting the best work they’ve received. The call for entries works as a competition in which the top 20 to 25 "winners" are then compiled into the five shows for that season. "They’re all considered the first place winners," say Darian Bagley, the show’s producer. "We try to award them by paying them. Hopefully we inspire people to do more things. We wish we could pay them a bit more–we’re trying to get that upped." The criteria for judging encompass both the creative (writing, acting, originality) and the technical (sound, editing, direction). New judges, mined from local media companies, are utilized each season to select winners. The show is broadcast on both WHYY stations, one in Philadelphia, the other in Delaware.
Est. aud.: 13,500 (combined PA & DE audiences). Season: Airs in September; 1 hour show; 11 p.m.-12 a.m.; 5 shows M-F. Deadline: May 28. Payment: $100 for films under 5 min.; $20/min. for shows up to 60 min. Rights: non-exclusive; 3 screenings/3 years. Contact: Darian Bagley; WHYY, Independence Mall West, 150 North 6th St., Philadelphia, PA 19106; (215) 351-1200; www.whyy.org
Rather than look for a particular type of film, WGBH’s program coordinator Chad Davis says he keeps an eye out for pieces that tell a compelling story well and are backed by quality technical aspects. The broadcast department screens and acquires both fiction and nonfiction in short and feature length.
Last year, breaking from tradition, WGBH put out its call for submissions in late fall, seeking entries exclusively from New England filmmakers. The show has been running since 1993, but in years past the submission process had been more passive; now organizers are actively seeking films. If the response continues to be positive, they are looking to make this an annual request. They accept submissions all year long, but won’t actively be seeking films again until the fall. "We’re always looking for good stories told well," assures Davis.
Est. aud.: approx. 55,000 (per episode). Season: April 6-May 11. Deadline: Sept. Payment: $1,000 per 1/2 hour. Rights: non-exclusive; 4 screenings/3 years. Contact: Chad Davis, Program Coordinator, WGBH/ WGBX, Viewpoint, Broadcast Dept., 125 Western Ave., Boston, MA 02134; (651) 492-2777 x. 2647; fax: 787-0714; www.wgbh.org
Maine Independents ,Maine Network/Bangor
This past January saw the emergence of another acquisitions showcase, this one high in the northeast. Premiering on January 9 and continuing for 13 weeks on Saturdays at 6 p.m., Maine Independents represents what series producer and program manager Bernie Roscetti hopes will be a new staple in local broadcasting. The upcoming fall season will include a primetime special featuring the show’s best. Maine Independents prefers, but is not limited to, films or videos made by Maine-based producers or works about Maine or its people. The show may expand to include New England and the rest of the U.S., but quality films with no connection to Maine can still find a home. "That does not disqualify any production. We can still place it into our programming elsewhere," says Roscetti.
Est. aud.: 10,000. Season: Jan-April; repeated May-Sept. Deadline: On-going. Payment: up to $300 for a half hour. Rights: non-exclusive; 2 broadcasts during season. Contact: Bernie Roscetti, Maine Network, 65 Texas Ave., Bangor, ME 14401; (207) 941-1010; www.mpbc.org/tv/shows/independents
The Screening Room , WXXI/Rochester, NY
Conceived as a showcase for regional work, the station didn’t receive enough work to fill out a series during its inital call for entries, so they’ve expanded the call nationwide. The Screening Room will be broadcast as a weekly primetime showcase which will also feature interviews with producers and local film experts. Submissions are not limited by genre or length, but under 55 min. is preferred.
Est. Aud. 12,000. Season: April 15-June. Deadline: On-going. Payment: No payment, but show includes video tags at the end of each program offering viewers producer contact info. Rights: non-exclusive; one screening. Contact: Kevin Meyers, WXXI, 280 State St., Box 21, Rochester, NY 14601; (716) 258-0238; email@example.com; www.wxxi.org
Independent Eye, Maryland Public Television/Owings Mills
Now in its fifth season, Independent Eye is organized by Zvi Shoubin, the vice president of programming at Maryland Public TV and Elliot Wiley, an independent producer hired annually to curate the series. Independent Eye looks for innovative, well-produced films–regardless of genre. Submissions accepted from an as yet unannounced date in late November/early December to mid-February.
Est. aud.: 15,000. Season: April 22-May 27. Payment: none. Rights: non-exclusive rights for one broadcast. Contact: Zvi Shoubin, Maryland Public Television, 11767 Owings Mills Blvd., Owings Mills, MD 21117; REJWILEY@aol.com; www. mpt.prd/madebympt/independenteye
Remember, PBS stations are always looking for high-quality programming, regardless of whether they have an assigned anthology series. They want submissions from those who live in and have a deep understanding of their community. So even if your affiliate is not listed here–or rather, especially if your affiliate isn’t listed here–give them a call and ask about their independent acquisition series. Be tenacious. If they don’t currently accept independent work, ask why they don’t and when they will. Make sure it is the right person telling you "no," and then don’t take it for an answer.