Big Bird and Beyond

Lois Vossen thinks she has the best job in the world. She works 60 hours a week, and much of her time is spent thinking about or watching films about some of the most deeply troubling aspects of humanity: genocide, the child sex trade, domestic abuse, and sweat shops, to name just a few. But Vossen remains optimistic. “A really well-made film even on the most troublesome topic can be uplifting because it’s helping to make the world more humane,” she says.

Vossen lives in San Francisco and works for the Independent Television Service (ITVS) as a series producer for the “Independent Lens” series, an hour-long program broadcast on most PBS member stations every Tuesday night at 10. She and three colleagues (from PBS and ITVS) screen hundreds of films and travel to film festivals throughout the world, watching as many as 40 documentaries in a week, seeking out voices that haven’t been heard, important issues that haven’t been covered, and innovative and compelling styles of telling a story through film.

They whittle those down to roughly 35 independently produced documentary, dramatic, and short films, which they acquire for about $20,000 each and broadcast the films—without changing or editing them—during the series’ 29-week season. “There’s no filter,” Vossen says. “No focus group or marketing person tells the filmmaker to change the ending, or to add something, to make it more appealing for X demographic. It is citizen storytellers talking directly to their fellow citizens. It’s free to every American household and seen in a commercial-free environment. That is phenomenal in my opinion.”

Wednesday mornings are one of the most rewarding perks of Vossen’s job. That’s when she reads the sometimes hundreds of responses that viewers post on the web about the program the night before. They write in from all over the country, from all walks of life. Some disagree with the content, but the vast majority include an element of heartfelt gratitude for having raised their awareness to an issue, moved or inspired them in some way. “I often feel like nothing I can do can make any possible difference to worldwide problems,” writes a viewer from Minnesota after watching Sisters in Resistance, a documentary about four women in the French Resistance. “This film motivates me to try. Thank you.”

Christianity Today called “Independent Lens” “TV’s best kept secret.” The Kansas City Star called it “the greatest showcase of independent film on TV today.” And Nancy Franklin of the New Yorker wrote, “Watching ‘Independent Lens’…is like going into an independent bookstore—you don’t always find what you were looking for but you often find something you didn’t even know you wanted.”

As social critics predict that American culture is fast on its way to becoming even more polarized and stratified—politically, economically, culturally, and generationally—this seems a rare opportunity for those who live in red and blue states, religious and secular, Republican and liberal, straight and gay, white and black, and all of those shades in between to share a common media experience and about an issue decidedly out of their everyday experience.

It could be argued that this does not happen in the same way—with outreach efforts and supporting curriculum ideas for educators—anywhere else on the spectrum. And that’s what public television, created in the late 1960s, was designed to be—not just an alternative but an antidote to the “vast wasteland” of commercial television.

The Public Broadcasting Act passed in 1967 mandated that public broadcasting must have “instructional, educational, and cultural purposes,” serve as “a forum for controversy and debate” and “a voice for groups in the community that may
otherwise be unheard” so that we could “see America whole, in all its diversity.”

From this vantage point, at least with these 29 hours of
programming, public broadcasting seems to be alive and well, executing its mandate beautifully.

The Trouble with Buster
Now pan over to the cartoon bunny Buster on PBS Kids. Children’s and educational programming have always been public television’s safe haven. In 1995, Newt Gingrich proposed to eliminate federal funding for PBS and learned that no one can go up against Big Bird and win. So the controversy last January involving a PBS Kid’s program was particularly touchy.

In “Postcards from Buster,” a new program developed to provide an after-school, non-commercial alternative for the 4-8-year-old crowd, Buster travels around the country meeting real-life children and experiencing their very different cultures and communities. In the controversial “Sugartime!” episode, Buster travels to Vermont and meets up with his host, 11-year-old Emma, to learn about farm life and maple sugaring. It’s all very innocuous until they meet Emma’s parents, who are both women. When Buster meets Emma’s friend Lily, also being raised by two women, he comments, “That’s a lot of moms,” the show’s only reference to same-sex parenting.

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings found the episode inappropriate for children, and on her second day on the job she requested that PBS refund the federal money ($125,000) provided to produce the program. In a letter to PBS President Pat Mitchell this past January, Spellings wrote that the purpose of the funding received from Congress and the Department of Education “certainly was not to introduce this kind of subject matter to children.”

On that same day, PBS announced its decision not to distribute the “Sugartime!” episode to its member stations, stating that “we recognize this is a sensitive issue, and we wanted to make sure that parents had an opportunity to introduce this subject to their own children in their own time.” PBS insists that its decision not to distribute the program nationally was prompted by concerns from its member stations and not in response to Spellings’s letter. Despite having organized an internal investigation presumably to prove that point, Mitchell announced in February that she would step down as president when her contract expires in June 2006. She said that she felt no pressure, either from outside or inside, in making her decision to leave.

Regardless of the panel’s findings, the “Sugartime!” controversy illustrates the PBS conundrum—its lack of independent funding—and raises the billion-dollar question: Can PBS programming be truly independent, and true to its mandate, if 50 percent of its annual operating budget comes from the government and corporate underwriters? Can PBS be free from political or corporate pressure if they are dependent on them for their existence? The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which provides fund to PBS, NPR, and PRI, was designed for precisely this purpose—to shield PBS from political meddling. But it appears the firewall is down.

Critics argue that PBS, pressured by budget constraints, has cozied up to corporate sponsors, to a conservative administration and Congress, and to the former FCC chief Michael Powell (who left his post in March), and to Republican board members at CPB, by changing its programming to include shows that feature such conservative commentators as CNN’s Tucker Carlson and Paul Gigot from The Wall Street Journal. Observers wonder how they could possibly be considered an alternative to commercial media—they are the commercial media. Meanwhile, critics on the right have accused public broadcasting of being a hotbed of liberalism.

When Sally Jo Fifer, president of ITVS, hears those claims, she thinks the definitions of liberal and conservative need to be recast. “Are issues of cultural diversity and inequity liberal?” she asks. “Do liberals own the problems of poverty because they talk about it? Are any topics that deal with morality somehow a conservative topic?”

The Funding Conundrum
It’s hard to disagree that America’s public broadcast system is undercapitalized. It is the least publicly funded public broadcaster in any democratic country. The average American pays about $1 per year through federal taxes. The average Canadian pays $17. In Great Britain, it’s $27 per person. In a recent speech, Mitchell pointed out that PBS spends less producing 2,000 hours of programming than HBO spent to promote “The Sopranos.”

The problem is not just the amount of funding but its reliance on the political tides of government, on corporations and foundations, on unpopular fund drives and on decreasing membership dues at PBS’s 49 member station.

This precarious funding situation puts at risk not only public television’s editorial integrity but also its non-commercial integrity. Recently PBS allowed underwriting spots to increase from 15 seconds to 30 seconds. They are, in effect, commercials—arguably toned down, but still corporations selling their “hope in the future” and their wares, even to children. It’s five minutes compared to commercial television’s 17 minutes, but it’s still advertising

To solve the funding crisis, there are several proposals on the table to secure a multibillion-dollar trust fund from Congress. Mitchell has proposed a $5 billion trust fund that could be financed by the FCC auction of the analog spectrum (publicly owned airwaves worth several tens of billions of dollars) to wireless companies. A permanent trust fund would help ease the financial pressures of the government mandated transition from analog broadcast to digital television, estimated to cost public television nearly $2 billion. It would also help public television reinvent itself in the new media landscape. For example, more than 2,000 new digital channels will be available to public television, but there is little to no money to develop new programming for those channels.

There are widely divergent ideas of how the trust fund should be set up and what type of programming vision it should fund. And there are concerns that the discussion is not open or inclusive enough. The challenge, and it’s a serious one, is to somehow present a unified voice before Congress. Any hint of divisiveness could easily aid critics and undermine the initiative.

Does PBS matter?

The media landscape has changed dramatically in the 36 years since PBS was created. Instead of three networks, PBS is now competing with some 500 channels (although they are all owned by six media conglomerates). And some of those channels (HBO, A&E, Discovery, Sundance) are broadcasting the kinds of shows that were exclusively the domain of PBS.

The issue isn’t so much the content, according to Sally Jo Fifer, but rather the intention that matters and separates public interest media from commercial media. Fifer makes an analogy: “If we’re having a conversation and your goal is to sell me a vacuum cleaner, that is going to be a very different interaction than if we’re talking about how to solve a problem.” PBS treats the viewer as a citizen and not as a consumer. Its goal is to inform and engage the public as citizens, to build and take care of healthy communities—not to increase the bottom line.

But in today’s entertainment-culture-on-steroids, how does PBS interest the public in becoming engaged and informed without resorting to commercial crassness? And furthermore, is PBS the best institution, and should it be the only one to receive funding to accomplish this goal?

Expanding the Digital Horizon
“PBS will never be a significant player in the emerging digital landscape because of its inability to free itself of governmental pressures,” says Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. He points out that even if the trust fund initiative is successful, Congress will still appropriate the money annually. Their desperation for funding, Chester believes, will lead to inevitable concessions that will take them further away from their mandate. Having said that, Chester adds, “We should try to fix it if we can, and it’s very important for independents to enter into the debate and remind the public that PBS has a larger mission than just education.” What Chester finds hopeful is that with the new media landscape of expanded cable, satellite, and broadband, it’s now possible to bypass the public broadcasting system.

Clay Shirky, media consultant and New York University adjunct professor, describes the current media situation as a “freak out.” Most people agree that it’s a virtual free-for-all, and it’s anyone’s best guess how it will all play out. What seems to be clear is that the media incumbents (both commercial and public) stand to lose the most. The tendency is to enter into lockdown mode to protect your share of the pie. For advocates of public media, a vital component of a healthy democracy is at stake.
“If free and independent journalism committed to telling the truth without fear or favor is suffocated, the oxygen goes out of democracy,” Bill Moyers warned in a keynote address to the National Conference on Media Reform.

But what “free and independent journalism” looks like in the future is still being defined.

Google and Yahoo, among others, have begun indexing the content of video from the web and from broadcast and satellite television. It probably won’t be long before we can watch and search entire programs on the web as well as access archives. Emerging Pictures is creating a network of digital theatres at art and science institutions throughout the world, lowering distribution costs and broadening distribution possibilities for independent film. The company is also syndicating and digitally broadcasting entire film festivals. The Internet Archive is building a digital library of internet sites and will act as a library, providing free access to everyone. Al Gore and Joel Hyatt have plans for a new cable and satellite network that promises to
create a whole new paradigm for the creation and distribution of information and to be “the antidote to the established corporate media.”

Peter Leyden, the former features editor of Wired and now the so-called knowledge developer at Global Business Network, studied possible scenarios for the future of independent media. What he found exciting was this bottom-up phenomenon of media being fueled by the Millennial Generation, people born after 1982. Leyden says they are tech-savvy, “totally energized,” and always connected. They’re also incredibly enthusiastic and optimistic about the future, and define success in a different way. If someone in India watches their skateboard video, they’re thrilled.

So while the media incumbents, mostly baby boomers, are talking about a daunting, overwhelming, undercapitalized, and somewhat depressing future, these kids are revved up and also widely ignored by the establishment. “The worst thing you could do would be to try to shut them up,” Leyden says. “They’re the future.”

Harnessing the Unknown
Greater access to information alone does not guarantee a greater perspective or deeper understanding of the world. So who or what will organize and filter this new media for us? How will we know what sources are reliable, or will we care? Who will we trust to give us fair, accurate, and balanced information, or will we even seek it out?

Will we organize ourselves around politics and rely more on partisan-driven blogs? Will we resort to vigilante-like journalism, the kind that took down CBS anchor Dan Rather and CNN news executive Eason Jordan? House parties for Fahrenheit 9/11. House parties for Farenhype 9/11. Where and how will we come together?

Perhaps the only certainty is that the technology train is moving forward at warp speed and no one is going to slow it down while public interest media figures out who it wants to be.

Clearly, there is no magic pill that will ensure a thriving independent media. ITVS’s Fifer suggests that we think of it as an ecosystem and focus on ways to make sure it’s healthy. We need to ensure that a good supply of content exists, as well as secure distribution platforms to showcase it. Widely available and inexpensive production equipment does not mean that anyone will know how to tell a good story. We need to support media arts centers, production and media literacy programs in schools, film festivals, as well as public broadcasting.

Leyden summarizes the task at hand: Somehow we need to figure out what can be done, and done well, by the commercial, market-driven forces, what can be done well by a new generation using cutting-edge technologies, and what are the holes that need to be covered by public broadcasting so that we have a vibrant media spectrum and a true democracy.

How we achieve that might not be the best job in the world, but it’s an important one.

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