How Far We've Come

In 1988, 19-year-old Joanna Katz and her friend were abducted at gunpoint by five men who took turns raping, beating, and torturing them. Joanna managed to escape and later testified in the trials that led to the sentencing of all five men to 30 to 35 years in prison.

“But that was not the end of it,” says PBS “Independent Lens” series producer Lois Vossen. “Every time one of the five men came up for parole, Katz had to drive five hours to the parole hearings to tell her story again. This would happen five times every year.”

Hers was the kind of story that required the singular, sustained attention that a television news program cannot offer. Katz turned to local television news producer-turned-documentarian Liz Oakley, allowing her to document seven years of frustration over having been forced to relive the trauma again and again in order to keep her assailants behind bars.

And Oakley then turned to the Independent Television Service (ITVS) for the funding that allowed her to complete Sentencing the Victim. The documentary aired nationally in 2004 on “Independent Lens”, a platform for independents created by ITVS in partnership with PBS.

Four months later, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford signed Bill S.935, designed to ease the burden of the parole process on crime victims, and similar legislation is currently being undertaken in several other states.

“That was a real validation of our mission,” says ITVS director of programming Claire Aguilar. “It was a case of a voice that was not being heard and all that was needed was a platform.”

After intense lobbying by independent media groups, including AIVF, ITVS, which celebrates it’s 15th anniversary this year, was established by Congress in the Public Telecommunications Act of 1988 and it wrote its first checks to independent filmmakers in 1991. Its mandate was “to expand the diversity and innovativeness of programming available to public broadcasting.”

There was an early tension between ITVS and many in the independent film community who felt that ITVS took what the Village Voice once called “an adversarial and patronizing stance toward producers.” The conflict centered around a rigid standard contract that gave ITVS ultimate control over so many aspects of production and distribution, one that Taken for a Ride director Jim Klein told the Voice, “would have made independents independent in name only.”

The tension was due in part to the three occasionally conflicting constituencies ITVS was forced to serve by congressional mandate: independent filmmakers, public television, and the viewing public.

“A lot of independents knew that they were the force behind the founding of ITVS,” Aguilar says, “so they felt a real sense of ownership. That’s good, and that’s how it should be.”

Under the leadership of the late Jim Yee, who became ITVS president in 1993, the relationship between ITVS and many in the independent film community was eased, and the organization began to forge stronger bonds with local public television stations as well as with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which provides the lion’s share of ITVS’s annual budget.

A demonstrable turning point was the 1997 airing of David Sutherland’s “The Farmer’s Wife,” a three-part, ITVS-funded series that ran on “Frontline” was watched by 18 million viewers. According to Sutherland, ITVS not only avoided imposing any editorial constraints upon him, but actually helped to guarantee “my producer’s independence and editorial control in my co-production arrangement with “Frontline,” which was very important to me.”

Sutherland says that ITVS also funded $100,000 worth of outreach above the film’s original budget to help alert religious organizations and groups like Farm Aid about the airing. And ITVS employees even helped personally in ways Sutherland never expected. “Lois Vossen had actually come from a family farm,” he said, “and many times was able to calm Juanita [the farmer’s wife of the title] down when the film got closer to broadcast, and she and her family became more nervous.”

The success of “The Farmer’s Wife” and subsequent ITVS-funded “Frontline” and “P.O.V.” programs led to a further strengthening of ties with PBS—“We went from being an orphan child to being a supplier of content,” says Aguilar—and in 2002 ITVS landed its own regular distribution outlet with “Independent Lens,” a 29-week anthology series that covers “the whole spectrum of independent filmmaking—innovative documentaries, dramas, shorts, and animated works united by the creative freedom, artistic achievement, and unwavering vision of their independent producers.”

ITVS president Sally Jo Fifer explains it like this: “In 2002, we approached PBS about ‘Independent Lens’ and said, ‘Look, independent has been your brand for a long time, and we at public television are losing ground to the Sundance Channel, the Independent Film Channel. Audiences are clamoring for this thing. Let’s take this series to the hard feed, and along with our friends at “P.O.V.,” we’ll meet their needs here, on public television.’ And, to their credit, they agreed to do it.”

The series has received rave reviews, both from viewers and from the filmmakers who have been associated with it.

Producer Chris Christopher’s July ’64, which documents the Rochester race riots of 1964, was aired in February on “Independent Lens.” Christopher says he and partner Carvin Eison were very pleased with the support they received from ITVS and the “Independent Lens” staff. “They are very clear that they want you to succeed, and their involvement extends far beyond financial support. Their feedback throughout the editing process was insightful, respectful, and clear. Everyone made us feel as if July ’64 was their number one priority. This is certainly a very special skill considering how many producers they work with.”

In 1997, the FCC assigned digital spectrum to broadcasters, sending a clear signal that the analog to digital revolution in television would happen sooner rather than later. And when a 2003 deadline was set for public television stations to begin Digital Television (DTV) broadcasting is was clear that public television was meant to lead rather than follow commercial broadcasters into the new digital age.

The new service has created a massive need for new programming, and, as Vossen says, “Whenever there is a new platform, we try to carve out a place for it.”

The first ITVS/DTV initiative was an hour-long segment on Town Square, a nightly four-hour block of news and information programming.

Fifer says the organization plans to be aggressive about the challenges posed by new media outlets. “The idea is to be responsive to the growing, changing marketplace,” she says, “and not to just manage those changes. We want to drive those changes.”

One of those changes is the challenge (and opportunity) raised by the growing global market for independent documentary films. Through its ITVS International arm and the International Media Development Fund, independent filmmakers from outside the United States are offered funding and help in connecting with American audiences.

ITVS is getting into the international distribution business too, offering resources to under-funded and programming-hungry public television stations in countries that would not otherwise have access to independent American voices.

The first new series in this initiative, True Stories: Life in the USA, hosted by Benicio del Toro, has already been made available in several international markets. The idea, according to Vossen, is to offer international viewers a picture of the United States quite different from the one offered by reruns of commercial television series and Hollywood movies.

But the investment in international distribution is a move that might be alarming to independent filmmakers who are already struggling to cobble together the funds to sustain their work, and who rely on the additional funds offered by the international distribution networks that already deliver independently produced content to television markets in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Asia, and Australia.

Vossen is quick to alleviate these concerns. “We’re not trying to compete with the other international distributors our filmmakers might be working alongside,” she says. “We’re not trying to compete with the established distributors. We’re getting involved in new markets where these programs would not have otherwise been shown, places like Malawi, for example, where there is no money for this kind of programming.”

Another challenge posed to television broadcasters of all stripes is the rise of the internet. ITVS was an early adopter of internet-based interactivity strategies. As early as 1996—the year before the debut of the DVD player—it launched www.itvs.org. By 1998, the website offered broadcast schedules, external links to producer-created content, teachers’ guides, producers’ resources, and an electronic press room. When Our House, a documentary about the children of gay and lesbian parents, aired in 2000, the website hosted its first live chat, allowing viewers to participate in the conversation initiated by the documentary.

This spring, “Independent Lens” is sponsoring its first-ever Online Shorts Festival, featuring short-form films of ten minutes or less in all genres. The winning film will receive a $2,500 prize and premiere on a PBS broadcast of “Independent Lens,” and the 10 runners-up will be published in streaming video on the “Independent Lens” website.

Though ITVS has yet to announce a strategy for addressing the new video streaming and podcasting capabilities offered by the iPod, it is not hard to imagine that the Online Shorts Festival will likely be a proving ground for the new technologies.

The year-long celebration in response to ITVS’s 15th anniversary has provided an opportunity for reflection upon what the organization has been and what it will become.

According to “P.O.V.”/“American Documentary” executive director Cara Mertes, ITVS’s greatest success can be found in its bolstering of independent voices. “‘P.O.V.’ and ITVS owe their existence to the hard work and vision of the independent producing community in partnership with key funders and other advocates,” she says. “Over the years, the two organizations have supported and co-produced a number of outstanding ‘P.O.V.’ broadcasts. ITVS is one of the few places our producers can get critical resources to realize their projects, and we share a vision of supporting the most compelling independent stories about today’s realities.”

That success is easy to quantify. ITVS has funded over 600 films since 1991. It has prefigured, survived, and coexisted alongside the documentary and reality TV boom. It has become a force at the Sundance Film Festival, with seven shows premiering in 2004 alone, and one of them, Brother to Brother, taking the Special Jury Prize. It has funded independent voices to the tune of $800 million and helped many of them to find an audience. Through its Diversity Development Fund, it helps minority producers develop promising projects that might otherwise be denied start-up funding. And through “Independent Lens” and partnerships with programs like “P.O.V.” and “Frontline,” it continues to offer independent voices a regular forum on national broadcast television.

Challenges await. The political climate in Washington, D.C. is growing increasingly hostile to the funding of the arts in general, and public broadcasting specifically. The controversial nature of much of the programming funded by ITVS could make the organization a convenient target. And with the proliferation of new portable digital devices, the future of television itself is in question.

The future? Fifer is optimistic: “Our mission is more resolute than ever—to bring diverse voices to the public, and to use those stories to bring about change. And change happens person by person. What’s really unique about the stories we fund is that they ignite groups of people to band together and solve problems in their communities.

“That’s what makes public television different from the commercial venue. Independents stick with their story long enough to bring context and depth to the story, and then to enhance that story with action, to bring people together to think about how to solve a problem. That’s what leads to solutions. That’s why we’re still doing this after all these years.”

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