5 for the Future

For all of CPB’s lofty intentions, the ultimate shape of public television in the digital age will be fashioned by those who actually ply the trade – the artists and producers. Here is a short list of five CPB-funded projects that provides a peek at the kind of work that’s headed our way.

Local News

Among the most ambitious of the CPB-supported digital projects is Lumiere Productions’ five-hour verité series filmed behind the scenes at a local TV newsroom (WCNC, an NBC-affiliate in Charlotte, NC). Calling his work a "dramatic documentary," producer David Van Taylor hopes to shed light on the issues surrounding media and democracy. This is not the first time that Van Taylor has touched on this theme, having co-directed (with R.J. Cutler) A Perfect Candidate, the acclaimed chronicle of the Oliver North/Chuck Robb 1994 Senate race in Virginia. And while local TV news operations might seem like an even less likely subject, their nightly broadcasts, Van Taylor points out, are still the most trusted source of news and information for the majority of Americans. Moreover, just as local news has been affected by new technology (WCNC, for example, maintains an ambitious web site as a way of expanding its local coverage), so will Van Taylor turn to the Internet, working with the Boston-based Roundtable organization to design an on-line educational and outreach strategy. In the process, the Local News web site will bring together news professionals, media critics, and interested viewers to discuss how the news can be more responsive to community needs. With a projected broadcast date during the 2001/02 season, Local News will launch its web site well in advance of that date to build interest in both the series and its subject matter.

The Language of Names

In one sense, filmmaker Alan Berliner’s latest work was born of the Internet itself. Long fascinated by what he terms "the power, the mystery, the meaning of names," especially as they relate to one’s identity, Berliner conducted an on-line search to track down every "Alan Berliner" in the world. He found a dozen – 10 in the U.S. and two in Europe (although three were located the old-fashioned way, through the letters sent to some 750 Berliner families). Berliner invited them all to dinner in New York, where he filmed interviews with each one. Soon he’ll turn to the Internet again with an interactive web site that will include stories about names, various lists of names, and a number of other "nominal" activities. The mission of both the film and its accompanying web site, according to Berliner, is to change the way people think about names. "Through the everyday grid of language," he observes, "these are the melodies and the sounds that we call one another." For someone who has created highly personal films that look closely at his own family (e.g., Nobody’s Business, about his father, and Intimate Stranger, about his grandfather), Names is an unusually expansive project, one that has led the filmmaker in a number of different directions (from the National Linda Convention to the Jim Smith Society). In this capacity, the Internet has turned out to be a particularly useful extension to Berliner’s craft. "The web site is a big thing," he explains. "It means we’re not just making films anymore." The Internet, he adds, affects "the way that films extend out into the world, out into various communities, and the way that films connect to streams of information." Berliner hopes to have his own stream of information on-line by the end of the year, with the film to be completed by the spring of 2000.

Class in America

Although this series is not slated for broadcast until next year, its CPB-funded web site will be up by the end of 1999, "an advance guard for a PBS program, rather than simply a companion to it," according to filmmakers Louis Alvarez, Andrew Kolker, and Paul Stekler. Like their earlier documentary Vote for Me: Politics in America, the new work will illuminates both the lighter and darker sides of a topic that many Americans would rather not think about. The web site is designed to overcome that reluctance, using quizzes, surveys, and other illustrative material to stimulate discussions of American social class, all in advance of the broadcast. The site will also be used by the filmmakers to gather information on class differences, engaging visitors in conversations with one another and with the project team in order to influence the course of production. The Class in America web site, the filmmakers declare, "will force the on-line viewer, by means of some creative and non-threatening games, to place him or herself along the spectrum of American social class and to examine his or her own class prejudices."

The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords

Stanley Nelson’s documentary on the history of black newspapers in America has already had a major impact in a number of venues–as the centerpiece of PBS’s celebration of Black History Month earlier this year, as an interactive web site [www.pbs.org/blackpress], and as the winner of the Freedom of Expression Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Available for school and home use as a video and CD-ROM, Soldiers will soon take another step into the digital age in the form of a new DVD-ROM. Although it’s primarily a demonstration effort to explore the capabilities of the new high-capacity medium as a platform for "re-purposing" material originally produced in other formats, the new incarnation of Soldiers will also allow Nelson "to go back to the original film and tell some stories that we weren’t able to tell before." Also included will be interviews with Nelson and with Ron Carter (the jazz bassist and composer of Soldiers’ score), along with discussions with four working journalists in the black press today and examples of four black newspapers from the 1920s. Nelson is once again collaborating with Michelle Halsell, the NYU new-media graduate who produced both the Soldiers web site and CD-ROM. The new DVD platform promises to be even more interactive, allowing users to chart their own course through the various resources. And that, for Nelson, remains the major challenge of working in the new digital media, sharing control with the viewer by "figuring out a way to have these enhancements without interrupting the flow of the film.""We accept all formats," explained Always Independent Films (AIF) president Gary Zeidenstein. "We do have a screening process, [but] as long as it’s not the backyard homemade movie, we’re going to post it on the site." In its first few months AIF received some 300 entries and about 50 were rejected.

Joe Papp in Six Acts

As if it weren’t sufficiently daunting to try to capture the career of Joe Papp on film (a career that spanned some 450 productions in venues that ranged from his own Public Theater to Broadway to Shakespeare in the Park), co-producers Tracie Holder and Karen Thorsen make it clear that they have even larger goals in mind. "Our approach to Joe Papp," Holder explains, "is not really ‘Joe Papp: Man of Theater’ as much as it is using him as a prism to look at American society, and how he used his stages to create a home for people who felt marginalized from the mainstream, either politically or culturally." Even without its digital component, Joe Papp in Six Acts promises to make an important contribution to the American Masters catalog, especially if it is aired, as planned, in conjunction with a Great Performances presentation of one or more of Papp’s plays-on-film in April 2001. But a digitally enhanced version, accommodating both viewer interaction and classroom activities, could really bring to life Papp’s lifelong dream of art that is as engaging as it is accessible. "We care a great deal about making it more than a ‘push and click,’ " explains Thorsen, referring to the standard format that many online productions have adopted. "We would like it to have the potential for participation on the educational end that goes beyond traditional web sites. . . with curriculum guides and interactive elements that will push students away from the screen to try to create their own [theater] productions."

About :

Gary O. Larson [glarson@artswire.com] was a contributing editor at The Independent