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Can Public TV and Indie Filmmakers Get Along?

At the University Film and Video conference in August, the challenging but rewarding relationship between indie filmmakers and public TV was celebrated—by pubtv insiders as well as indies.

 Panel on public TVAs filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz said in launching the panel discussion, indie filmmakers have a long and sometimes fractious history with public TV, and one that has resulted in more opportunities for makers and more diverse programming. In the 1980s, a decade of continuous and often contentious pressure—for more programming time for indies, who offer the most diverse perspectives and voices on public TV--created the documentary production public TV unit ITVS.

 “We can have a voice in public TV precisely because it is public,” he said. “That’s not true of the commercial channels that also take our work. We value public TV.”

Balancing act.

 Indie Caucus logoIn the last year, indies have been loud and clear in their support for Independent Lens and POV, two public TV series whose prime-time slots were in jeopardy.  The Indie Caucus (Ruiz is on the steering committee) led the effort. The series have been reinstated, for now, on Monday nights at 10pm, partly as a result of that pressure.

 But isn’t it dangerous for a filmmaker to put pressure on the service you want to take your work? “It is always a balancing act, to be both advocate and producer,” Ruiz admitted. “And this can be a tense relationship. But sometimes, it’s better to be feared than ignored.” In the end, he said, public TV needs indies as much as indies need public TV.

 Joseph Tovares, senior VP for diversity and innovation at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which manages the federal funding given to public TV, agreed. He noted that his relationship with independents is crucial to his job encouraging minority participation in the service. “The projects I’m responsible for mostly go to Independent Lens and POV,” he said.

Local is key.

But he also pointed out that a good PBS slot isn’t enough. “What happens on the ground locally, when the station takes the film? Engagement is key,” he said. “Stations are the secret weapon in public media. We have what cable doesn’t have, that local presence. The films are a way for stations to engage with communities.”

Of course, too often stations don’t have a vibrant relationship with communities that may be interested in independent documentary work. What then? Elizabeth Coffman from Loyola University Chicago talked about her and other indie producers’ experiences pressuring Chicago public TV station WTTW to get more diverse programming. WTTW carries Independent Lens and POV in primetime. As well, WTTW has begun conversations with the indies to develop a TV lab focused on innovation, diversity and the city, and to work with indies to do it.

Coffman stressed the common interests of indies and public TV, even though they may not always be recognized. “We want to help build WTTW’s brand,” Coffman said. “Members of our group have received money from WTTW and had our work shown on the channel. We love public TV. At the same time, it’s true that we only got an audience at WTTW because of some negative publicity. But ultimately we’re on the same side.”

In the hot seat.

Pamela Aguilar, newly at PBS as director of programming and development and charged with liaising with indies, said, “It’s exciting that these conversations are happening now. Prior to joining PBS, I was an indie producer, and among other things worked closely with Bernardo [Ruiz]."

Aguilar highlighted PBS’ new strategy for promoting indie film, another result of last year’s listening tour and discussions. At least part of the lineups for Independent Lens and POV will be carried by all stations at the same time, making national promotion possible. More money will be dedicated to promotion. And some shows, such as Stanley Nelson’s Black Panthers, will get special highlighting.

“It’s not always easy to be in the hot seat,” Aguilar said, “but indies and the Indie Caucus have really elevated the discourse. It’s important that indies continue to press and for us on the public media side to collaborate on ways to move forward.”

Tovares agreed. “I’m trying to do some of the work inside the system that Elizabeth and Bernardo are doing from the outside,” he said.  

Beyond broadcast.

 Everyone also is looking at beyond broadcast, at how public TV will showcase such work in the digital space. Tovares encouraged indies to pay attention to big pubcasting issues beyond programming, such as spectrum auctions, and to be active in the digital spaces.

 “Digital has to be part of our thinking from the start,” Aguilar said. “We need every program to come in the door at PBS with a multiplatform initiative. If you’re not pitching me a project that has this, it won’t translate.”

Handwringing about diversity.

Chart on diversity from CMSI studyThe Center for Media & Social Impact’s latest research got vigorous discussion. That research shows that Independent Lens and POV feature more shows with at least one female or minority director and speaking role than commercial cable documentary series. Further, the curated series of independent work are generally more diverse than public TV documentary series that do not feature independent work.  In fact, most public TV documentary series that do not feature indie work have fewer shows with at least one female or minority director and speaking role than commercial cable.

 “Many of my students are people of color,” said Jennifer Maytorena Taylor, “and public TV can be an important resource for them, but they’re not always interested or even aware of it.” Aguilar noted that public TV has two big demographics: children and the elderly. (Further, the pledge population is largely white, female and older.) “How do we close that gap?” she asked. “It’s a balancing act. We can’t alienate pledge audience but we need to reach new audiences.”

 “There’s a lot of handwringing about the lack of diversity in public broadcasting,
 noted Ruiz, “and talk about incentives to make it more diverse. But it shouldn’t need incentives, it should be part of public TV’s DNA. We hope that is happening with changes in leadership such as Pam Aguilar.”

 With this remark, Ruiz made clear that the contentious but productive relationship between indies and public TV is about what is, and isn’t, core to public TV’s mission.