Articulating Advocacy

In the first heart-wrenching minutes of Cynthia Wade's documentary Shelter Dogs, an unfortunate dog is injected with a euthanizing needle and put to sleep. It's not a particularly gratuitous shot, but it was enough to prompt some viewers on last year's festival circuit, to walk out of the theatre. 'We really struggled with that initial [scene of] euthanasia,' recalls Wade. 'Early on, I would wait for that first shot and when people would get up and leave, I'd count them. In some ways, it's a very polarizing film.'
March 1, 2004

In the first heart-wrenching minutes of Cynthia Wade’s documentary Shelter Dogs, an unfortunate dog is injected with a euthanizing needle and put to sleep. It’s not a particularly gratuitous shot, but it was enough to prompt some viewers on last year’s festival circuit, to walk out of the theatre. ‘We really struggled with that initial [scene of] euthanasia,’ recalls Wade. ‘Early on, I would wait for that first shot and when people would get up and leave, I’d count them. In some ways, it’s a very polarizing film.’

Wade doesn’t view Shelter Dogs as an advocacy doc, instead describing it as a portrait piece of Sue Sternberg, a controversial New York, U.S.-based animal shelter owner who supports decisions around when to euthanize an animal and when to let it live. But, Shelter Dogs was largely funded by animal welfare foundations such as The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the Kenneth A. Smart Charitable Trust – a detail that sounded alarm bells with other potential funders and broadcasters. Though Shelter Dogs was ultimately picked up by U.S.-based pay-cabler HBO, the filmmaker’s difficulty in getting TV financing as well as exposure due to the contentious nature of her film brings to light the issues surrounding broadcasters and advocacy.

Pat Aufderheide, communications professor at American University and director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Social Media, says an advocacy film is generally accepted to be a film that is backed by an organization to which the topic of the film relates, and to which there is the chance that the organization could influence the editorial line of the film. ‘Advocacy docs don’t make a claim to journalism,’ she explains. ‘They try to persuade people to a particular action, and they’re often part of a campaign or an organization that has a big say in what goes on [in the film].’

In TV-land, however, advocacy is in the eye of the gatekeeper, and the line tends to be drawn differently by pubcasters versus cablers. Pubcasters, on the whole, avoid advocacy programming and seek to ensure balance by adhering to strict guidelines about funding and journalistic principles. Cablecasters, on the other hand, largely catering to niche audiences, can be somewhat freer in terms of content and funding concerns, and in some cases, as with N.Y.-based Lifetime Television, have embraced advocacy as part of their programming mandate. ‘Increasingly, the outlet for controversial [programming] is cable,’ says Andy Schwartzman, president of D.C.-based Media Access Project, a non-profit law firm that promotes the voice of the public in media. ‘[Commercial] broadcasters have ceased to go after niche audiences … they just don’t see it as part of their mission.’


Public TV, whose overall goal is to enrich and inform its audience, is at the forefront when it comes to rules around advocacy programming. ‘Advocacy is really specific for us and it has to do with an organization that helps to pay for, or has editorial involvement, or that proposes a certain approach to the film,’ says Cara Mertes, executive director for the PBS strand ‘P.O.V.’ ‘If PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) sponsored an animal rights film, we would consider that advocacy. In fact, we couldn’t air it, because it’s against PBS regulations in terms of funding.’

To avoid airing films with hidden agendas, the Alexandria, U.S.-based Public Broadcasting Service has an editorial control test that investigates a film’s funding sources. If questions such as ‘Has the underwriter exercised editorial control?’ and ‘Might the public perceive that the underwriter has exercised editorial control?’ are answered in the affirmative, a film is considered to promote a certain stance on a topic and will not air on PBS, says Mertes. ‘That’s the biggest limitation,’ she continues. ‘Then, it’s a discussion about how well the story is told, and whether or not it’s fair. Because it is ‘P.O.V.’, we want a perspective, but we want to understand that the filmmaker has been fair in their portrayal.’

Although the CBC in Canada has similar guidelines, Wade’s Shelter Dogs aired on CBC Newsworld’s ‘The Passionate Eye’ last October. Catherine Olsen, commissioning editor for the strand, which focuses on docs with strong points of view, says pubcasters can still air controversial docs, but they must do so responsibly.

Since Newsworld is part of the CBC, it is subject to its guidelines, preventing Olsen from investing in or coproducing a film that has the backing of a special interest group. However, when it comes to acquiring films, she judges on a case-by-case basis. ‘When looking at a documentary that’s already completed, I first make a judgement on the story it tells,’ she says. ‘[Shelter Dogs] was very upfront about where it was coming from. There was no question that it was the perspective of one shelter and [Sternberg] had a very specific position on how she was going to deal with animals that entered her shelter. I thought that was a legitimate point of view and a very compelling story.’

Overall, Olsen says she stays away from films that are heavy-handed or try to twist the facts. She admits, however, that it’s easy to stray into the territory of advocacy, because the definition is subjective. ‘If you’re a filmmaker with a strong point of view and a good story to tell that doesn’t agree with where a viewer is coming from, they are likely to label that documentary a piece of advocacy journalism,’ she explains.

This is what Democracy Looks Like, a doc that aired on ‘The Passionate Eye’ in April, 2001, is a project that Olsen says could be seen as advocating a position. A coproduction between Seattle Independent Media Center and Big Noise Films, the film documents the 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle. The pubcaster had the filmmakers cut a 40-minute version of the film that removed its narration, which, Olsen says, also removed its somewhat heavy-handed undertone.

‘It was a case where they had a multitude of cameras on the street,’ says Olsen. ‘No question, they were coming from a very polarized position. But, their film is also an interesting reflection of what happened during those days, and we positioned it with other films as an example of what was happening as people were talking about globalization.’

Olaf Grunert, commissioning editor for Germany’s ZDF/ARTE, says he looks for programs that inform, but don’t preach. ‘Since we are public TV, I don’t like films which try to openly advertise something,’ he explains. ‘When the environmental movement started, there was the sense of, ‘we know the better way, and we’ll tell you the better way.’ But, it’s not my task to be a teacher. I don’t want to indoctrinate my audience.’

Grunert doesn’t steer clear of hard-hitting issues – topics recently covered include child prostitution, incest and child alcohol abuse. He will not, however, air a program that is funded by an organization that has a vested interest in the issues at hand. ‘If we do something on child abuse, we might go to an organization dealing with that issue to get information, but we would not use their money for [the program],’ says Grunert. ‘Even though it’s an important issue and we should inform, I don’t want to campaign and I don’t want to be the media for one organization.’

However, ZDF/ARTE’s Tuesday theme nights, which air docs about social issues, incorporate an outreach component. Common are expert discussions and organization profiles, during which viewers may call in for more information. But, Grunert stresses, ‘The film should be a film, and the information is another thing.’

Mette Hoffmann Meyer, commissioning editor and head of sales and coproduction for TV2 Denmark, echoes this sentiment. Though the commercial broadcaster with a public service remit does not have a formal policy on advocacy, Hoffmann says she doesn’t like films that dictate a line of thinking. ‘I just evaluate from film to film,’ she says. ‘I don’t like stories where the conclusion is clear – where you tell the audience what they should think.’ Her definition of an advocacy film? ‘If it’s manipulative in its form, then I would call it advocating.’


Meanwhile, New York-based cable net Lifetime Television has embraced advocating issues affecting women as part of its programming mandate. The female-targeted network has hosted documentary programs and outreach initiatives dealing with violence against women for four years, most recently with the commercial-free February airing of the doc Until the Violence Stops. Directed by first-time filmmaker Abby Epstein, the film was acquired from the V-Day organization, a fundraising and awareness-building movement that seeks to end violence against women. Until the Violence Stops screened at Sundance in January and chronicles the activities of V-Day, which grew out of Eve Ensler’s popular play, The Vagina Monologues. The film – originally 90 minutes, but cut to one hour to air on the network – features appearances by celebrities such as Jane Fonda and Salma Hayek.

Lifetime exec Meredith Wagner explains that the net pursued its ‘Our Lifetime Commitment: Stop Violence Against Women’ campaign – which includes documentary, public service announcements and outreach initiatives – because viewer research showed the issue is important to the channel’s primarily female audience. ‘We look for issues that have reasonance with our viewers,’ says Wagner. ‘Stopping violence is the mother lode issue for women.’

Lifetime has partnered with a myriad of non-profit, anti-violence organizations in the U.S., including the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, to provide information and resources for the campaign. ‘We work with [the organizations] to formulate our message,’ says Wagner. ‘Women want us to use the unique power we have to get their voices heard.’ Wagner admits that an advocacy doc may not get the ratings that a fiction film does, but says, ‘We get tremendous feedback from viewers [via emails and letters]. We air these programs because it’s the right thing to do.’

Similarly, Wade says she envisioned Shelter Dogs for HBO’s ‘America Undercover’ slot not only because of the channel’s sizeable audience, but because it was a good fit for her controversial film. The pay-channel came on-board when the film was in post-production, providing editing facilities – as well as editor Geof Bartz – and finishing funds. The doc premiered on ‘America Undercover’ in January.

‘Ultimately, HBO is the only broadcaster [in the U.S.] that would have backed my film,’ says Wade. ‘There was a certain amount of controversy around it; some of the extreme animal groups were upset that I was focusing on one character and a very controversial character. Of course,’ she adds, ‘that’s why HBO liked it.’

Wade says the animal welfare funding was not a concern for the pay-TV channel, but notes that her funders did not exert editorial input on the project. She admits, though, that culling funding from special interest groups can be potentially dangerous territory for an independent producer. ‘It’s a chicken and the egg thing with docs,’ she says. ‘There’s some broadcasters where you can’t take funding from certain sources. Yet, the only way to make the film is to take [that] funding. It was liberating to work with HBO, because they understand that you have to cobble together a budget in order to make the film – that it’s like a patchwork quilt.’

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.