A decade after it was created by an inspired act of the U.S. Congress, the Independent Television Service (itvs) continues to vigorously carry out its mandate to diversify the public airwaves, serve underserved audiences, and fund, package, present, distribute and promote work produced by independent program-makers.
The San Francisco-based organization, established in 1988, has been involved in more than 100 single television programs, 15 series and 55 interstitial spots for children. About 90% of funding goes toward documentaries which may get limited theatrical releases but are ultimately destined for public television stations in the u.s. For example, two itvs sponsored documentaries will debut in November: Backbone of the World: The Blackfeet, a one-hour essay by Pam Roberts and George Burdeau (Rattlesnake Productions of Bozeman, Montana) involving three Blackfoot videomakers who use experimental techniques to merge ancient legends with personal stories; and Storyville: The Naked Dance, a one-hour by New York-based Anne Craig and Maia Harris chronicling the legendary and legal red-light district that thrived in New Orleans from 1898 until World War I.
To air later in the year are one-hour specials such as Forgotten Fires by Michael Chandler and Vivian Kleiman of Oakland, California, about the revival of Klu Klux Klan activity in modern day South Carolina; and Travis, by the late Richard Kotuk of New York, about a six-year-old living with full-blown aids. Set for broadcast in 1999, meanwhile, is An American Love Story, a nine-episode documentary series by Jennifer Fox and Jennifer Fleming (Zohe Films of New York, in a co-presentation with American Playhouse) that explores interracial relationships and racial stereotypes through a single American family.
‘We solicit innovative proposals from independent producers for public television programming that seek new audiences, for example, minorities, senior citizens and anyone who doesn’t see their story on television,’ says Lois Vossen, director of communications at itvs. Programming such as nature, cooking and how-to shows will not receive itvs funding.
What is clear, however, is the passion with which itvs follows its mandate. According to the organization: ‘It is often said that the best way to fight apathy and illiteracy is to turn off the television. This simplistic approach does not acknowledge the power of the medium, nor its capacity to affect change. itvs counters by infusing the public airwaves with a more real, more human image of America, invoking dialogue and discussion.’
American producers are eligible for the fund, which pays out about us$6 million per year. Initial applications are simple, requiring only a synopsis of the proposed project, a budget and sample works. Applications are taken year-round, but are sifted through a selection panel of independent filmmakers, public broadcast programmers, itvs staff and other adjudicators twice a year. Of the 150 to 400 applications vetted each round, only three to eight will be successful in receiving funding.
The infusions of money – which are paid out as a production license fee that assigns itvs distribution rights through u.s. public television stations – have ranged from us$10,000 to a record us$1.4 million, which was full-funding for a series. With itvs funding, producers still control international and educational rights, and when the projects get the funding injection from itvs, they are, more often than not, highly-acclaimed, quality fare.
At this year’s Emmy Awards, two itvs sponsored shows walked away with trophies: Nobody’s Business by New York’s Alan Berlinger; and Girls Like Us, a 1997 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner by Jane C. Wagner and Tina DiFeliciantonio.