San Francisco-based Independent Television Service (ITVS) was created in 1991 to provide public television with independently produced programs aimed at underserved audiences. Since then, ITVS’ mission, ‘to support programs that take creative risks, advance issues and represent points of view not usually seen on public or commercial TV,’ hasn’t changed. Nor has PBS’ audience. Says Lois Vossen, director of broadcast, distribution and communications at ITVS, ‘The average public TV viewer is a white woman between the ages of 55 and 65. How do you have a mandate to change TV, keep that viewer happy, and draw new ones? There’s a constant struggle to satisfy the public TV demographic while trying to diversify it. Our motto – Public Television for a Change – is a challenge.’
ITVS spends 90% of its US$7.7 million annual budget from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) on the production of 30 to 40 programs, about 85% of which are docs. In addition to funding (which has ranged from $10,000 to $1.4 million, with an average of $166,000 per programming hour), projects selected by ITVS receive feedback during production and a public TV launch that includes marketing, publicity, a program website and community outreach support. Producers retain copyright and the freedom to compose the final edit. In exchange, ITVS holds U.S. television rights.
When ITVS first launched, it concentrated on serving indies by supporting experimental programs. But, says Vossen, ‘It became clear pretty quickly that we weren’t going to get a lot of that work on public television. So, we put more steps in place to help independents create work that would have their passion and their voices, but would also get exposure on public television.’
For the past few years, ITVS has held focus groups with programmers across the U.S. to find out what individual PBS stations want. The information gathered is offered to independents in the form of funding initiatives such as American Stories, which began in 1997 and finances one-hour narratives. ITVS also established Local Independents Collaborating with Stations (LInCS) – an annual funding call in which ITVS matches contributions from a public television station to produce a show. ITVS also designed the Community Connections Project (CCP) to encourage PBS stations to air controversial programming. The CCP is a network of field organizers in different cities who build partnerships between community organizations and local public television stations. Although these initiatives have been successful on an individual station basis – all 347 PBS stations have aired ITVS programs – only 35% of the programs ITVS produces are picked up on PBS’ hard feed.
Independent producer John Else produced Sing Faster: The Stagehands’ Ring Cycle (1999) through the LInCS initiative. Although PBS declined to put Sing Faster on the national schedule – a fact that Else says will make him think twice about producing for public television again – he nevertheless loved working with ITVS, CPB and Oregon Public Broadcasting on the project. Says Else, ‘In 25 years of trying to work within the public television system, the only place I have ever found really resounding support is at ITVS. I have never had such robust, broad help as I have gotten from ITVS. I have had some great experiences with CPB and PBS, but, ITVS is really the only institution that routinely supports adventuresome programming.’