INDEPENDENT TELEVISION SERVICE

The United States Congress amended the Public Broadcasting Act in 1988 by creating a separate fund for independent productions called ITVS (The Independent Television Service). ITVS was merely the latest attempt to implement some of public broadcasting's earliest goals: that public television would be independent of commercial interests and would become--in the words of the Carnegie Commission in 1967--"the clearest expression of American diversity, and of excellence through diversity." By 1988, however, many saw PBS as neither independent nor diverse.

The very organizing logic of network television in the United States--that it act for us in the public interest, operate under government regulation, and define itself economically by the "mainstream"--has meant that television encouraged a consensual cultural "inside" and a marginalized "outside." By delegating to television the authority to provide a balanced view of the world and to serve the mass audience, many individual and cultural voices have been underrepresented. While intellectual and artistic cultures have demeaned television's mass mentality from the start in postures of voluntary cultural exclusion, it was the civil rights crisis in the 1960s, by contrast, that highlighted television's involuntary forms of ethnic, racial, and gender bias. Even as underground filmmakers, newsreel activists, and video artists at the time forged the notion of "independent" media as an alternative to the networks, a more public crisis over television's exclusionary practices challenged the government to recast its relationship to broadcasting. The formation of National Educational Television (NET), its successor the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), and the funding arm, The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) were all attempts to correct the narrow interests that democratically minded critics saw at the root of network television. Public television's mandate was to open up and diversify television in both an aesthetic and social sense. Different types of stories and perspectives on American culture were to emerge, even as the very notion of an independent perspective would be part of the PBS niche that followed.

Yet, by the late 1980s, many liberal critics complained that PBS had failed in its mission to diversify television and to give voice to those without one. The presence of advertising spots in major PBS affiliate stations, Fortune 500 corporate sponsorship of programs, and the generic monotony that came from a limited diet of nature documentaries, high-culture performing, and British imports proved to such critics that, far from fulfilling its function, PBS represented rigid class interests of the most limited type. This was in fact corporate, rather than independent, television. A direct result of this organized critique was the formation of ITVS.

With advocacy from the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers and its publication The Independent, a coalition of independent producers from major cities across the country publicly criticized contradictions at the root of public broadcasting's "failure": administrative overheads at PBS and CPB consumed the lion's share of public subsidies from the government, panels that awarded program development and production funds were ingrown networks, and PBS affiliate stations along with a select group of insider companies now fulfilled the role of "independents." Apart from token programming ghettos (the TV "labs" and new artists "workshops" at WNET and WGBH, segment producing spots on Frontline, and half-hour anthologies of experimental work on affiliates WTTW, WNED, and KQED), independent work that engaged radical political, racial, or sexual politics was essentially absent. PBS seemed unresponsive to such issues and ITVS organizers took their critique directly to the source of PBS subsidies--Congress.

 

The resulting federal mandate required that CPB negotiate directly with the National Coalition of Independent Public Broadcasting Producers (NCIPBP) to develop programs through ITVS. ITVS's $6 million yearly budget was to be allocated without oversight or interference by any existing funding entity, including CPB and PBS. But the independence guaranteed by direct-to-producer subsidies also brought with it a lasting complication for ITVS: freed of PBS/CPB intrusions into program development, ITVS also lost any guarantee of final broadcast on PBS stations. While public broadcasters protested that federal funds would now go to programs that had little chance of carriage on the stations that they controlled, ITVS countered that up-front development money--not carriage--had always been the historic problem for independents.

By May 1990 complications arose on both sides. Spun as an "overhead-versus-production funding" struggle, CPB complained of NCIPBP's unrealistic assumptions about support; ITVS criticized CPB's refusal to cover basic post-production, packaging and promotion costs. Many others noted that very little television had actually been developed by ITVS--and none broadcast.

From St. Paul, Minnesota, ITVS aimed to develop "innovative" series and single programs. Topics were identified, professional panels constituted, and "requests for proposals" announced. Open calls received as many as 2000 submissions; focused topics as few as 75. By 1993-1994, numerous series were finally in production or distribution. Declarations collaged video essays around ITVS's charter notion of free speech; TV Families serialized family diversity as an antidote to network television's one dimensional paradigm; Stolen Moments tackled AIDs in the context of urban street culture, hip-hop and jazz; and The United States of Poetry and Animated Women brought their artistic subcultures to after-prime PBS affiliate audiences.

While some ITVS programs were picked up by many PBS stations, others were less successful. ITVS's quarterly Buzzwords, however, defended the organization's uneven successes by pointing to the critical acclaim given some individual works--like Marlon Riggs' Black Is... Black Ain't--at the Berlin, San Francisco, and Sundance film festivals.

Two complications built into ITVS from the start continue to dog the organization's future: carriage and overhead. Despite a new rhetoric of "audience-driven programming" in 1995, ITVS remains weakest in its ability to deliver programming to a national audience. Second, although ITVS was designed to prevent the overhead and administrative skimming that characterized CPB/PBS, many independents by 1995 began to question the 1000-to-1 odds that characterized the ITVS submission gauntlet, the "identity politics" that skewed awards, or the "insiders" that comprised funding panels. The criticism that ITVS is simply a reemergent bureaucracy that constrains independence is exacerbated by the fact that its $6 million yearly budget for program development is minuscule by commercial industry standards.

Statistically and economically, then, ITVS cannot possibly act as a programming advocate for the thousands of independents that were publicly linked to it by NCIPBP and Congress. Systemic dissension and broadcaster resistance alike may pale, however, before a greater threat to ITVS. The victory of the "Contract with America" in November 1994 placed PBS squarely on the federal budgetary chopping block. If congressional initiatives succeed in making the market public broadcasting's new patron, then the tentative foothold that ITVS maintains will probably slip along with the Carnegie Commission's defining notions of independence and diversity.

-John Caldwell

FURTHER READING

Various Issues. The Independent. Foundation for Independent Video and Film, New York: 1978-.