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Joel Engardio picks his way through the political minefield around ITVS, the San Francisco group that Congress created to put the edge back in PBS

Wednesday, Oct 20 1999
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For a while this summer, it looked like PBS was going to get a break. Congress was about to approve future funding for public television, and the Republican majority was not making its usual case that PBS is nothing more than a platform for an elitist, liberal agenda and a waste of tax money. In fact, Congress was entertaining the notion of substantial increases in funding -- hundreds of millions of dollars of increases -- to help PBS convert to new digital technologies. With the help of Barney, Sesame Street, and other popular programming, it seemed PBS had finally convinced Republicans that defunding public broadcasting would always be seen as defeathering Big Bird.

On July 13, however -- the day before the House telecommunications subcommittee was to vote on a five-year appropriations bill -- the PBS donor list scandal broke. Public television stations had been providing the names of PBS contributors to political fundraising groups, almost all of them Democratic. Republicans were furious.

The heads of PBS and its federal funding agency, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, were called on the carpet at an emergency congressional hearing. Energized by the donor list scandal, GOP leaders delayed the reauthorization bill for months, and Republicans found reason to scrutinize not only how the Public Broadcasting Service does business, but what it puts on the air. Maryland Rep. Robert Ehrlich put it plainly, saying he was less worried about the list "faux pas" than with PBS' overall "cultural mission."

San Francisco filmmaker Tom Shepard was surfing through his cable channels when the hearing, televised on C-SPAN, caught his attention. Oklahoma Rep. Steve Largent, one of Congress' most conservative members, was introducing a clip from the film It's Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in Schools. Shown on many PBS stations earlier this year, the documentary visits elementary and middle schools around the country where teachers had been discussing topics like homophobia and tolerance of gays with students. For Largent, It's Elementary illustrated perfectly the kind of inappropriate programming that public television broadcasts all too often. Shepard paid close attention. Just that week, he had been awarded $219,000 in federal money to produce Scout's Honor, an hour-long documentary intended for national PBS broadcast. His topic: gay Boy Scouts.

As the hearing continued, filmmaker Ken Burns testified in defense of the quality and integrity of public television's content. Burns' documentaries on the Civil War and Major League Baseball are classic PBS fare. Well-done, highly informative -- and politically safe.

"My first thought was I better make my film real quick, because the zeal with which the congressmen talked about taking away public funds made me nervous," Shepard says. "My piece is not a Ken Burns piece; mine will make a lot of people uncomfortable. But I believe Americans truly want to be enlightened. My piece will challenge them to learn things they are ignorant about, which is why it is important for PBS to not only tell the story of Frank Lloyd Wright and Lewis & Clark, but gay Boy Scouts, too.

"PBS should be able to tell everyone's story."

Actually, there is an arm of the public broadcasting family specifically designed to keep PBS from playing it entirely safe with its programming. The Independent Television Service -- more often known by its acronym, ITVS -- was created by Congress in 1988, when the Democrats were still in control, with a mandate to develop for PBS "innovative programming that involves creative risks and that addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences." ITVS is why, even when it might be politically prudent to spend otherwise, independent filmmakers like Tom Shepard can still get a quarter of a million taxpayer dollars to make a documentary about gay Boy Scouts. "In an ideal world, there should be no need for ITVS," says David Liu, programming director for the San Francisco-based group. "But the reality is PBS is failing to live up to the vision and potential it was originally founded on."

Just how much ITVS has been willing to shake up public television has varied during its decade of existence. The inconsistency has sparked debate within the independent film community: Has ITVS shifted focus of late, making limit-testing programs the exception, rather than the rule? Or, perhaps, has ITVS begun to rely too much on the safe way to tell a controversial story? Although Scout's Honor was funded, the film uses mostly straight white males to make the case that gays should be allowed to serve in the Boy Scouts.

In any event, ITVS has come to realize that its survival depends upon pleasing three very distinct and temperamental masters: A much more hostile Congress than the one that created ITVS; an increasingly anxious PBS, which largely controls the schedule for public broadcasting; and independent filmmakers, who hold the vision and message, but rarely find room for compromise when it comes to practicing their craft.

"It's a real juggling act," ITVS broadcast distribution director Lois Vossen says. "Even though we were mandated to change and diversify public television, a lot of people are threatened by that change."

The fiery red streaks in Becky Hayes' long brunette hair can go unnoticed from where she sits at the ITVS office South of Market. Hayes is buried in this fall's batch of funding applications, everything but the top of her head obscured by piles of Fed-Ex boxes and thick manila envelopes. It is her job to sort and process the hundreds of wildly varied documentary film proposals.

Hayes, who works in programming and development, is the first gatekeeper for the $6.2 million the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has earmarked for ITVS projects this year. Often the proposals crack her up. Like the piece that wants to educate the world about the sport of "noodling," or barehanded fishing. "At first I think, 'Wow, this is something really crazy; here's a whole culture in my country I know nothing about,'" Hayes says. "But then I wonder, 'Is this stuff people really need to know?'"

About The Author

Joel P. Engardio

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