PBS Shuts Out Independent Producers

Despite its auspicious and promising beginning, the Public Broadcasting Service largely has failed its congressional mandate. PBS was supposed to compensate for the inadequacies of advertiser-driven network programming by providing, in the words of its mandate, an "alternative" that expresses "diversity and excellence," involves "creative risks," and addresses "the needs of the unserved and underserved audiences."

In 1987, Congress was confronted with testimony from members of the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers (AIVF) that independent producers faced an increasingly "closed system" at PBS. In response, Congress authorized establishment of the Independent Television Service (ITVS) to promote "greater innovation and diversity" in programming, especially concerning "minorities" and "the lives and concerns of American workers."

How's it doing today?

While hundreds of ITVS-sponsored films have been made since, PBS has seen fit to air only a handful. When pressed, former PBS Program Director Kathy Quattrone quipped that ITVS was just one of many competing suppliers for PBS airtime. In 1997, then ITVS Director Jim Yee lamented, "The PBS schedule hasn't changed in the last several years. There is very little room for original programming." In the years since, Yee and his successor have pursued subscription cable channel outlets, like Showtime, with more success than they had at PBS.

Three stations (WGBH in Boston, WNET in New York, and WETA in D.C.) provide more than 60 percent of the PBS schedule, while more than 300 do not contribute anything. While independents account for nearly 20 percent of all national programming, almost all their productions must be channeled through the same three "presenting" stations.

Worse, as author/filmmaker B.J. Bullert reports, even if they are accomplished filmmakers, PBS gatekeepers do not consider public interest advocates to be "journalists." In her words, they often "label" their work "propaganda," and assume that their interests bias their reporting. "Deadly Deception" is an exposé of radiation poisoning of workers and residents by General Electric nuclear weapons production that won the 1991 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short. The film was produced by INFACT, a public interest group leading a GE boycott. PBS turned it down. KQED San Francisco Program Director, Ron Santora defended the decision with the statement: PBS "stays away from documentaries commissioned by groups of that nature. We use more independent producers without an axe to grind." Yet PBS has had no qualms about airing several documentaries underwritten by foundations promoting a conservative political agenda.

Frontline and POV are the only regularly scheduled PBS series that host serious documentaries. Only a handful of producers routinely are called upon to produce those shows. Former CBS producer Robert Richter won several Emmys, three duPonts and a Peabody, but he has never made it to "Frontline." "It's a very closed circle," he says, "I've tried to penetrate a few times, but it's not easy." His film, "The Money Lenders" about the impact of the World Bank and the IMF on developing countries has been timely for years. However, PBS turned it down in 1993 with the comment: "Even though the documentary may seem objective to some, there is a perception of bias in favor of poor people who claim to be adversely affected."

Last year, Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting organized a nationwide competition to identify the best recent public affairs documentaries rejected by PBS. Participating AIVF Salons judged six films to be "Ready for PBS." In every case, the producers provided eloquent testimony on their persistence and resourcefulness in overcoming obstacles to get their films made. The films went on to win awards. When it came to PBS, however, the door was shut.

Fred Glass' "Building the House They Lived In" depicts the California labor movement's successful fight for fair employment practices in the 1950s. Glass' "pay as you go project" took eight years to make and depended on help from labor unions. He was told this made his film ineligible for PBS airing. Glass reflects, "PBS has been forced to rely increasingly on corporate sponsorship and support in Congress … The more PBS is perceived as promoting programming of the left, such as labor history, the less certain it is to receive the support of the right." In fact, PBS systematically bans documentaries that receive even partial funding from public interest groups or labor unions, a practice that amounts to de facto censorship of content.

Barbara Zahm's "The Last Graduation" chronicles the dramatic success and ultimate killing of college programs in prisons by the 1994 "Contract with America" Congress. Zahm states, "We were told that it might be best to find a PBS affiliate station to support our project, but we found that unless we fit into one of the affiliate's predetermined formats, it was unlikely we could find support there."

America's dangerous ignorance of the complexities of Middle East politics has become painfully clear. A film by Kevin McKiernan examines the 25 million-member Kurdish struggle for national independence. The U.S. government encourages the Kurds in Iraq fighting against Sadam Hussein. Across the border, however, the U.S. government supplies weapons and training to the Turkish government's repression of the same movement. McKiernan recollects: "The most frustrating part was the inability to even … engage PBS personnel in a discussion, regardless of outcome. Frequent letters were not replied to, phone calls were not returned. Oregon Public television liked the film but informed me that 'stories with a foreign element no longer fly' at PBS national."

Danny Schechter's "Falun Gong's Challenge to China" looks behind the fascinating story of the Chinese government's repression of a spiritual practice that claims 100 million followers worldwide. The crackdown has resulted in more than 50,000 arrests, pervasive torture, 120 deaths, the burning of eight million books, and widespread world media coverage. However, it was no-go at PBS. Schechter states: "The documentary genres that PBS now considers priorities as listed on their Web site, are not strong on investigative or topical current affairs programs like the ones we are keen to produce. We are ready for PBS, but when will PBS be ready for us?"

PBS has turned away countless independent filmmakers with the explanation that their work is "too controversial," their support comes from the wrong sources, or their production quality does not meet standards. The result is that the only place in the broadcast spectrum where citizens can learn about important public affairs issues at home and around the world fails its mission and its public.

Jerold M. Starr is executive director of Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting, a grassroots campaign to improve public broadcasting. He is also professor of sociology at West Virginia University.

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