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The Little Picture: PBS series hard to find, worth it

Feb 24, 2003  •  Post A Comment

You can’t ask for better publicity than this: The Feb. 14 issue of Entertainment Weekly featured a story on “song-poems,” the bizarre underground industry in which ordinary people pay to have their doggerel set to music. The story was timed to a release of a CD compilation and a film appearing that week on PBS, “Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story.”
What a coup for PBS. “Off the Charts” was just the second film to air as part of its ambitious new weekly series, “Independent Lens,” launched this month as a showcase for independent filmmakers. By tuning in, viewers would not only discover that “Off the Charts” was a sweetly funny film but also that there would be much more where that came from.
Other “Independent Lens” films look at Billie Holiday’s haunting song “Strange Fruit,” an abandoned factory town that opened an art museum, and a tiny island in Maine that staged its own musical on Broadway. In all, 14 films this winter and spring-an eclectic mix to be sure, but from the half-dozen I’ve seen so far, entertaining as hell and better than any other documentary series around.
Alas, this is PBS. And while most of EW’s readers were able to find “Independent Lens” in their city, those in Chicago, Seattle, Baltimore, Kansas City, Mo., and numerous other markets could not. That’s because station managers around the country-exercising those gatekeeper powers for which public TV is both celebrated and reviled-aren’t airing “Independent Lens.” Some are stockpiling the films until later; other stations just cherry-pick the ones they like and leave the rest to rot. Others are airing it, not at 10 p.m. Tuesdays as PBS would like, but Sundays at midnight (Detroit) or 10 p.m. Fridays (L.A.), or hidden away on secondary channels (Boston, Washington).
Pat Mitchell, the president of PBS, is herself a former indie producer. So when she took over the service three years ago, she promised outsiders that PBS would become a more welcoming place for them. Last year, Ms. Mitchell huddled with her two programming co-chiefs, Jacoba Atlas and John Wilson, to find a way to get more independent work on the air.
“Nova,” “American Experience” and “American Masters” do accept films from indies, but their executive producers have very clear ideas about what they want on the air and shelves full of Emmys and Peabodys to back them up.
“Part of PBS’s mandate is to bring diverse voices to broadcasting,” Ms. Atlas said. “And independent films really do that. The filmmakers are working from their own sensibility. They’re not trying to do something to please an executive producer, as talented as that executive producer might be. They’re simply working from their own interests. And that’s something that ought to be respected.”
So PBS called in the Independent Television Service, or ITVS, which already supplies public TV with the summer “P.O.V.” series, and made a year-long commitment to the series. Every public TV program needs funding and distribution, and relatively few series in the history of PBS have consistently cleared both of those daunting hurdles. By that measure, “Independent Lens” is off to a very promising start.
The funding hurdle was kept low. ITVS pays $20,000 to acquire each film, a pittance to be sure, but more than the amount (zero) that “Independent Lens” used to offer and more than the fees usually offered by cable.
There was no lowering the bar on distribution. Station managers had to be convinced they really wanted a collection of offbeat, challenging films from ITVS, with which they’d had quality issues in the past. But it was clear from the start that “Independent Lens” would be different. To give it a strong look and feel, ITVS signed actress Angela Bassett as host.
Unlike a commercial network-ABC, for instance, which effectively bribed some affiliates to make room for “Jimmy Kimmel Live”-PBS can only lead its 349 member stations to water. It can’t make them drink.
“You work very hard to get that ink,” said Lois Vossen, who co-curates the series for ITVS. “You lead viewers to their television set … and when they can’t see the program, it’s twice as hard to get them back the next time.”
Still, the series has 50 percent live clearances this season, and Ms. Vossen is quick to add, “For a brand-new series right out of the gate, most PBS series would have killed to have this reception.” She encourages stations to pre-screen films to dispel their main objection that viewers might be turned off by some films. “Programmers do not have to protect their audience,” Ms. Vossen said.
Going forward, the series won’t lack for quality product: ITVS received 400 submissions for next season. Ms. Atlas said PBS is “confident” of more clearances next season. Ms. Vossen is lobbying stations to create a weekly “footprint” for “Independent Lens,” a tactic that eventually paid off for “P.O.V.” Between those two series, indie films could someday air year-round on PBS-a claim HBO, its much-better-funded cable, rival cannot make.
“HBO does not have a year-round independent slot,” Ms. Vossen notes. “PBS was the original independent film channel, and it could grab those bragging rights back.”