Marc Weiss is the series creator of POV, which premiered its first season in 1988. This article first appeared in the Summer 1988 issue of Documentary Magazine, then titled International Documentary. In 2012, POV celebrates its 25th Anniversary on PBS.
As someone who has spent the better part of twenty years making, writing about, distributing and publicizing independent films, I consider myself a part of the independent community. All of a sudden I find myself working in public television — a strange place indeed.
I value my identity as an outsider in the system and intend to preserve the values and priorities I’ve brought with me into this strange new environment.
I share the belief of many independents that film, video and television are powerful forces in this society, profoundly shaping our perceptions of ourselves and our world; that these media are being increasingly centralized and commercialized; that the primary loyalty of too many TV programmers is to money rather than their responsibility to keep the public informed; that, in a democratic society, diverse voices ought to be heard through the mass media; but that in most cases only a very narrow spectrum of ideas and opinions are admitted to the public airwaves.
In my view, the best independent work is at once a critique of commercialized media and an alternative platform for people and ideas not usually heard in that context.
At various times in the past, public television has provided a “home” for independent work. But the conservative climate and chronic underfinancing of the last seven years have closed the door on many independent works of quality. This series is an attempt ot pry that door open once again.
The series origin can be traced to the 1986 U.S. Film Festival panel discussion that featured Nick Hart-Williams of Britain’s Channel 4 and Frontline executive producer David Fanning. During the forum Hart-Williams reported that Channel 4 had accumulated such a backlog of already acquired independent films and tapes that they have decided to create anthology series to showcase them.
Fanning replied that he had often thought there should be something similar on public television in the U.S. After the formal session broke up, I approached Fanning to ask his advice on how such a series could actually happen. His response was that the only viable approach would be to get the backing of some kind of station consortium.
To start the process off, Fanning put me in touch with Barry Chase, Vice President of Public Affairs Programming at PBS, and Henry Becton, president of WGBH in Boston. Both Chase and Becton introduced me to David M. Davis, executive director of American Playhouse. David, who played a key role in establishing the Independent Documentary Fund at WNET when he was at Ford Foundation, supported the idea immediately and agreed to become executive director of the series. With his help, we created a new consortium, which is essentially a parallel organization to Public Television Playhouse Inc., the parent of American Playhouse. It has the same four station KCET (Los Angeles), South Caroline ETV, WGBH (Boston), and WNET (New York), and the same board of directors.
With the consortium in place, we began looking for money. The fund-raising process has been slow and difficult, although not as bad as what most filmmakers have to go through to get their projects made.
The first funding for the project came in August, 1986, in the form of a development grant from the Benton Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based foundation which supports projects in communication and public policy. This allowed us to prepare major proposals for CPB, the National Endowment for the Arts and a number of other foundations.
In the past year and a half, we have received grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation ($200,000), the CPB Program Fund ($200,000), the Harris Foundation ($100,000) and the PBS Program Development Fund ($35,000). As of this writing, our grant with the NEA is still pending, although we are some-what optimistic that they will grant us the $100,000 we’ve requested. We are still short of the full budget we need to package and promote the series properly, but we are continuing to seek funds, primarily in the form of contributions from individuals and foundation grants.
Watch POV’s 25th Anniversary Trailer:
Although the Board of Directors has the ultimate authority over the series, I wanted a mechanism that would bring direct input from producers and programmers of independent films, as well as representatives of public TV stations. To that end, I created an Editorial Committee with equal representation from the independent community and stations, as well as observers from PBS and CPB.
We consult with this group regularly on everything ranging from the series guidelines to the selection and promotion of programs in the series. The selection process provides a good example of how central their input is to important decisions.
In the fall of 1987, we sent a Call for Entries out to some 15,000 filmmakers nationwide – and received about 550 submissions. First, the complete annotated list of all submitted films and tapes was sent to committee members for their comments on works with which they were familiar. Next, all the films were screened by staff members and a number of professional filmmakers and programmers in the New York area. As a result, a “first cut” list of about 100 works was created.
Through a final found of in-house screenings, I reduced this list to 40, all of which were screened one more time at an intensive three-day meeting of the Editorial Committee. In addition, each committee member had the right to add a title of his or her choosing to the screen list, insuring that good films would not be overlooked because of subjective factors in previous rounds of evaluation.
As you might expect, this committee had lots to say about each film we screened. Their comments and ratings weighed heavily in my final selection. In fact, several of my favorite films were eliminated through this process, and a couple of my less faovirte titles made their way into the series because of strong support from the committee.
In the final analysis, all of us feel that we’ve come up with 10 programs which represent a tremendous range and depth of independent work. They cover a diversity of subjects in many different styles. Some are funny, some moving and some inspiring, but all of them have a strong emotional as well as intellectual impact, and we think they’re going to be very engaging for a national TV audience.
I have to say that the most frustrating part of my job is not the politicking within the public television system, not even the fundraising. It is having a large list of high quality films, but only have the funds to show a dozen of them. At this point, I can only hope that there will be future seasons – adequately funded – and an opportunity to show some of the work that didn’t make it into Season 1.
Will the independent community get behind this series? I hope so, because it could make a tremendous difference.
Now that the schedule for the first season is in place, a new phase of work begins. Although the series has substantial support within PBS, that’s only part of the story. PBS has given P.O.V. a prominent place in its schedule, “feeding” the series to the stations on Tuesdays at 10. But then it’s up to the program managers at each of the 300 plus stations to decide when they will broadcast it in their local area. Or whether they will broadcast it as a series at all. Because of the backing of a station consortium, there’s a certain built-in credibility. We hope many stations will carry the programs at the same time they’re fed, or at least a consistent time from week to week.
But this is by no means guaranteed, and we will need help in convincing the stations that there’s an audience for this work, especially in the “major markets.” In many cities, we hope the statons will co-sponsor a public event – a “sneak preview” for the public and the press – with a local independent media organization. In Los Angeles and New York, we are hoping to mount programs at major institutions like the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and the Museum of Modern Art.
In all of these activities, the input, energy and press contracts of independent producers could make a major contribution to the success of the series. We would welcome calls to our office from anyone who can lend a hand.