TV agency struggles to fulfill mandate

January 08, 1995|By N.Y. Times News Service

In the next two months, about 150 television stations across America plan to broadcast the offbeat film series "TV Families."

This seven-part series is filled with surprises. Todd Haynes's "Dottie Gets Spanked" presents the sexual fantasies of a 6-year-old boy obsessed with a sitcom actress. The anarchic Japanese family in Jon Moritsugu's "Terminal USA" moves into territory well beyond Al Bundy. In Tamara Jenkins' "Family Remains," a young woman opens her front door and discovers that her long-lost father has been delivered in a coffin.

If the stories and images in "TV Families" are unusual, so is the source: the national public television system. The series was commissioned by the Independent Television Service, a little-known offshoot of public television that was authorized by Congress in 1988 and incorporated in 1989 to do a job that, critics complained, the Public Broadcasting Service was leaving undone.

The new service, with headquarters in St. Paul, Minn., was expected to produce innovative, risky programs. It would throw open the doors to a wide variety of independent filmmakers and video makers. It would tell stories that reflected the ethnic diversity of the United States, and it would reach out to under-served audiences like ethnic minorities, the working class and teen-agers.

Five years and $40 million later, ITVS is still struggling to live up to its ambitious mandate. Although it was conceived as an intravenous line to channel fresh blood to PBS, only one three-hour series and four stand-alone documentaries have been put on PBS' "hard feed," the prime-time programming package offered to the 346 local PBS affiliates. (Two more documentaries are scheduled for broadcast in the next six months.)

Series with potentially high visibility -- like "The Ride," in which six teen-age video producers roamed the country talking to other teen-agers, and "TV Families" -- have been fed by syndicators or by ITVS itself to individual stations, most of which have PTC scheduled the series late at night.

In New York, for example, WNET, Channel 13, ran "TV Families" this fall at midnight. (Maryland Public Television has no plans to run the series, a spokeswoman said this week.)

At the same time, there will be a political struggle when the new Congress gets around to reauthorizing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which supplies ITVS with an annual budget of $8 million.

Conservative critics of ITVS, who have attacked it as a pork-barrel project for liberal film makers, may feel that the time is ripe to deal the service a death blow.

"It's going to be a long year," said James T. Yee, executive director of ITVS.

In truth, ITVS has known plenty of pain and struggle from the outset. It was created after a surprisingly successful lobbying campaign by the Association of Independent Video and Film Makers, whose demands that PBS be opened up to a wider talent pool coincided with an upsurge of anti-PBS feeling in Congress.

Both PBS and the corporation, which directs federal money to public television and public radio, fought the ITVS idea. The very existence of ITVS was a rebuke to PBS. Even worse, the new service's budget was to come straight out of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's discretionary budget.

It took nearly two years of wrangling between the corporation and ITVS before contracts were signed allowing the new service to award production grants.

In 1991, ITVS spent $3.1 million of its $6 million production budget to finance 25 projects solicited through an open call and selected through peer-panel review. The remaining production money went to limited series.

Expectations ran high, in part because ITVS's first director, John Schott, an independent producer responsible for the "Alive From Off Center" series, tended to describe the service in near-visionary terms, and in part because cash-starved filmmakers and video makers saw a golden opportunity to get their projects financed.

The early results, however, were disappointing.

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