TV `angel' gives new program ideas a needed financial boost

You know those brilliant ideas for new TV programs you've had from time to time -- the kind of creative productions you thought would make splendid alternatives to typical prime-time TV fare? Suppose a fund was set aside each year for the sole purpose of making them a reality?

Something close to this is already happening. Each year the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) gives $6 million to the best new ideas submitted to the Open Solicitation rounds held by its TV Program Fund. Suggestions come in from all directions, and a sampling from the latest list of winners is impressive:

A ``Peter Pan'' ballet, performed as ``ice dancing'' by world-class skaters, that sticks closely to the James Barrie story.

A documentary that examines the sketchy coverage of Africa by most American media and looks at how four skillful journalists cover the third world.

A drama about a Japanese-American who resists the draft, goes to prison, then returns home to a troubled ethnic environment after World War II.

A film that follows the Central Ballet of China during its first visit to the United States, tracking it into dance studios and schools, where the Chinese and Americans find much in common.

A drama based on the true story of Jaime Excalante, a math teacher in East Los Angeles who made his Hispanic students into whiz kids.

American viewers will be able to see these programs and 16 others in the months and years ahead, because they are among the 21 projects chosen during the latest round. Although it's not the only place where promising new ``uncommercial'' TV ideas can come for money, it's the largest project of its kind, and it plays a leading role in opening up the airwaves to a new world of programming.

``Literally anybody in the country who has an idea can come to us,'' explained Ron Hull, head of the TV Program Fund, interviewed by phone from Washington. ``It's our effort to have an open house, in a sense -- to capitalize on people that have a different slant.''

But in practice it helps to be a TV producer, Mr. Hull points out, because ``later in the process . . . they've got to show us that they can produce it or are aligned with a production team that can wisely use the money and deliver a program that's going to be of top quality.''

What, particularly, is the Program Fund looking for?

``Programs that people aren't going to have access to on commercial television, certainly,'' says Hull. ``And programs that are those special gems that just aren't going to come about except through the independent community and the imaginative, creative, individual producers out there. It's your chance to write on the wall . . . . But we do want programs that are going to be appropriate for prime-time public television and useful to our general audience out there.

``And we're always interested in funding talented minority producers,'' he adds, ``bringing them into the system -- the native Americans, the Asian and Pacific [minorities], the blacks, the Hispanics . . . . We try to give that diversity a chance through all of our funding.''

How much money are we talking about?

``The maximum a producer can expect to get out of open solicitation,'' says Hull, ``. . . is around $400,000. But usually the level of funding is for a one-shot under $200,000, and for a really major special around $250,000, something like that.''

The rounds take place three times a year, with deadlines in September, January, and April. (Next deadline for submissions is Sept. 12. For guidelines call the CPB Program Fund: [202] 955-5138.) The 250 to 350 proposals that come in each round are screened by three CPB staff people who deal in three major program areas: news and public affairs; children's and cultural programs; and drama and the arts. With Hull's help, the list is cut down to 60 proposals for each round. Then a nine-member panel is chosen to make the final selections.

``The panel has to represent a number of things,'' says Hull. ``They have to be geographically representative. They have to be racially and ethnically representative, [and include] women. We usually have about four program managers from public television stations and a very healthy representation -- two or three -- of independent producers.

``We also have to choose people who have a specific expertise. If we have a large number of proposals which are going to the panel in the news and public affairs area, we have to be sure we have that kind of expertise. . . . We use a number of people from the professional world. Daniel Schorr has helped us, for instance, and Nancy Dickerson -- people who have worked in the commercial world and know their business.''

Notable results from all this screening include a number of prizes, the most recent of them an Academy Award this year in the documentary short-subject category for ``The Statue of Liberty,'' and a nomination for ``Witness to War,'' about a US pilot in Vietnam who later worked as a doctor behind rebel lines in El Salvador.

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