Independent Filmmakers Have A New Public TV Champion


YOU can no longer make what you want,'' John Schott explains. ``You can make what other people will agree to make with you.'' The newly appointed head of the Independent Television Service (ITVS) understands the problems and possibilities of the nation's independent film and video makers. As executive producer of ``Alive From Off Center,'' the successful Public Broadcasting System series on the avant-garde that began its sixth season this summer, Mr. Schott learned firsthand the increasing financial restraints experienced by the independents.

Two years ago, American independent film and video makers launched an intense two-year congressional lobbying effort. Armed with a vision of public television as a major venue for their work, they argued that too many non-American shows appear on PBS. They noted that more public money has gone directly to the stations than to filmmakers, effectively diminishing air-time for independent productions.

Last year, Congress ordered the creation of ITVS, which will receive $6 million a year for the direct subsidy of producers and $2 million more for administrative, promotional, and related costs. Schott perceives that part of his new job will be to knit together the world of PBS and the world of the independents.

``I'm not a PBS basher,'' he says - reached in St. Paul, Minn., by phone - referring to the vociferous criticism raised at congressional hearings.

At the same time, Schott believes that public television inherited its place in opposition to the three major networks.

``Now public television is in a highly competitive environment where the Discovery Channel has come along to cherry-pick the best of public television's nature shows,'' he says. ``Arts & Entertainment cherry-picks much of the best in the arts. Bravo puts on foreign films that used to appear occasionally on public television. So it's a time in which public television can't just slumber along in the cultural space that it earned by default.''

SCHOTT contends that the current crisis of public television is, in a larger frame, a questioning of the long-term viability of a national communications network free of the marketplace. At the June 1990 national meeting of public television executives and programmers, Schott urged his listeners to view these new funds as an investment in public television's future.

``I would love to think of ITVS as a research-and-development center for new ways of doing public television,'' he muses.

Does that mean turgid scripts, shaky cameras, and ragged production values?

Schott thinks not. He notes an important change in the kind of work that independents want to produce. Fewer of them define their efforts in direct opposition to Hollywood and network television. In fact, the independents want to create work using many of the same technical resources.

ITVS ``is not going to be about making a system of radical programming formats,'' Schott insists. And ITVS is not another ``Alive From Off Center,'' which is primarily focused on the arts. ``We are looking for programs of any genre, whether its drama, experimental, or nonfiction.''

Schott is also considering the possibility of a late-night magazine show synopsizing the best of world television. During his years at ``Alive,'' he came to appreciate the ways in which a multicultural awareness was being developed by artists. He speculates that the inspiration artists once took from confronting mainstream culture has been largely exhausted. A sensitivity to the interpenetration of the world's cultures is emerging, he observes, and he wants to position ITVS to apprehend wider global realities.

Schott knows that giving nearly full funding to independents for the production of 25 to 30 hours of television will be controversial. Some independents and members of the public may feel that the money should be spread further. But Schott wants to work on a small canvas, at least in the first year of his three-year appointment.

During his tenure at ``Alive,'' he confirmed that the editorial control crucial to artistic substance comes from funding essentially free of financial compromises. Schott asserts that ``the struggle should be basically a creative struggle to produce good work, not necessarily a struggle to get your work funded.''

Interestingly, Schott does not expect ITVS-sponsored programs to get caught up in a firestorm of controversy like that which erupted over funding decisions made by the National Endowment for the Arts. He contends that broadcasters operate in a significantly more regulated environment than do art museums or publishers.

``The FCC [Federal Communications Commission] has clear guidelines,'' he says.

ALTHOUGH ITVS will attempt to reach new audiences, it will not be preoccupied with ratings. ``If you submit every decision about programming to the question of how it is going to attract the broadest possible audience, then you will end up in the condition we already have.''

Schott conceptualizes ITVS as an institution brought into being to create change in mass media, an area that he believes changes slowly.

``People use mass media in ways that comfort them,'' he explains. ``At whatever level of education, there is a great comfort factor in media. We are habituated to forms, formulas, programs, and faces. To come along and try to breed new forms and formats and expect them to be immediately accepted is pretty optimistic.

``If we position ourselves as outsiders, trying to get a little piece of the action by wrecking the system, we're never really going to change it.'' Consequently, a measure of ITVS's success will be its ability to generate ideas that are picked up and used in broadcasting.

Schott defines one of his duties as designing a review process for ITVS so that it will benefit from constant feedback. A geographically and demographically diverse 11-member board of directors, with experience in filmmaking, public television, and foundation work, will be actively involved in what Schott hopes to make an ongoing self-assessment.

Board meetings will be held in different parts of the country, a positive sign to independent film and video makers who live outside major media centers like New York and Los Angeles. In addition, ITVS will be headquartered in St. Paul, where ``Alive From Off Center'' continues to originate.

Reflecting on the differences between being the executive producer of ``Alive'' and heading ITVS, Schott says: ``With `Alive' I had lots of ability to make suggestions about content and to put things together.''

At ITVS, Schott no longer sees himself as an architect, but as the construction foreman and janitorial service. ``My job is to build the house, to keep it clean, and to keep it on track with its ideals. But at the same time, I have to create for many different voices who will come through and live in the house. ITVS is about making an organization that is as democratic and as open to conflicting points of view as the programming.''

Stay tuned.

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