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Reflections on ITVS
These remarks are my valediction to ITVS; but I'm optimistic the Visigoths
sacking Washington won't make them its eulogy as well. Whether ITVS' long-term
impact proves to be as an experiment or as an institution, it's critically
important we take away from its first six years some clear lessons. Because,
I think, it's only a small exaggeration to claim that ITVS has been one
of the most ambitious and radical experiments in U.S. public telecommunications
We know, of course, history doesn't offer unambiguous lessons; it merely
inspires legends. Most of us have realized there are as many ideas of
what ITVS should be as there are board members and independent producers.
Each person can, and no doubt will, find in ITVS' history justification
for opinions they already hold. I confess to hearing in these remarks
echoes of many of the tired themes I've harped on over the years.
My six years on the ITVS board, and six years before that with the National
Coalition of Independent Public Broadcasting Producers, do not privilege
my position, but they do make it unique. They've certainly made me acutely
aware of the deep-seated structural obstacles and preconceptions which
make democratic media reform so difficult. I apologize if this has turned
me into an acerbic old radical, unappreciative of the heroic efforts of
staff, board and producers to translate our grandiose dreams into reality.
Like many of its founders, I hoped ITVS would pioneer ways television
might reinvigorate America's enervated public sphere in the next century.
Over the past six years, I've come to realize this will demand a radical
rethinking of the medium: of how producers relate to their audiences and
how audiences relate to television itself. It will require, in fact, that
we stop looking at audiences as audiences and began looking at them first
and foremost as active citizens, as communities and individuals (re)constructing
In a sense, the story of ITVS over the past six years, at least the story I will tell, is of a slow, sometimes painful evolution, from an independent producer, program-driven paradigm towards an emerging citizen-based, community service paradigm. This, of course, represents only one possible trajectory for ITVS, but, given the present state of public life, a trajectory I hope ITVS will carefully consider as it positions itself for the future.
I. The Challenge: From Consumer to Citizen
At the risk of compounding my own embarrassment, I'd like to remind you
of some of the more grandiose early claims made by ITVS' perpetrators,
notably myself. I can recall stating that ITVS' mandate was nothing less
than "to reinvent television," "to be a laboratory for broadcast innovation,"
"to be the one place in the whole television industry where programming
decisions would be made strictly on the basis of public need not commercial
gain." As if that weren't enough, I argued that ITVS programming should
aim to turn "passive viewers into active citizens," "it would not distract
but engage, not entertain but activate." In this sense, it would be a
kind of "anti-television." ITVS, I asserted, would try "to put the public
back into public television," and, more inflammatorily, "give public television
back to the public." In the end, ITVS settled for a more nebulous, but
nonetheless provocative, rubric: "television for a change."
ITVS' democratic rhetoric, reminiscent of the platitudes of high school
civics classes, concealed, wittingly or unwittingly, a challenge to the
underlying nature of television "as we know it," possibly, to consumer
society itself. We can never remind ourselves too often that television
is above all a medium of consumption. Whether we call it entertainment,
infotainment, docutainment, television is unstinting in its devotion to
satiating Americans' seemingly bottomless hunger for diversion. In this
sense it can be seen as the greatest labor saving device ever invented,
lifting humans' immemorial intellectual burden of having to reconstitute
reality for ourselves second by second.
Just as television tends to reduce human consciousness to the consumption
of sounds and images, it equates human fulfillment with the consumption
of commodities. It is not a carefully guarded secret (indeed it is so
obvious it can be easily overlooked) that television programming exists
as a shill to attract viewers to advertisements, to convince them to buy
products. Television has thus developed as the ideal environment for selling:
an electronic shopping mall of sounds, images, commodities - vicarious
selves. Recently, the boundary between program and commercial itself has
seemed to collapse, especially in children's programming, on MTV and,
unhappily, on some of public television's own "how-to" programs.
Television's most insidious effect is its implicit message, constantly
reinforced, that a more glamorous, exciting, even scandalous, life is
available from what we consume rather than what we do. Addiction is the
characteristic malady of a consumer society; not surprisingly, it has
become an overused metaphor for our ills. Nonetheless, television is "used"
much more like a drug than a tool, a way viewers can "self-medicate" to
relieve their boredom and lack of direction. Television hooks its audience
not just on the products and "lifestyles" it relentlessly flogs but on
its own on-going dramas and self-created news frenzies. In the end, television
will tolerate any idea (if it sells) save one: turn off the set, turn
in the credit card, the real drama is not on television, it's waiting
all around you for you and your community to make.
During its brief fifty years history, television has paralleled, if not
precipitated, the gradual erosion of a vigorous public sphere in American
life. It has contributed to the etiolation of our concept of the citizen
to a mere consumer and of the civic sphere to a marketplace. As a consequence
of this process, television has increasingly demonized government as a
predator, an avaricious super-consumer, threatening each tax-payer's constitutional
right to unrestrained shopping.
There was a time when one could concede that market-driven production
efficiently serviced existing consumer demand and still argue
that public expenditure could function positively to restructure that
demand. Government could do this not simply by redistributing purchasing
power, but, more strategically, by changing demand. In the media arts,
we've sometimes called this "audience development," stimulating demand
for socially beneficial production.
Today the suggestion that public expenditure, whether investment in people,
social institutions or cultural production, rather than in private commodity
consumption, could contribute anything to a nation's health or happiness
is dismissed as hopelessly Utopian. The right argues that such investment
is elitist and undemocratic, while their sociobiologist allies dismiss
it as futile. This fetishism of the market achieved a kind of apotheosis
in former Reagan FCC Commissioner Mark Fowler's statements that the public
interest is what interests the public and that a television is simply
a toaster with pictures. It is therefore particularly appropriate that
ITVS, like the NEA and NEH, should be targeted for oblivion by those who
argue most vociferously that existing market demand circumscribes the
realm of human possibility.
This admittedly pop paleontology of the inexorable rise of homo consumens
has been intended to indicate the cultural and political tide ITVS was
attempting to oppose. The times were not ripe for a telecommunications
revolution, even a tiny one like ITVS. There was no broad demand from
the public television system or the public for a new, more participatory
kind of television. The independent producer community itself was largely
indifferent, if not actively opposed to any radical redefinition of its
own chosen role in the media. Even those of us who embraced this vision
had little idea what programmatic forms it would assume, let alone the
organizational structures required to produce them.
There is a certain irony to the fact that ITVS came into existence at
a time when most "progressive" movements were increasingly sclerotic and
the independent producer community in a kind of mid-life crisis. ITVS
can, in a way, be seen as one of the last death-rattles of the Great Society,
signed, incongruously, into law on the final day of Ronald Reagan's second
term. I wonder, if we will look back on ITVS' mini-revolution as coming
too soon or too late?
Reviewing these first six years, I'm reminded of a scene from Chris Marker's
brilliant anti-documentary, San Soleil. Marker, an early and
enthusiastic supporter of the ani-colonial struggle in Guinea-Bissau,
returns ten years after independence to find a demoralized nation corroding
under a corrupt military junta. He remarks, "What every revolutionary
realizes the morning after they seize power: now the real problems begin."
Six years on the ITVS board has made me a lot more understanding - if
not forgiving - of this century's super-abundance of failed revolutionaries.
II. The Missing Link: From Open Call to Production Partnerships
From its inception, ITVS confronted a daunting organizational and conceptual
challenge in an unpromising political and cultural climate. It was trying
to create - with few precedents - a new vision of public television which
would link programming directly to community needs and encourage active
citizenship over passive viewing.
But ITVS was saddled with a paradigm at odds with these objectives. We were a production organization, indeed a producers' organization, established by and for producers. We were product-driven and not audience-driven, let alone service-driven. Thus, in a sense, we were always looking through the wrong end of the telescope. We were producing programs and then trying to attract audiences to them, rather than identifying under-served audiences and developing programming to meet their needs.
Independent production and community service would coincide only if a
certain rather shaky syllogism held true. In 1988, we argued: if
large segments of the American public are under-served by commercial and
public broadcasters, and if independents
are independent of the commercial motivations of these broadcasters, then
independents will provide programming which will serve these under-served
audience. I continue to see no reason to doubt that commercial television
(and public television insofar as its programming decisions are aimed
at increasing corporate underwriting and membership pledges) will underserve
any audience (or audience need) which does not maximize revenues. I also
believe even independents are not so deluded to think they'll become rich
from their productions. But independence of production from commercial
gain is only a necessary not a sufficient condition to insure this programming
will effectively serve under-served communities.
Even a cursory analysis of the more than 10,000 proposals submitted to
ITVS will, I think, reveal a striking lack of correlation between the
priorities of independent producers and the priorities of under-served
audiences. It is not that independents don't want to make films about
under-served audiences, it's that their projects, in both content and
form, do not result from an analysis of these audience's most pressing
needs. For example, community leaders predictably expressed the need for
programs on education, jobs and health issues. Independents, in contrast,
were primarily interested in "cultural politics" or "personal documentary,"
not surprisingly, the areas of their own immediate interest.
Open Call. ITVS' experience with its Open Call programming
provides a striking illustration of this point. Most independent producers
had assumed that ITVS would operate essentially as a grant-making operation,
an NEA for independent filmmakers. After all, ITVS had been set up in
reaction to CPB's effort in the early 1980s to make its Open Solicitation
process more accountable to station programming objectives, eventually
folding much of the program fund money into the station-controlled consortia
(eg. Frontline, American Playhouse.)
Therefore ITVS was committed to conducting the most open, unrestrictive
grant making process ever implemented by a television entity. Peer panel
review, total independent editorial control, acceptance of non-broadcast
length programming, full funding to insulate producers from outside pressures,
panels selected by outside consultants rather than ITVS staff - all this
guaranteed that ITVS funding decisions would be insulated from the ratings
fetish - but also from any accountability to community service.
It soon become obvious that $6,000,000 a year of one-off, Open Call production
would produce only about 30 hours of highly diffuse programming of variable
quality, sprinkled across the remote reaches of the public television
schedule. It was obvious that this would never provide a critical mass
of coherent programming which would give ITVS public visibility, let alone
the support of influential communities it would need to survive. Most
of ITVS' procedural changes over the past six years can be seen as ways
of trying to link independent production more firmly to community needs.
Focused Programming. ITVS would clearly need larger,
more focused blocks of programming if we were to reach new audiences and
stimulate new viewing habits. New audience development demands more, not
less, promotion and outreach than conventional programming. With our limited
promotional budget, it made no sense to try to cultivate new audiences
for each one-off program. And even if we managed to seed a new audience,
we'd have no follow-up programs with which to nurture it.
Some of us even began to suspect that television might be more a medium
of series and strands, than of one-off programs or discrete texts. (In
fairness to public broadcasters, they'd been telling us this for years.)
The real creative imaginations or auteurs of television, it can be argued,
have always thought in terms of extended forms. When we think of television,
we think of breakfast television, late night talk shows, afternoon soaps,
nightly news, Monday Night Football, weekly dramatic series - a diurnal
habit rather than a special event. Thus if we were to make independent
television we could not content ourselves with simply
transmitting independent films via television. Rather we needed to make
our own independent strands and series, independent, that is, of commercial
Therefore ITVS decided that in addition to Open Call it would need to
reserve substantial funding for Focused Programming or Directed Solicitations.
These were to focus independent producers' imaginations on larger formats
and more specific community service objectives, for example, AIDS or teen
violence. In retrospect, it was probably naive to expect independents,
who had never been asked to design series, let alone strategies for audience
development, to have a wealth of ready ideas for extended-form programming.
Indeed, some independents were resistant to thinking about television
as a discrete artistic medium over-ripe for experimentation. Predictably,
some even condemned attempts to design programs for specific audience
development objectives as a shameful capitulation to ratings-driven programming.
Looking back, I can't say that our solutions to the problem of longer-form
programming have been overwhelmingly successful. In fact these programs'
million plus dollar budgets have often merely magnified the headaches
of Open Call programming - lack of hands-on control, errant delivery dates
and only the most serendipitous connection to any long-term audience development
objectives. ITVS' dogma of leaving complete editorial control in the hands
of independent producers and requiring maximum diversity of producers
too often served to undercut any thematic or stylistic coherence a series
was designed to achieve. Like so much at ITVS, the series often ended
up as ungainly hybrids, attempting to serve three masters - independents,
stations and communities - none very satisfactorily.
Production Partnerships. By the Fall of 1993, it had
become clear that if we were really to serve communities (and build the
political support we needed) ITVS' would need to play a more assertive
role in linking independent producers, public broadcasters and community
organizations. The board's Memorandum on Organizational Strategy (M.O.S.)
designated our six million dollar a year production budget as a powerful
catalyst for generating tri-partite production partnerships around specific
community service objectives. Independent producers would be entitled
to funding and stations to programming only insofar as they served the
end of community service.
Since these proposed production partnerships were largely untried, the
M.O.S. specified that we experiment with a number of organizational solutions.
We allowed ourselves to hope that these experiments could "seed" a new
public service strand or strands in the more diverse, multi-strand or
"multi-plexed" public broadcasting of the future. The M.O.S. seems in
someways to have anticipated the concept of "teleplexes" or multi-media
platforms discussed later in this memorandum.
The M.O.S. remains, in my opinion, largely unimplemented. It has inevitably
had to take a backseat to more urgent needs, the ceaseless Congressional
fire fights and the need to complete, promote, and sometimes salvage,
the millions of dollars of desultory programming already commissioned.
The time and energy needed to play "match-maker" and then "marriage counselor"
for these partnerships had never been envisioned in ITVS' original organizational
plan. Perhaps the Grassroots Initiative, bringing together a group of
stations committed to inner-city programming, an institute specializing
in grassroots organizing and an independent producer with a long-record
of community-based filmmaking, can be a first step on the road to realizing
the M.O.S.'s vision.
III. The Place of Service: From Text to Context
Once ITVS had resolved to make community service the primus inter
pares of its production triumvirates, it became incumbent upon us
to develop a workable definition of this amorphous concept. Independent
producers and public broadcasters, like the foundations and public agencies
which support us, too often have only the vaguest notion of how their
creations will function in the actual world. It is no secret that many
films are conceived first while fanciful "outreach" or "distribution"
strategies are concocted after the fact. Because of this lack of clarity
over how media can actually serve audiences, independent producers have
been able repeatedly to pass off bad art and worse politics as community
Of course, it could be argued, commercial broadcasters are never called
upon to demonstrate the social utility of their work. It is assumed, as
we've noted, that if an audience will watch it then it must be serving
an audience. This argument not so innocently confuses what an individual
can be tempted to view with what a healthy community or individual needs
to grow. While it is tautological that television can only serve an audience
if it has one, it cannot be inferred from this that a program serves an
audience in direct proportion to its size. Therefore I have frequently
stressed that community service and public accountability require that
ITVS develop more sophisticated criteria for measuring television's social
impact than ratings - or, for that matte, good intentions.
Independent producers have by and large been able to avoid taking a hard-headed
look at the social impact of their work by blaming the broadcaster. They
can always assert that a large and enthusiastic audience existed for their
productions if only programmers weren't too timid, inept or reactionary
to air it. This evasion discounts the deleterious effects on audience
receptivity of fifty years of the very television independents deplore.
It also dismisses the very real possibility that much independent work
does not appear very relevant to the urgent needs of under-served audiences.
Most importantly, independents don't ask if the contexts and networks
exist which could conceivably translate their programs into some sort
of social action.
Instead, independents have tried to justify their work by invoking the over-used and under-scrutinized concept of diversity like some post-modern mantra. What necessary connection is their between screening programs about diverse communities and turning those communities into more effective public actors? What ground, beyond wishful thinking, is there for believing that diverse independent productions will cohere into bodies of programmable, let alone useful, television? It is not good enough to regard diversity as an end in itself; it must be replaced with a hard-headed plan for serving underserved audiences. Unless programming is conceived and broadcast as part of a carefully constructed, distinctly different broadcast context, any possible social impact will become lost in an ocean of commercial drivel. We need to move beyond the rhetoric of diversity to devise a television that actually makes a difference.
The first step towards defining a truly different, community service
television must be, I believe, to define a different viewer; indeed, to
stop looking at audiences as "viewers" or a demographic and start thinking
of them as citizens, parents, workers, with a life beyond television.
We need to conceive of them, not just as people sharing a common past
or similar tastes, but as people intentionally joined together to shape
the future: preserving their families, fighting discrimination in city
services, caring for the elderly, educating the young.
The right, as might be expected, is much further along than progressives
in exploiting the potential of telecommunications technologies to generate
new communities. Talk radio, the electronic church, tv talk shows, the
Rush Limbaugh phenomena are all getting rich by offering a televised substitute
for the traditional communities, stable values and fixed identities destroyed
by the dynamism of consumer capitalism. They base their communities on
fear of change, xenophobia, scape-goating, ressentiment, revanchism
and petty difference. But they do not empower their audiences (any more
than did pre-electronic demagogues) because they fail to address the root
causes of victimization and powerlessness.
In contrast, I believe ITVS' production partnerships should help build
communities based not just on who we've been but who we'd like to be.
They should promote a sense of community not as some fixed essence which
merely needs to be reflected or represented but as a "work in progress"
under continual construction. Indeed, I would even hope that some of these
partnerships could generate communities joined around new more inclusive
senses of identity rather than just old differences.
I remember towards the end of Marlon Riggs' moving final film, Black
Is...Black Ain't a number of speakers began to talk about what
community meant to them. bell hooks, suggests replacing the concept of
unity with communion or dialogue; Angela Davis invokes a jazz metaphor,
people improvising around a common theme or experience. Marlon himself
suggests gumbo, a stew made differently by each person each time it is
made. I was struck that these speakers saw community as much in terms
of change as continuity, as "places" where people came not so much to
stay the same as to evolve.
If ITVS is really to serve under-served audiences or communities, it
can no longer content itself simply with producing films which purport
to document, or even celebrate, them. Rather it must construct environments
or contexts where community can happen, where people can develop the skills,
organization and sense of identity to explore a different future together.
Like the best teachers or mentors, a community service television self-effacingly
surrenders its own authorship to the creativity of its users. There is
a parallel here with celebrated Brazilian educator Paolo Freire's seminal
distinction between a pedagogy which merely "banks" conventional concepts
in the heads of its students and one which provides students with the
tools needed to develop their own knowledge so they can shape their own
lives. Rather than represent them as the victims or creatures of history,
its job is to provide a context in which they can begin to create history.
On the surface, this may seem an unlikely mission for a representational
medium like linear film and video, allowing almost no room for interactivity,
feedback loops or revision. What little reflexivity has found its way
into the medium has focused, not surprisingly, on the producers not the
viewers. While independent film usually strives to suture its audience
to a seamless, authoritative narrative flow, television presents a disjointed
barrage of sound and image which doesn't permit viewers an empty nanosecond
in which to begin a line of thought of their own. The purpose of community
service television, in contrast, is precisely to position its viewers
as actors not audience, to help them see themselves as the "subjects"
of history in both philosophical and commonplace senses of the term.
IV. An Appropriate Technology: From Television to Teleplexes
It is ironic that during the same period ITVS has been wrestling to make
an old medium serve a new goal, new technologies were emerging which have
the potential for making television more interactive. If ITVS' primary
commitment is to community service rather than to film and video makers,
then it may have to start thinking of itself as more than simply a provider
of linear television.
I am heartened that some public television stations are already trying
to provide a broader range of communication services through multi-media
platforms, coordinated with their regular terrestrial broadcasts. ITVS
and POV have both opened up web-sites which allow viewers to discuss programs
and give feedback to producers. Of course, these and other "outreach"
initiatives are still ancillary to a broadcast event, and have yet to
establish their own discrete identity. But one can look forward to the
time when hot-lines, bulletin boards, databases, text and hypertext services,
will be seen as equal partners with linear feature film and documentary
in these multi-media community service platforms.
It is widely forecast that within five to ten years all these services
will be integrated in a single wire hooked up to most (though, one suspects,
far from all) homes and institutions. The awkward hybrid systems of the
present merely anticipate these multi-media services of the future. Public
interest programmers surely need to evolve along with these technologies,
not driven by the hysterical "techno-envy" of the media conglomorates
but by practical opportunites to upgrade service to their constituents.
ITVS, indeed all funders of public service media, will need in the not too distant future to shift their attention from commissioning "diverse and innovative" programming, to nurturing community service platforms. At a previous board meeting I distributed a provocative article from Current in which Jim Fellows (a former ITVS board member and President of CEN) proposed a new paradigm for the public television station of the future - the teleplex. These would provide an "information neighborhood" drawing together all the necessary constituent players for an effective community service project: research centers, social service agencies, independent video and software producers, grassroots activist organizations. While new service opportunities will of course emerge from these new virtual communities, the emphasis should be on helping existing organizations make their services more visible, more accessible and better coordinated.
These virtual communities located in cyberspace will, of course, not be limited by geographic contiguity. At the same time, community service platforms need not limit themselves to cyberspace. Unlike commercial entities our primary purpose is not to colonize and exploit cyberspace as quickly and profitably as possible, rather it is to rebuild the public sphere wherever that can happen. Teleplexes can obviously stimulate grassroots organizing both on and off the net. For example, teleplexes, in addition to publicizing events and services, may generate and even sponsor their own seminars, conferences, support groups and schools.
I think we can assume that most of these teleplexes would be organized
around existing communities - ethnic, advocacy and professional groups.
But we should not be surprised if they also help coalesce, as the internet
has already done, less well-defined communities. Teleplexes might prove
especially popular for joining people together around immediate issues
like parenting, youth violence, grassroots organizing, media and the family,
immigrant's issues, creative aging, etc. They could provide teleplex users
with a daily stream of new materials, rather like television, except here
their own lives would be the center of the drama.
Let me be clear: I am not a technological determinist. I do not believe
a revival of the civic sector is inevitable simply because the technological
potential exists. A technology can and will be no better than the society
which develops it. In the past hundred years we have heard each new telecommunications
revolution heralded as the solution to deep-seated social problems. Yet
despite the "blue skies" rhetoric, we have seen each successive technology,
film, radio, broadcast television and cable, used to maximize not social
benefit but industry profits. Each new technology has simply translated
into a new form of the same meretricious commercial programming as before;
there has been more, but not better. I don't think anyone will be surprised
that the dominant metaphor for sites along the "information superhighway"
is the information shopping mall rather than the information agora or
the information academy.
I am also not a Luddite, a technological Cassandra predicting that each
new technology will eliminate the last vestiges of free speech, public
service and pluralism in our society. I am reasonably confident that public
interest media will maintain the same marginal and precarious existence
along the mean ghetto streets and bumpy back roads of the information
superhighway that it presently does in the dim outer reaches of the broadcast
spectrum. Nonetheless, community service teleplexes, however marginal,
will, I suspect, be among the most important sites for rejuvenating the
civic sphere and for resuscitating American's sense of their public self.
V. The Independent Producer of the Future: From Auteur to Facilitator
I have attempted to interpret the confusions and false starts which have
beset ITVS' first six years in light of our originally divided mandate.
I have argued that our commitment to independent producers often clashed
with our commitment to serving under-served audiences. And I have noted
that we are still struggling to find ways to generate the partnerships
and procedures which can link independent producers and stations as means
towards the end of community service and active citizenship.
I've emphasized the need to refocus our attention from the content to
the context of the media, from text to viewer, from what is seen to how
it is seen, used and integrated into the larger society. I've tried to
shift our focus, In other word, from the individual program, series or
strand to the viewing environment and culture, as the central moment to
the media experience. I have suggested that the multi-media teleplexes
predicted for the future may offer more interactive and more focused viewing
contexts than those of the linear television of the present. But this
transformation of the passive viewer into an active citizen can never
succeed without challenging the dominant consumer paradigm behind television.
ITVS, unfortunately, has little direct control over the context in which
our work is seen, because we are totally dependent on public television
stations for distribution. But we can hardly blame public television for
thwarting our attempts to create new broadcast contexts, when we have
yet to make that a priority or even a possibility. Our production-dominated
organizational structure and political base make it extremely difficult
to shift our direction so decisively towards audience development and
I think there is some justice in arguing that it was highly improbable
to expect an organization like ITVS, set up by independent producers and
accountable to a board elected by them, to transform itself into a catalyst
for community service television. But if not us, then who? It's probably
unreasonable to ask most independent producers to participate in conceiving
and constructing these new telecommunications environments. After all,
independent producers have devoted years to narrative feature and documentary
production; they are intuitively and professionally ill-equipped to offer
the tools people need to structure reality for themselves. With some justification,
most film auteurs would resent viewers (or broadcasters) interrupting,
revising, extending or in any way modifying their "well-wrought" texts.
But some independents might welcome the challenge of working in an essentially
It may well require imaginations of an altogether different stripe to
become the independent producers of the open-ended, heuristic environments
I've tried to imagine. The pioneers of these self-evolving, virtual communities
may require a new kind of creative imagination, wedding the skills of
a video game programmer, teacher, community organizer, psychotherapist
and magazine editor. Indeed, the most important "value added" to these
environments may not be the data, text and programming offered there,
but the navigational aids and the motivational climate provided by the
This is not to say that there will be no place for linear programming
(feature film and documentary) and its producers in these new teleplexes.
Just as television supplemented rather than eliminated film and radio,
so too interactive media will no doubt incorporate existing linear formats.
Teleplexes in fact have the potential to make conventional linear programming
a more effective tool for social change than is possible in the present
broadcast anarchy. They can provide a more structured and purposeful viewing
framework with immediate links to organizations and individuals involved
in community action.
The telecommunications forums of the future will, therefore, doubtless
alter but not eliminate the role of the independent producer. Unlike public
access and internet advocates, I believe most people will (sensibly) not
want to become independent producers but will prefer to access highly
structured interactive services. The relationship between producer and
consumer will become more blurred, less authoritarian, but there will
still be the need for a matrix, for facilitation, even, for inspiration.
In fact, these more interactive environments (like democracy itself)
can never eliminate the "problem" of voice, the responsibility for developing
a point of view, but only generalize it. The most self-effacing and guilt-ridden
post-modern ethnographer, the most self-absorbed and candid personal filmmaker,
cannot escape the responsibility of shaping a "voice." Anyone with a degree
of self-awareness knows that how we describe others and even ourselves
results from deeply embedded psychological influences and cultural norms;
authenticity, even our own, is an illusion. We cannot represent our selves
or our communities because there is no essential self there to represent,
as a result absolute transparency is unachievable and, ultimately, absurd.
We are, in a sense, only points of view, or more precisely the continual
search for new, more fulfilling, points of view. Thus the role of the
teleplex, indeed, of any critical discourse, is to scrutinize received
points of view, old ways of "speaking" ourselves, and to develop new more
It is, of course, too much to ask that a society which has developed
the forces of material production so spectacularly would now turn to the
task of developing its citizen's own abilities, not just to produce commodities,
but to produce better families, stronger communities, more fulfilling
identities. Social conservatives (to say nothing of the even more rigorously
reactionary deep ecologists) would only complain about human meddling
with the "natural" order of things. But these interactive media communities
would seem to offer an ideal medium for the rapid evolution of the new
symbolic frameworks and expanded social interconnections which could provide
the neural networks of dynamic civic societies in the next century.
It is not so much ironic as inevitable that the media which has done
so much to destroy the old civic sector should provide a key to its rejuvenation.
The right has already realized that the next great war will be a cultural
war, a war for the "hearts and minds" of Americans, a war over the paradigms
which define the possible. Each night television presents its viewers
with images of a consumer society increasingly few can afford and of the
frightening social disruption this has produced. Can we develop an alternative
media which can show Americans there is more to life, more to society
and more to themselves than this increasingly brutal scramble to consume?
VI. Final Thoughts: From There to Here
I've argued that community is not destiny, just the starting point for
exploring a number of possible trajectories. ITVS offers a similar starting
point, growing out of a particular historical moment and moving, however
uncertainly, towards a new vision of itself. In this letter, I have tried
to articulate, clearly I hope, one possible trajectory for ITVS - as the
catalyst for public television community service programming.
It may come as something of a shock after all this, that I do not believe
that community service television is the only acceptable endeavor for
public broadcasting. I do believe that it should be a substantial part
of the programming provided by public television (which it clearly is
not at present) and, of course, I think it has special relevance to ITVS's
mandate. But I don't believe politics can be privileged over art, history,
science, or entertainment, as providing perspectives on the human condition.
While there are thus many possible objectives for ITVS, what is absolutely
essential, in my opinion, is that ITVS commit itself unequivocally to
one of them. Its present depleted coffers and tenuous political support
may actually prove a blessing in disguise if they spur ITVS finally to
focus its dwindling financial and staff resources around a clear, rigorously
defined programmatic mission.
The opportunity for such a clarification of ITVS' mission may be close
at hand. Whatever transpires in Congress, ITVS will probably have to reach
a new accommodation with CPB and the rest of the system concerning its
particular role in a reconfigured public television. On the surface, this
is hardly a promising scenario for increasing organizational focus. CPB,
as a bureaucracy accountable to multiple, competing interests, has demonstrated
a consistent commitment to only one principle - its own institutional
survival. Nonetheless, the surest way to prevent CPB from imposing its
own compromised agenda on ITVS may be for ITVS to stake out a discrete
programmatic function for itself. This should be selected to consolidate
solid support among those elements of the system and the public which
share ITVS' commitment to serving under-served audiences.
It will come as no surprise that I continue to regard community service
as the most promising arena for a new, more focused agenda for ITVS. I'd
like here to sketch briefly three possible trajectories which ITVS could
pursue. My point here is not to suggest ITVS seriously consider these
particular projects; I've not even made an effort to determine their feasibility.
It is simply to illustrate the kind of urgent needs of under-served communities
waiting for ITVS to address.
A. CPB is rumored to want to divert ITVS funding to its "Ready to Learn"
initiative. Why couldn't we propose our own "Ready to Earn" initiative
to help young adults, or displaced wage-earners, enter a rapidly changing
job market? Perhaps this could be done in conjunction with the Department
of Labor or foundations like Ford which have already spent hundreds of
millions of dollar on job development. It might include ESL training,
information on worker's rights, interviewing skills, portraits of role
models in various fields, introductions to emerging job areas, training
opportunities and a direct tie-in to state and national job listings.
B. Similarly, the present tragic cut-backs in federal social service
programs offers ITVS the opportunity, indeed, the obligation, to try to
ameliorate, if not replace, these losses. Why couldn't ITVS establish
a teleplex for some particular social service which could offer over-worked
service providers regular in-service training, an informal communications
network and a daily flow of accessible programming and information for
their clients. There is no shortage of vital services effected by these
cut-backs: domestic violence shelters, pre-natal care programs, senior
centers, at-risk youth programs, etc.
C. At present, 90% of the screenings of independent productions occur
in educational contexts. Why then has ITVS never seriously considered
collaborating on an instructional television initiative? Why have we never
tried to provide programming for instructional television? I can easily
imagine any number of challenging curricular and counseling areas, some
conventional, some experimental, which could organize themselves around
an ITVS sponsored teleplex. Such an "eduplex" could provide everything
from conventional documentary films, to telecourses, reference data-bases
and, of course, student newspapers and bulletin boards. Public television
is beginning to explore some of these ideas but ITVS could extend them
to include such exciting projects as a national media literacy program,
an "Education for the Year 2000" curriculum, an ESL program for teens,
a minority student retention and counseling service. One thing is obvious
there will never be a shortage of telecommunications needs that the commercial
broadcasters will find unprofitable to serve. ITVS should choose at least
one and do it well.
As I leave the ITVS board, I admire the fortitude you demonstrate in
confronting the tough decisions of an uncertain future. I realize that
the six years I've served, although I've complained too often of their
difficulties, may appear in retrospect to have been ITVS' Halcyon days.
Nonetheless, I regret that I will no longer have the fascinating, if often
frustrating perspective on a broad range of telecommunications issue,
uniquely afforded to any ITVS board member.
I shall miss one other thing - the unfailing dedication of both the ITVS
board and staff. It is no secret that I have not always agreed with the
decisions we have taken, but I have never doubted the sincerity and careful
consideration behind them. It has been reassuring, in an increasingly
divisive and strident America, to see a board and staff, deliberately
chosen to reflect remarkably different institutional backgrounds and interests,
respect each other's concerns and find common ground around the best interest
of the viewing public.
ITVS has come a long way from its first heady days of youthful enthusiasm in the late 80s. We've learned something in these six years about what can be done and what cannot. Now ITVS faces a future where it will have to fight harder and with fewer resources to realize its objectives. I have no doubt this board will continue to find innovative ways to produce "television for a change" - television which changes television so that it can in turn change all of us.
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