Fighting for the Public Square

By Sally Jo Fifer, ITVS President & CEO
Posted on May 4, 2011

Sally Jo Fifer explains why — now more than ever — our democracy depends on the in-depth, diverse, and nuanced stories of independent filmmakers.


Beyond the Box trumpets the work of independent filmmakers, and rightly so. Amid the posts, an occasional report from the organization about the organization seems in order — and not just because ITVS is rolling into its 20th year.  We all have a stake in the health of the public institutions that serve us and for which we fought hard to make possible.

ITVS was certainly born from a long and hard fight. Its founders spent more than a decade pressing Congress and the PTV system to make a winning case that independents were public media’s diversity strategy.  Their argument: The strength of democracy is measured by how the majority treats its minorities. Their objective: A mandate to support voices disregarded by both commercial and public media and bring them to the public square. In the 20th century, a television in every living room became America’s window to the world, and to ourselves. Holders of the window shape people’s beliefs and actions, whether it is voting, buying cereal, or volunteering in the community. It quickly became clear that the window must belong to more than a few shot-callers — at least in a democracy. 

And so public broadcasting was born. In the 21st century, the public square swelled into a chaotic plaza — an extreme bazaar of entertainment, data, conversation with 300 million websites to choose from — in effect, 300 million windows. Yes, 10 companies own most of the Internet traffic. But unlike 20 years ago, when voices went unheard because of the prohibitive price of admission to the public square, voices today go unheard because the price has plummeted to virtually nothing.

With (mostly) free access there has never been more connectivity, more mass collaboration, more access and sharing of knowledge — worldwide. Digital means global. So what does public media look like? For enthusiasts, the Internet’s content and delivery devices represent the ultimate democratization of knowledge, even shared consciousness; for skeptics, they render us distracted, narcissistic addicts of the superfluous and celebrity. The question of whether this latest feat of technology is our liberator or our jailer will rage on. The better question is this: What makes for excellent communication in a democracy? 

To answer that question, the public has to recognize itself in the conversation and recognize when it affects them. A lot of people talking doesn’t equate to hearing, much less digesting, the information we need to participate in the shared project of democracy. This is where public media steps in — as a gathering of citizens who focus on igniting civic discourse and independent thinking outside of the win-loss columns of commercial media and politics. ITVS is one of these gatherings. Independent citizen filmmakers find the in-depth, diverse, and nuanced stories that enrich people’s understanding of one another and inspire insights and even epiphanies on what it means to be human and connected. 

ITVS’s job is to find those missing stories and to find the public. ITVS’s mission has never been clearer as we grapple with the 21st century media landscape. A clear mission and great challenges are the best ingredients for any organization’s good health. And so by that analysis ITVS is in excellent health. Challenges demand an appetite for change and movement, risk taking, and an ability to learn fast from one’s mistakes — for plenty will happen if you try new things.

ITVS wants to wrest opportunities for indies from the challenges. Since launching Independent Lens, a 22-week series for the National Programming Schedule 9 years ago we have: expanded Community Cinema to 100 markets and 1,000 NGO partners for our filmmakers; brought 125 international independent documentaries to American broadcasting through the Global Perspectives Project; joined with the WGBH’s World Digital Channel to present a 26-week series, Global Voices; began exporting American independent documentaries abroad to 20 developing countries through a series called True Stories: Life in the U.S.A.; took a crack at the tough nut of digital rights by creating the IndiesLab to negotiate on behalf of filmmakers on new digital platforms such as Amazon and iTunes; began supporting filmmakers to make enhanced content for the web as a transmedia strategy for their films through P360; launched a Diversity Development Fund and a feature film web programming initiative called Futurestates; experimented with games such as World Without Oillaunched 11 new social media properties to promote filmmaker’s content in the bazaar — all while more than doubling our funding to the field from a decade ago. We’ve gone from delivering 24 hours 10 years ago to 80 hours to the system across series, including P.O.V., American Experience, Frontline, American Masters, and as one-off specials in addition to Independent Lens. 

Is it a lot? Yes. Is it enough? No. Not amid the force and scale of change from unrelenting technology inventions, hyperkinetic social networks, and volatile politics. Is the charge of artists to jostle the public out of its fitful sleep to care for itself? If we hope to do more as a society than just hang on, we have to keep innovating. And systems and institutions dedicated to helping us succeed are worth protecting. The newly approved federal budget largely preserves short-term funding commitments for public broadcasting — about $1.35 per citizen per year. Yet a recent CNN poll showed most Americans believe public broadcasting receives hundreds of dollars per citizen, a misconception with real consequences as constituents pressure their legislators to reduce spending. 

As the 2012 election approaches, we could face another long and hard fight to keep unheard voices in the public square, even as 80 percent of Americans rated public broadcasting as an “excellent” use of taxpayer dollars in a recent Roper Poll. I hope you will join ITVS in supporting a campaign, 170 Million Americans for Public Broadcasting, to strengthen our democracy through public media. I’ll be joining BTB at least once a month to step back and report ITVS’s progress as we adapt and innovate in service of our producers and the public. We put a stake in the ground to help give the public a communications strategy outside commercial interests — to ensure the diverse voices of indies get heard. 

It will take all of us to keep the winds of change from pulling up the stakes and blowing the tent away. I look forward to writing about the issues that most concern you. Please write to me at with your questions and ideas.  


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