From “Television’s Independent Voice” to “Public Media’s”

By Sally Jo Fifer, ITVS President & CEO
Posted on May 17, 2011

Sally Jo Fifer explains why the times call for a new tagline.


Since 1991, the work and mission of ITVS has been reflected in our simple tagline: “Television’s Independent Voice.”  Twenty years later, after careful consideration, we have made a small but important change, becoming “Public Media’s Independent Voice.” The most obvious reason for this change is that what we once called television now intermingles and crossbreeds with video media on countless devices: desktops, laptops, tablets, smart phones, gaming consoles.  The most important reason, however, has less to do with the devices than with a moment of truth for public media in the brave new 21st century world.

Technologically, that world offers the public more access to more information in more ways than ever before. Yet the jury still is out on whether the public is finding, using, or benefiting from the contextualized reporting that makes a democracy strong.  As columnist Ellen Goodman put it: “The thing that has not speeded up is the capacity to actually think through something.” 

Some recent polls are discouraging. A majority of Americans believe that the United States ranks high among other countries in academic performance, access to health care, eradication of poverty, and infant survival. In truth, we fail to crack the top 20. A much cited CNN poll on the federal budget debates found that Americans think 5% — or about $625 per citizen per year — of annual government spending flows to public broadcasting. In reality, the budget allocation comes out to $1.35 per citizen per year. A 2010 World Public Opinion survey found that Americans believe foreign aid accounts for 27 percent of the budget and recommend cutting it to 13 percent. The real number is under 1 percent. Seventy-six percent of Finns could identify the Taliban, but only 58 percent of Americans managed to do the same — even though 9/11 has been in the news for a decade and we’re now spending almost $7 billion a month fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. And the list goes on.

If politicians are pandering to an uninformed public — and in some cases, with media abetting their ignorance — it is hard to imagine how we can intelligently balance the budget, much less make wise decisions about anything else. When targeted on a single topic, issue, and timeframe, however, the new power of media is unparalleled, whatever the purpose. Tweets easily crack news embargoes, from the first hint of Osama Bin Laden’s death to street reports from Tehran and Tunis.  

The Americas Army video game proved the most powerful military recruitment tool of the last decade. And all of us know that a smart search can turn up almost any information we seek — although research suggests that few of us delve past the first page's results on Google and find most of our information through 25 top portals dominated by the same 10 to 15 stories. That’s where media committed to the public interest comes in — and for ITVS, public television, and independent media makers — that means video in all its forms. Shorts, clips, modules, games, and full-length programming, accessed through any kind of device, most of which offer opportunities for more collaboration, more participation, more voices contributing to the conversation.  It’s public media’s job to make sure that happens — and happens in a productive way that fills the gaps in our national knowledge, serves underserved audiences, and enriches that conversation. It’s time to take a hard look at whether public media is living up to its responsibility and promise.  

To ask why niche audiences are digging deeper into segregated shells, as poll after poll surfaces spiking partisanship and misperceptions on every front. To recognize what’s happening in the marketplace and why, and make sure that the new tools and new media frontiers are working for community as well as commerce. For two decades, ITVS was public television’s independent voice, in an age when public television changed television, revolutionizing the marketplace for history programs, science shows, documentaries, children's shows, and even reality TV.  Now the challenges and opportunities are even greater — to bring the mission of public-interest media to this moment and the market-driven changes in store. As critics continue to drag public broadcasting back to the chopping block, the message is clear: We must all make the case, not only in words and support (although that’s important too!), but by showing the full power of public media in action. To that end, in the months ahead BTB will publish a series of interviews with the best minds focused on the state of public media. 

We look forward to your comments as these conversations unfold, and hope you will contribute questions and suggestions to enrich the exchange of ideas. Write to me at Sally's most recent BTB posts including an overview of the newly launched Women and Girls Lead campaign and her editorial on the importance of public media.


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