Sally Jo Fifer explores how the FCC’s latest report on media and technology affects ITVS, independent producers, and the public media ecosystem.
In Part One of this post, I talked about the Federal Communication Commission’s significant report on the impact of technology on the media landscape, ending with the question: What should we do? And how does this debate directly impact ITVS, independent producers, and the public media ecosystem? Other voices have already chimed in on these questions, including think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, echoing some of the FCC’s findings (universal broadband) and differing on others (restructuring public media funding). However, few are considering the big picture with the work and role of independent filmmakers in mind — despite the fact that the FCC report emphasizes the important role of deeper reporting, storytelling, and media making in our democracy, quoting news directors like Matthew Zelkind of WKRN in Nashville: “Long-form stories are dying because they’re not financially feasible. … It’s all economically driven.”
Independent documentary filmmakers work outside of the newsrooms and stations whose decline and challenges the FCC report describes. Yet their role in long-form storytelling — in digging deeper into immigration through films like Welcome to Shelbyville or capturing the soldier’s experience of the battlefield and returning home in Hell and Back Again — continues to grow alongside their capacity and ability to innovate with new media: games for Garbage Dreams, The Revolutionary Optimists and Half the Sky; interactive experiences for The Way We Get By and Deep Down; interactive online chats and screenings; and the list goes on. The fact is, these professionals already work in the shifting space between commercial and non-profit media, moving back and forth between worlds.
One key to that movement has been independent filmmaker’s creativity, innovation, fierce determination, and their ability to adapt. But another key has been that a thriving public media square exists to support their enterprises that indispensably serve the public but do not and probably never will carry a big payday. Without that public square to create a balance between the public interest of democracy and the marketplace of free commerce, there is no back and forth.
It’s one of the reasons that ITVS can’t just fund documentaries, but must do our part in carving out a true public square so that these programs matter, now and in the days to come, before we live in a world where the demands of the marketplace have wiped out media’s public service to democracy. Because when that happens, there will be no real public square in which to share the kinds of stories independent filmmakers want to tell or foundations want to fund. There will only be a bottom line that does not include the public interest. The FCC report used the metaphor of the bucket brigade, with water as information and citizens passing buckets. Right now, the buckets are heading off in so many different directions that there’s information everywhere, but shared knowledge is scarce and civic conversation scarcer.
As an organization, ITVS can and must be a part of the process of working with new partners to create the 21st century civic space — citizen journalists, NGOs, government agencies, new media companies, publicity strategists, key influencers and celebrities, commercial media — alongside the professional independent filmmakers and public television partners who represent our core and our success. We must connect the dots that individual filmmakers and station partners and strands and even civil society alone cannot.
The stories and storytellers that we work with at ITVS have the potential to be more powerful than ever and to help address the gaps that the FCC and other reports describe with fear and worry. Now we must all work together to secure that public space: space to share, to think, reflect and synthesize. We must do it in a way that can survive within the marketplace — with dazzle and flash, shock and inspiration, transcendent beauty and calm — yet works for the democracy we must believe in.
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