Let’s Get Monday Night Audiences for Indies: See Viral Plan Below!

A message from ITVS President & CEO Sally Jo Fifer 

Each year, as ITVS embarks on a new season of Independent Lens—the single largest series for independent voices on public or commercial television—we find ourselves along with public television audiences marveling at the powerful storytelling of independent producers.

Independent producers spend years of their lives investing in dramatically different stories but all with the common thread: real voices coming forward that would otherwise go unheard on hard issues that would otherwise be ignored.

Sally Jo Fifer, President & CEO of ITVS

Unlike the commercial world of commission-driven programming, our pipeline pulses with public interest stories that originate with independent filmmakers. Our job—with the help of peer panels of filmmakers and public television programmers—is to create conduits for these stories on the dozens of platforms in the blended media space of broadcast and social networking.

It’s this bottom-up approach that earned six out of the nine PBS 2012 Emmy Awards, and it’s the same approach that has produced perhaps the most exciting Independent Lens lineup to date, ready to go on a new night, Mondays at 10 p.m., with renewed interest and support from stations thanks to your help and support. We are pleased to have kicked off of the IL season—with the two-night special presentation of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women and Girls Worldwide. A pillar program of the ITVS-led Women and Girls Lead public media initiative, Half the Sky has already broken our records on reach—but the real story is about engagement. For those of us working in the public good, media impressions are nice, but what we’re really after is supporting citizens to get involved. Continue reading

New York Women in Film & Television Honors ITVS President

ITVS President and CEO Sally Jo Fifer was awarded the Loreen Arbus Award for Those Who Take Action and Effect Change on Wednesday, December 7 in New York City. ITVS was recognized for spearheading public media’s Women and Girls Lead campaign.

Each December, New York Women in Film & Television (NYWIFT) presents the Muse Awards for Vision and Achievement, honoring women who have made significant contributions to the field.

Some 1,200 industry guests gathered to celebrate the accomplishments of the 2011 Muse Award recipients: actors Claire Danes and Christine Baranski, TV celebrity Martha Stewart, Sony Pictures Classics co-founder Marcie Bloom, and Budd Enterprises president Nadine Schramm. At the same luncheon, Sally Fifer accepted the Loreen Arbus Award on behalf of ITVS, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS and expressed great appreciation for the independent filmmakers who provided the powerful stories at the core of Women and Girls Lead.

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Murdoch Meltdown Solidifies the Value of Public Media

By Sally Jo Fifer

ITVS President & CEO Sally Jo Fifer calls on public media leaders to put “new technology to work for a public interest free from the gravity of profit.”

Sally Jo Fifer, President & CEO of ITVS

Information is valuable.  It’s valuable to those of us working in public media and it’s valuable to Rupert Murdoch, who started out owning a single Australian afternoon tabloid newspaper and ended up building the $33 billion News Corp empire by acquiring information, often at great cost, and packaging it to maximize profits.  Yet for Murdoch, perhaps no information in recent memory was as costly as the phone messages his staff allegedly stole, toppling the 168-year-old News of the World despite a circulation of 7.5 million.

On the surface, it would seem that there could be no two beasts as dissimilar as public media and tabloid journalism. One strives to serve the public with the information and tools it needs as citizens; the other hawks sex scandals, celebrity secrets, and other entertainments.

It might seem like they are the yin and yang of media, defined by their contrasts yet containing surprising elements of one another.  Public media, after all, must plumb the public’s obsessions — some dark, some trivial — in order to compete in the media marketplace and serve its audience. And tabloid journalism often invokes “the public interest” in its defense, as the National Enquirer does in ferreting out the untrustworthiness of public figures like John Edwards.
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The FCC Report on Information Needs of Communities: A Moment of Truth, Part II

By Sally Jo Fifer

ITVS President & CEO Sally Jo Fifer explores how the FCC’s latest report on media and technology affects ITVS, independent producers, and the public media ecosystem.

Sally Jo Fifer, President & CEO of ITVS

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.
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The FCC Report on Information Needs of Communities: A Moment of Truth for Public Media: Part I

By Sally Jo Fifer

ITVS President & CEO Sally Jo Fifer responds to the FCC’s significant report on the impact of technology on the media landscape.

Sally Jo Fifer, President & CEO of ITVS

How will 21st century media serve the public interest and local communities?  That’s the question a number of recent reports have tackled, most significantly the summer publication of the Federal Communication Commission’s 465-page The Information Needs of Communities.

In the report, the FCC takes a hard look at what’s happening on the media landscape and provides a deep context for today’s transformation, referencing the words of Founding Fathers and Google executives alike alongside a huge mine of data and myriad anecdotes about court reporters, carrier pigeons, camera phones, and just about everything else under the sun.

It’s a semi-monumental report that raises many questions with few answers.  But the way it asks the questions tasks all of us to put our heads together — and our resources and goodwill — to figure things out. And fast.  As the report reminds us: “Americans need to at least come together around one idea: that democracy requires, and citizens deserve, a healthy flow of information and a news and information system that holds powerful institutions accountable.”
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From “Television’s Independent Voice” to “Public Media’s”

By Sally Jo Fifer

ITVS President & CEO 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.
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ITVS Introduces Women and Girls Lead, a Public Media Initiative

By Sally Jo Fifer

ITVS President and CEO Sally Jo Fifer announces the Women and Girls Lead campaign — a major public media initiative that uses independent films to focus, educate, and connect audiences in support of women and girl’s leadership and development around the world.

It’s no secret that the competitive sea in which ITVS and independent filmmakers paddle is not getting any calmer.  Over the last year, more than 1,000 proposals came to us for funding.  The Sundance Film Festival received 841 documentary submissions.  Public broadcasting is grappling with marketplace and demographic challenges. New metrics and “theory of change” frameworks have shifted foundations’ approaches to individual films. The public clicks like crazy between 120 television channels and 300 million websites vying for their attention — and that same public flunks miserably at any basic test of civic knowledge.
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Fighting for the Public Square

By Sally Jo Fifer

ITVS President & CEO 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.

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From the President’s Desk — Welcome to the New ITVS Website!

After a year of thinking and building, coding and tweaking, I’m thrilled to show you our online remodel of www.itvs.org.

If you’re new to ITVS, what you’ll find on our new site is the full sweep of the work we do: the award-winning documentaries and new media we present on television and online; the many ways we help viewers, communities, and educators access social issue programming to connect with one another; the funding and services we provide to empower independent producers to create programming that serves the public interest.

For those of you who know ITVS, you’ll see that our redesign reflects the impact of the changing media landscape — a world that is more digital, more global, more user-centered, more networked, and more impact-oriented than before. Here’s what’s new and what it means for you:

  • More, better, and more accessible video: A new section contains a wealth of high-quality formatted and embeddable video, including film trailers, clips, and other interviews and behind-the-scenes content.
  • New media showcase: Experience ITVS’s interactive games, websites, and other new media features.
  • 21st century catalog: Search, sort, and browse our nearly 800 programs by topic, region, zip-code-based broadcast listings, online availability, or nearby theatrical screenings.
  • Film profiles: Find detailed synopses, filmmaker bios, viewer comments, and up-to-the-minute viewing info along with press kits, reviews, and awards, and film-specific engagement resources.
  • New tools for social media, community engagement, and educators: Integrated social media tools, expanded Community Cinema and Community Classroom sections, and specialty engagement resources, video modules, and lesson plans make it easier for audiences, filmmakers, and communities to connect and engage.

Whether you’re a viewer, producer, educator, or partner, we’ve built this site to give you more access, more control, more information, and more input. We hope you’ll use it, enjoy it, participate, and help us make it better in the weeks to come.

Sally Jo Fifer
President and CEO

Public Launch of the Independent Digital Distribution Lab

In honor of our new “Independent Digital Distribution Lab,” which we’re publicly launching this week, here are three reasons the Internet is GREAT for filmmakers:

1. Distribution: easy and cheap!
2. Niche markets and social networks at your fingertips!
3. Kiss the middlemen goodbye!

And here are three reasons the Internet is TERRIBLE for filmmakers:

1. Hello, free. Goodbye, revenue.
2. 90 minutes? How about three?
3. If a film streams on the Internet and no one ever finds it, is it really streaming?

It’s a lot more complicated than that, of course, but these are sample horns of the digital dilemma facing documentary filmmakers and all of us in public media. And the simple fact is that nobody knows how the business and audience models are ultimately going to shake out online, which makes the universe complicated for filmmakers, broadcasters and traditional home video and educational distributors.

We do know public media needs to find new ways to bring its mission online. No commercial entity is going to do that for us, not in the long run certainly, not through thick and thin. We know that independents need income and exposure. And we know that both independents and public media want to reach and serve the public; this shared goal is the basis of their long-standing partnership.

ITVS was founded to support independent producers’ access to public broadcasting and to ensure that Americans would hear and see stories about those most underrepresented. Our mandate was to create a service that in part provides funding in exchange for domestic public television licensing. When the world was only about television broadcast, that left producers free to distribute their programs beyond broadcast to earn revenue.

Today, as definitions shift and broadcast merges with digital, PBS, like all broadcasters, is considering what it must do to serve American audiences and reach more people in more ways. For ITVS, it is a balancing act to manage the GREAT and the TERRIBLE with our two partners. We must help independent producers and public broadcasting gain a foothold with new digital and participatory audiences, while ensuring that producers garner the revenue they need to keep working.

We know that independents and PBS must succeed together, and we’ve been working for several years to find ways to navigate the digital terrain to represent the public media mission, generate indie income, collaborate with traditional distributors, gain exposure, reach audiences, connect communities and serve the democratic commons—all at the same time.

Over the last three years, that work has included a survey of 430 producers on how they use the Internet; eight commissioned case studies on indies’ digital activities; two co-published reports with the Center for Social Media on the new digital marketplace; a series of national meetings on digital rights in conjunction with the Paley Center; experimental partnerships with Jaman, SnagFilms and iThentic; and ongoing meetings with PBS Digital leadership. Now we’re teaming up with PBS on the Independent Digital Distribution Lab to build some working models for the PBS-Independent partnership online.

For producers, that may mean exploring new kinds of content. Long-form content is still finding audiences online, but users increasingly view in segments on a wide variety of different devices. Others expect alternative versions: the full, the half, the short, the micro, the pre-, the post-, the making of. Funders are still supporting underrepresented voices, but there are new options competing with the 90-minute, $500k documentary. That’s why part of the new lab is providing ITVS-funded producers with additional support and partnerships to help independents experiment with audience development strategies.

The other part of the Independent Digital Distribution Lab is focused on helping producers who want to experiment with online audiences gain access to PBS’s partnerships with commercial digital platforms. How do we carve out a place for public media on the Internet? How do we bring in much needed revenue for independents trying to pay the rent and fund their next projects? How can we balance these new opportunities with those presented by traditional home video and educational distributors, and how can these best work in tandem? How can we best position ourselves for the right revenue and audience models when this transitional phase—with its still limited audiences and even more limited profits—matures? These are challenges we will only have the opportunity to meet by getting in the game.

Independents have a vision, an authenticity, an innovative spirit and a commitment to unique stories in service to the public. In a world where non-fiction as a genre is on the rise, independents increasingly are the ones who carry the banner of significance—the stuff that seeks more complicated truths and finds new ways to help us see the world anew. These qualities, and the hard-won craft of telling stories, will serve independents well in these exciting, discouraging, chaotic, utopian, terrible and great times. Nobody knows how this will all exactly shake out, but ITVS will continue to find opportunities for independents to tell their stories to the public—that is a given.

Sally Jo Fifer
President and CEO