Hacking Story at ITVS

By Karim Ahmad
ITVS Senior Digital Content Strategist, @the_karachi_kid

ITVS recently hosted four producer teams who were greenlit by the organization’s newly developed ITVS Storylab initiative. These producer teams met with ITVS staff and external mentors to gain intensive consultation in the areas of story development, user experience mechanics, and producing multi-platform content. 

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In early April, ITVS rekindled its love affair with the hackathon. And while we’ve hosted hackathons before, this was something different. This time, we weren’t coding anything. We were hacking story. Not a totally new concept, our process was inspired by our good friends at StoryCode, who’ve run a couple story hackathons in the past – events borrowing from the software development world’s rapid prototyping process to create digital multi-platform stories at breakneck pace. And that’s exactly what we did. We selected a handful of immensely talented indie storytellers with ideas for immersive webseries concepts, and locked them in a room for two days to conceptualize, scope, and paper prototype them for ITVS.

And why? To answer that, let me back up a few steps.

Call it what you like – immersive storytelling, cross-platform, cross-media, or the now-seemingly-dreaded “T-word” (aka transmedia) – if you’ve had a conversation with me about it in the last couple years, you know I have a real obsession with it’s applications to creating impactful and artistic fictional storyworlds. Interactive docs are awesome. But as I said at our recent SXSW panel on the very same subject, i-docs are officially everywhere – including here at ITVS – but if you ask me, the real wild west of transmedia storytelling right now is in fiction.

Look at most narrative webseries and you’ll find they mimic a broadcast paradigm – either the episodic serial or the anthology, like FUTURESTATES. And while I love these stories, I’ve long felt that the new opportunity with web series is to create one that doesn’t feel like a broadcast series – one that really unleashes the user experience potential of web to tell a nonlinear story in serialized form. Our upcoming and final season of the FUTURESTATES series is exactly that. The first act of this narrative is unfolding right now on Twitter and Tumblr. And on May 14, 2014, we’re taking it to a whole new level. It’s a multi-platform futuristic mystery, with you at the center of it all. Stay tuned, you won’t want miss it. Continue reading

Fundraising in a New Media Landscape: Three Lessons From Sundance

This year, three ITVS-supported films premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris showcased both his feature film and transmedia project as a part of New Frontier, a program that showcases multi-media storytelling. These projects inspired ITVS to create a panel focusing on the challenges of fundraising for documentary and transmedia projects.

Kamal Sinclair, Sr. Manager Sundance New Frontier Story Lab; Jim Sommers, Sr. Vice President of Content at ITVS; N'Jeri Eaton, Programming Manager at ITVS; Thomas Allen Harris, Through A Lens Darkly and Digital Diaspora Family Reunion; Shukree Tilghman, More Than A Month and More Than A Mapp app; Kay Shaw, Director of Public Media Corps at NBPC

Pictured (L-R): Kamal Sinclair, Sr. Manager Sundance New Frontier Story Lab; Jim Sommers, Senior Vice President of Content at ITVS; N’Jeri Eaton, Programming Manager at ITVS; Thomas Allen Harris, Through A Lens Darkly and Digital Diaspora Family Reunion; Shukree Tilghman, More Than A Month and More Than A Mapp app; Kay Shaw, Director of Public Media Corps at NBPC

The panel marked ITVS’s first event with the Blackhouse Foundation. For the last seven years, Blackhouse has held a venue at the Sundance Film Festival as a place that both celebrates Black cinema and provides networking opportunities for filmmakers.

The panel was packed with experts in the field who could speak specifically to the challenges facing filmmakers. Panelists included Director of Public Media Corps Kay Shaw from the National Black Programming Consortia; Senior Manager Kamal Sinclair from the Sundance New Frontier Story Lab; filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris of Through a Lens Darkly and its transmedia component Digital Diaspora Family  Reunion, and myself.  The panel was moderated by filmmaker Shukree Tilghman, who also went through the film/transmedia funding gauntlet with his film More Than A Month and the related phone app More Than A Mapp. Continue reading

Diversity Development Fund Announces New Projects

ITVS has announced the eight documentary projects selected as part of the 2013 Diversity Development Fund, a funding initiative that provides research and development funding to producers of color to develop single documentary programs for public television. 

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This year’s selections provide extraordinary access and insight into the daily lives and struggles of people around the world, from Navajo railroad workers in the U.S. to an interracial punk band during the height of apartheid in South Africa.

The productions were selected through a competitive application process, which resulted in 114 submissions.

Check out the complete list of funded projects after the jump. Continue reading

Vote for ITVS with the SXSW Panel Picker!

Public voting for SXSW Interactive 2014 is well underway. Check out ITVS’s two panel proposals and vote for your favorites – hurry, voting closes September 6th!

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ITVS is proud to to be part of two proposed panel discussions for next year’s SXSW festival in Austin. We may be biased but we think both our panels are very worthy of inclusion in SXSW programming, and we could use your vote. So sign up and give us a thumb’s up!

First off is the “New Narratives: Building An Interactive Storyworld” panel that ITVS and some of our partners (Storycode, San Francisco Film Society) are doing around interactive fiction film (e.g. the new Futurestates, some upcoming hackathons, etc.), its emergence as a new and untapped genre, and why it’s important for feature makers.

“This is such an exciting time to be working in digital content – interactive documentaries are everywhere, changing people’s notions of how to tell a story,” says Karim Ahmad, Senior Programming Manager at ITVS. “But when you think about the implications of these new platforms for fictional storyworlds, the possibilities are literally limitless. What does an interactive fictional film or web series look like? How do you build one? Why would you even want to build one? These are all the things we’re going to explore in our panel.” Continue reading

Four ITVS Programs Nominated for Imagen Awards

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Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, Mariachi High, Precious Knowledge, and Tales of Masked Men were the ITVS programs recognized with nominations for the 28th annual Imagen Awards.

Administered by the Imagen Foundation, the Imagen Awards aim to recognize and reward positive portrayals of Latinos in all forms of media, as well as to encourage and recognize the achievements of Latinos in the entertainment and communications industries.

A panel of entertainment industry executives and Latino community leaders select the winners for each category. The awards will be presented on Friday, August 16 at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles, CA and will be aired as a one-hour special on PBS SoCal. Continue reading

Watch the Global Voices Season Six Premiere!

Travel from your living room with the latest season of Global Voices! Airing on the WORLD channel, season six premieres June 2 with 18 weeks of international documentaries that give you vistas into other worlds.

Peek into the spectacular, treacherous terrain of Eastern Java, Indonesia, where miners haul sulfur through toxic gases to supply material for our matches and makeup. Where Heaven Meets Hell makes its U.S. debut June 2, 10 p.m. EST.

The next premiere, When Hari Got Married (June 16), follows a 30-year-old taxi driver in the Indian Himalayas, marrying a young girl he has only known through his cell phone. Follow Muslim women seeking radical change in their court system in South India (Invoking Justice, July 14), and the disappeared children of El Salvador’s 1980s civil war as they return to their native country (Niños de la Memoria, June 30).

Learn more about the corners of our globe that you never expected to see: Watch Global Voices online and “like” the Facebook page to keep up with the season!

ITVS Responds to The New Yorker article on Park Avenue and Citizen Koch

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In the past week, The New Yorker published an article drawing a connection between corporate influence and freedom of expression that has generated a flurry of press coverage.

ITVS appreciates the scrutiny of the important issue of corporate influence on public broadcasting, and indeed on media in general. As a majority-publicly-funded institution, a rarity even within public broadcasting, ITVS has long been proud of our ability to act independently of corporate and government influence.

Our history of providing top-flight journalism among the rich mix of films we help bring to public broadcasting often puts us in the position of taking on powerful stakeholders. Viewers depend on ITVS-funded filmmakers for the high-quality independent documentaries that appear on our signature TV series Independent Lens and on other PBS series including POV, Frontline, and American Masters.

We treasure our relationship with our viewers, with public broadcasting, and our many other community and NGO partners. Above all, we hold dear our relationships with independent producers and deeply respect the courage and tenacity it takes to tell authentic, compelling stories that inform and connect citizens in a noisy 21st century media space.

As a matter of policy, ITVS respects the privacy of filmmakers and our negotiations. We therefore declined an interview request from The New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer for a May 20, 2013 article she was framing around two documentaries with storylines on David H. Koch. In the days after its publication, we continued to decline interview requests from other outlets.

ITVS now believes the rising flow of misinformation surrounding Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream and Citizen Koch requires public exposure of the facts. We believe these facts demonstrate our commitment to the creative vision of filmmakers, independent journalistic documentaries, and diverse perspectives on issues that are critical for our American democracy and culture.

Here are the facts:

  • ITVS not only supports but also seeks out and funds hard-hitting journalistic documentaries on timely and important issues. ITVS funded and shepherded to Independent Lens in the current season alone award-winning films such as Park Avenue, The House I Live In, The Invisible War, and As Goes Janesville. The quality of Independent Lens programs is reflected in 10 Peabody awards and seven Emmys for the series, which is co-curated with PBS.
  • ITVS funded Alex Gibney’s film Park Avenue, and Independent Lens senior series producer Lois Vossen worked closely with him, per standard protocol, to meet PBS editorial standards and have the film broadcast on PBS.
  • In April 2012, ITVS sent filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal a standard letter inviting them to begin negotiations for production license funding from ITVS based on their written proposal. Communications between the filmmakers and ITVS continued until April 2013, well beyond the Park Avenue broadcast on November 12, 2012.
  • ITVS initially recommended the film Citizen Corp for production licensing based on a written proposal. Early cuts of the film, including the Sundance version, did not reflect the proposal, however, and ITVS eventually withdrew its offer of a production agreement to acquire public television exhibition rights. The film was neither contracted nor funded.
  • ITVS has worked with thousands of independent filmmakers since our inception. We are committed to supporting the creative vision of filmmakers and respectfully acknowledge that their creative process will bring forth films that no longer reflect the original proposal on which ITVS based its funding recommendation. Filmmakers sometimes choose a new path during the negotiations of the ITVS production agreement as other financial, distribution, and editorial opportunities arise. In the case of the proposed project Citizen Corp (later retitled Citizen Koch), the filmmakers’ shift in editorial direction from the written proposal during the negotiation window led ITVS to cease negotiations.
  • ITVS works hard to shepherd programs en route to broadcast, but it has no authority over the national or local public television schedule. Neither ITVS nor Independent Lens confirmed a broadcast slot for Citizen Corp.
  • ITVS did not attach its name to Citizen Koch at Sundance Film Festival because a production licensing agreement had not been executed.
  • ITVS did not share a cut of Citizen Koch to PBS or any public television station because the film was never contracted by ITVS. The filmmakers continue to control distribution of their film.

Public broadcasting is a complex set of mostly independently operating entities, including PBS, broadcast stations, and a variety of producing organizations. ITVS is unique in this ecosystem. We hope the important conversation about corporate influence will continue, within not only public broadcasting but also the broader media, and stay grounded in facts and substance.

ITVS Honored at the 72nd Annual Peabody Awards

Summer Pasture and the Why Poverty? series were among the programs honored on Monday at the George Foster Peabody Awards in New York City. Administered by the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, the Peabody is one of the most prestigious honors in electronic media.

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The 72nd Annual Peabody Award Luncheon on Monday, May 20, 2013. Courtesy of Lois Vossen.

Summer Pasture and two of the documentaries from the Why Poverty? series, ITVS-funded Park Avenue and Solar Mamas, aired on Independent Lens in 2012, representing the only PBS programming to be recognized at this year’s ceremony. Independent Lens Senior Series Producer Lois Vossen attended the luncheon and accepted the Summer Pasture award on behalf of the filmmakers, who were unable to attend:

“It was an honor to attend the Peabody Awards to accept a Peabody on behalf of Lynn True, Nelson Walker, and Tsering Perlo for their beautiful film Summer Pasture. Independent Lens was also awarded a Peabody for Park Avenue: Money, Power & the American Dream and Solar Mamas, which broadcast as part of the Why Poverty? series. Winning PBS’s two Peabody Awards this year is further indication of the extraordinary and extraordinarily important work independent filmmakers do. Their unyielding passion and commitment to journalism makes them a vital part of public television. We need their voices now more than ever. It also didn’t hurt that Judd Apatow told me today how much he loves Independent Lens and that it is one of his favorite series!” Continue reading

Half the Sky Earns TV Academy Honors

The Independent Lens special presentation Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide will be among seven other programs to receive Television Academy Honors at the May 9th ceremony in Los Angeles.

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Recognized for personifying “Television with a Conscience,” the landmark PBS program is based on the book by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. The four-part series follows six actress-advocates as they travel to six countries and meet inspiring, courageous individuals who are confronting oppression and developing real, meaningful solutions through health care, education, and economic empowerment for women and girls.

The film premiered last October as part of public media’s Women and Girls Lead initiative. Watch the trailer for the doc after the jump. Continue reading

Get to Know the Women Who Make History

Women and Girls Lead ushers in Women’s History Month with the presentation of MAKERS: Women Who Make America, premiering February 26, 2013 at 8pm ET.


“I’m going to finish this race on my hands and my knees if I have to. If I don’t finish this race, then everybody is going to believe women can’t do it. I’ve got to finish this race.” – Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to register and run the Boston Marathon, in MAKERS

In the opening scene of MAKERS, Kathrine Switzer is nearly tackled to the ground by Boston Marathon director Jock Semple. At that time, women were not allowed to compete in the race and the mere sight of her incited such rage in Semple that he’d rather tackle her than see her complete her 26.2 miles. It seems hard to believe in 2013, a year that saw the highest number of women sworn in to the U.S. Congress and the ban on military women in combat lifted by the Pentagon. As Women and Girls Lead prepares to celebrate many of  these triumphs during Women’s History Month this March, MAKERS helps audiences see how far we’ve come–and how far we still have to go. Continue reading