IF viewers who care about the quality of television had wandered into the Kennedy Center a month ago, they would have met certain compatriots--those who create it. Independent producers from all over the country were attending a conference cosponsored by the American Film Institute and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) dubbed "The Independent Documentary: The Implications of Diversity." I was one of many independents there who struggled with "lunatic persistence"--as someone said--to plant a shade tree in the electronic wasteland.
The variety of programs we saw, the richness of style and theme, was astonishing. You may see some of them broadcast. But underneath the pleasure of sharing problems and solutions with colleagues (usually translated into secrets of funding work, then showing it) was the melancholy threat of the independent documentary as an endangered species.
Independents have chosen a demanding career even among artists. We must combine creative accomplishment with consummate business skills; we're required to put together complicated funding packages of up to $200,000 for an hour show--what a one-minute commercial costs in prime time. Worse, I know that were I to fund a favorite project (I'm working on a program about the American justice system and alternatives to litigation), the return--in terms of commercial profit--would be negligible. Think of Michelangelo needing a king's ransom to buy his paints, and still having to fight the pope. We surely are, as media historian Erik Barnouw said, the "beleaguered entrepreneur."
Having embarked on this quixotic path by our own free will, for a myriad of reasons, independents ought not to be caught complaining. Little joys do happen along the marathon; sometimes the race is won. Yet the public should know that of the three major funding sources--government, foundations and business--the first two represent shrinking dollars and a cycle counterproductive to making media, and the third rarely comes without strings attached. This gauntlet eliminates the narcissistic, but unfortunately also those laboring for the public weal. So it becomes a matter not just for the committed documentary-maker, but for everyone in our pluralistic society who ever hopes to see his or her particular visions represented amid the sit-coms, soaps and 6 o'clock news--or British series.
Fred Friendly, producer with Edward R. Murrow of "See It Now" and "CBS Reports," was the conference keynote speaker. He declared we are "witnessing the twilight of the commercial documentary" and called for a new partnership between independents and the Public Broadcasting Service. Indeed, if independent work is ever to reach a broad audience and deal in relative freedom with vital public policy issues, PBS does appear the only possibility for us at this time.
Unfortunately, relations have not been exactly cordial between independents and CPB (the funding arm of public television) over the last several years. Despite legislation by Congress in 1978 that encouraged public telecommunications services responsive to the local and national interests of the people which "constitute an expression of diversity and interest," funding remains below the 50 percent level suggested by the bill's sponsors. CPB takes the position that about 40 percent of the available designated monies go toward independent production; Larry Sapadin, director of the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers, pegs the amount budgeted at closer to 25-30 percent. Also, recent court cases place a tremendous load of responsiblity on the media's gatekeepers, thus heightening their already exaggerated timidity.
Since many producers construct their documentaries artfully, with care, devotion and passion, some people find distasteful the strong views expressed in these individualistic pieces. As independents we believe with Norman E. Isaacs that "journalism is so important for the preservation of democracy that it has to struggle to achieve the highest type of professionalism, and . . . accept public accountability for its conduct." However, a provocative concept was unveiled at the conference. To the demand from PBS and others that each program reflect an exquisite balancing act of viewpoint, which weakens the result in the producer's eye, the suggestion was put forth that perhaps balanced programming would serve as well; an "op-ed" page of the air. To be sure, planning programming that as a whole, rather than in separate packages, represents the entire spectrum of beliefs and practice--political, social and cultural--puts a special burden on those who coordinate what we watch. But this, many believe, also is responsible journalism, and could create a true partnership between independents and broadcast executives--and the public.
Originally from California, Johnson has been an independent producer here for 2 1/2 years and just completed a script for a documentary on options to litigation called "Righting the Wrongs: A New Justice?" First Hand is a weekly column written by people in the arts.