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Why the NEA's New Media Emphasis Spells Trouble for Traditional Docs

By Anthony Kaufman | Indiewire April 26, 2012 at 10:22AM

With less money, more platforms and more projects, PBS is in trouble -- again.
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Danfung Dennis' 'Hell and Back Again' airs on PBS's Independent Lens on May 28th
Danfung Dennis' 'Hell and Back Again' airs on PBS's Independent Lens on May 28th

With less money, more platforms and more projects, PBS is in trouble -- again.

Slammed by National Endowment for the Arts funding cuts, no longer shielded from campaign ads, and threatened by the arrival of new media platforms (not to mention a Republican presidential candidate who shuns it), PBS -- and the producers of its content -- are experiencing particularly tough times.

On Wednesday, the NEA released its most recent round of funded projects. It also confirmed major cuts to such established PBS programs as Independent Lens and P.O.V. -- home to some of the best lauded American nonfiction, from Oscar nominees "Enron: The Smartest Guy in the Room," "The Weather Underground" and "Waste Land" to this year's "Hell and Back Again" -- as well as shows like "American Masters" and "Art 21."

Much to the chagrin of the independent documentary community, Independent Lens will see its funds slashed from $170,000 to $50,000, while P.O.V funding will drop from $250,000 to $100,000, and American Masters will receive just $50,000, compared with $400,000 last year.

"We're going to try to spread the pain as strategically as possible."

"It's a big chunk to replace and we're looking at making some changes," says P.O.V. executive director Simon Kilmurry, who notes the shift will impact their 2013 schedule. "Whether reducing licensing fees, or reducing our investments in marketing or digital work, we're going to try to spread the pain as strategically as possible."

While Kilmurry says they'll maintain their number of broadcast spots, he says, "we'll probably be paying a little less."

Dennis Palmieri, a senior executive at ITVS, which produces Independent Lens, says the cuts are "not going to be crippling" and neither ITVS filmmakers, nor the number of their programs, will see any reduction in financing from the cuts. "But no cut is a good cut," he adds.

Part of the major changes in the NEA's PBS funding are a result of a shift of focus at the organization. Previously, public television and radio programs were funded through an NEA arm called Arts on Radio and Television; this year, to catch up with the new digital times, it's been changed to Arts in Media, which now funds a much wider ranger of projects, including mobile apps, games, multimedia and transmedia projects. But because of this year's federal budget, the division has less money to dole out: $3.55 million, compared with last year's $4 million budget. And yet, the number of grantees was 78, up from 64 in 2011, out of 329 eligible applicants, more than double from last year's 150 entrants.

"Unfortunately, when we decided to expand to Arts in Media, we didn't have the appropriation from Congress at that point," says Alice Myatt, a former PBS executive, and now the NEA's director of media arts. "But no matter what, we think we must move forward."

'The Global Lives Project'
'The Global Lives Project'

This year, for instance, the Arts in Media division will give support to several new media oriented groups, never supported by the NEA before, including Auricle Communications (for its multimedia "Re:Mix Media Project"), Games for Change (for its Facebook game "Half the Sky"), Global Lives (for an interactive web video installation called "The Global Lives Project") and Let's Breakthrough (for an interactive social change video game).

"The NEA's responsibility is to ensure the American public has great art," says Myatt, "and we know that art can be made and consumed very differently now than 10 years ago. There is a lot of the public that's not watching television; they're looking at content on the web and mobile phones, so it's our obligation to make public media on every platform."

Cognizant of the difficulties that the funding shift may cause for programs like P.O.V. and American Masters, Myatt adds, "We know it hurts. We know that this is very difficult, and it came down to very, very difficult choices."

Documentary producer and director Gordon Quinn, who has seen his work broadcast on all three PBS documentary strands, says he's worried about the health of the nonfiction series as well as traditional documentary filmmaking. "If long-form documentaries are going to survive, they need a viable place," he says.

Many are concerned that this emphasis on funding new media platforms comes at the expense of supporting more conventional docs, when in fact, they argue, the two work together. As Quinn says, "When you're talking about the web and phone apps, long form documentaries can be a way of drawing people into that world."

'Mr. Soul! Ellis Haizlip and the Birth of Black Power TV'
'Mr. Soul! Ellis Haizlip and the Birth of Black Power TV'

Many of this year's funded projects are, in fact, standard documentaries, with some opportunity for social, new media or outreach component, such as Women Make Movies' "Mr. Soul! Ellis Haizlip and the Birth of Black Power TV," or WNYC's "Stories from the Jazz Loft," but Myatt seems intent on challenging the community to embrace new strategies and platforms.

On a conference call last week explaining the NEA's grant changes, Myatt said, "Just because you think of yourself as a TV or radio station, we're asking you to think broader, to challenge yourself... We would like you to think about exploring transmedia, to take something from television into a game or mobile app... We are asking you to stretch."

But Kartemquin Films' Tim Horsburgh wonders what happens when such elements "aren't relevant to a project?" he says. "I have some concern that people are being dazzled by the lights and forgetting the foundations. We should be amplifying what is already great documentary work."

P.O.V.'s Kilmurry concurs. "I think there's a role for all of it," he says. "All of our films have some kind of special digital features, and we've even done some online-only projects, but I actually think the long form is still extremely important. There are some stories that lend themselves to digital approaches, but there are some that you need to spend some time building something rich and textured and nuanced."

"Novels aren't going out of fashion," adds Kilmurry. "So there has to be a place for long-form documentary."

See the list of funded projects on the next page:

This article is related to: Television, TV Features, POV, PBS, Independent Lens







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