Video center chief Fifer will lead ITVS

By Karen Everhart Bedford

ITVS, the CPB-funded organization operating in the tricky middle-ground between independent filmmakers and public TV stations, has appointed a leader in the San Francisco indie community as its next chief executive. [She succeeded James Yee, who died in March 2001.]

Sally Jo Fifer, executive director of the Bay Area Video Coalition since 1992, will join the Independent Television Service as its top executive in August. BAVC grew explosively under her leadership — through partnerships with Silicon Valley companies during the soaring tech boom and through job-training contracts with federal, state and local government agencies.

The ITVS Board sought an executive with entrepreneurial skills and a proven ability to “raise money and think creatively,” says Mark Lloyd, chairman of ITVS and president of the Civil Rights Forum on Communications Policy. “Sally’s experience with the Bay Area Video Coalition certainly suggests that she has those qualities.”

“She grew that organization enormously in a relatively short period of time, and her work with young people who were struggling and trying to figure out how to be part of the new economy was also attractive.”

When Fifer took its helm, BAVC employed a staff of six and operated a video service on a budget of roughly $500,000. She oversaw the nonprofit’s $2 million capital campaign and construction of a $1 million facility, which BAVC occupied in 1997. Its staff has expanded to 60 employees, its budget to $5 million, and its range of services into advanced media technologies.

“A lot of ITVS programs have been made at BAVC,” including Scout’s Honor, the documentary that won this year’s Sundance Film Festival and leads the new P.O.V. season, says Fifer. “I’ve worked with ITVS to a certain extent, and that’s part of why I’m so excited — I know them and think they have a tremendous team.”

Fifer says her goals for ITVS coincide with those of BAVC and public TV as a whole — to use changes in media technologies as “an opportunity to improve the public sphere” and strengthen public media.

Another challenge for Fifer will be to expand and diversify ITVS’s funding base. “A lot of folks on the board think it’s not prudent to depend entirely on one source of revenue for our future,” explains Lloyd. CPB annually provides around $7.7 million for ITVS’s operations, which is well over 90 percent of its funding.

“If we’re going to survive and thrive, it’s incumbent on us to look at new ways to support ourselves,” he adds, noting that CPB itself encourages ITVS to develop new funding streams.

Edgier content, new voices

Fifer’s appointment marks the end of an extended period of uncertainty and loss for ITVS. The late James Yee, executive director from 1994 until last November, is credited with establishing ITVS as a valued alternative program service for stations and an entry point for independents to create edgy work for public television. Yee’s 18-month battle with cancer and his death in March have been traumatic for the ITVS staff, who “mourn the loss of a real leader,” says Lloyd.

Congress created ITVS in 1998 under intense pressure from independent filmmakers and over the objections of CPB and public TV stations. Ten years ago the service opened its doors in Minneapolis — as a misfit agency that public TV leaders disliked and some independent filmmakers distrusted.

The service — now based in San Francisco — this year celebrates its achievements in overcoming that isolation and creating an extensive library of independent work. A series of 10th anniversary special events around the country includes a month-long retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in July.

ITVS is “a source for edgier, fringe content,” comments Keith York, program director at KPBS in San Diego. He hopes ITVS will continue to serve that purpose under new leadership. “The work that they do with indies of various sorts is one of the principal things they do that I care about.”

That attitude marks a stark shift from the service’s early years. When ITVS first began offering its programs for broadcast, PBS and stations were “very leery of the organization,” recalls Gayle Loeber, programmer for National Educational Telecommunications Association. Loeber worked with Yee as ITVS’s first station relations chief in the early ’90s, when stations “felt that something was being foisted on them — programming that they didn’t have any control over, from independents who were the cause of all sorts of ills.”

It took persistent station relations work as well as orientation sessions for producers to help producers “understand what makes a program successful on public TV,” before ITVS began to gain acceptance of its work, she added.

ITVS has largely overcome the early ill will through “the good work that they’ve done,” says Jack Willis, the original ITVS Board chairman and former president of KTCA in Twin Cities. “They’ve put together one of the best bodies of work of social documentaries since the old NET” — the first major public TV production center that presented ground-breaking work such as “Banks and the Poor” during pubcasting’s early years.

“What they’ve really done is followed the mandate to bring new voices and diverse voices to public broadcasting that you would not hear otherwise.”

Breakthrough from the heartland

Getting programs on the air continues to be a major challenge for ITVS. Carriage varies widely. Some are seen widely after being picked up by Frontline or P.O.V. PBS feeds some to stations at no charge. ITVS offers others station by station. Some 217 stations consistently broadcast ITVS programs fed by PBS, but carriage can drop to as few as 40 stations for the programs that ITVS distributes itself, according to Lois Vossen, communications director.

Occasional ITVS fare breaks through and makes a major imprint on the PBS schedule. David Sutherland’s The Farmer’s Wife, a six-and-a-half-hour documentary series presented by Frontline in 1998, is ITVS’s biggest hit so far. The impressionistic series took big creative risks, blew away a lot of misperceptions about viewer interest in long-form documentary and inspired a new generation of “observational” doc series on PBS.

Frontline estimated that between 13 million and 15 million viewers tuned into some part of The Farmer’s Wife. “E-mail messages indicate that many viewers came to the mini-series while channel surfing, stopping at the striking landscapes and imagery,” summarized Frontline‘s post-broadcast report.

“I wish I could say that I brilliantly master-minded it, but that wasn’t the case,” acknowledges David Sutherland. ITVS’s early funding of the project helped assure his creative control over the final cut.

Perhaps more importantly, the ITVS staff collaborated closely with Frontline to promote the broadcast, and those joint efforts made a huge difference. “They really did have, in this project, equal weight, and it’s to all the organizations’ credit that they could manage that and there weren’t fights.”

ITVS now is touting its contributions to this summer’s PBS schedule: five ITVS-funded films secured coveted slots on P.O.V.‘s 2001 lineup — an all-time high.

But barriers to broader distribution of its programs have moved ITVS to seek new platforms for the work it funds. The service is preparing to launch an “original-to-Web” initiative through which its programs wouldn’t have to go through PBS or station gatekeepers.

“The idea is to bring makers with their content together with other innovators in the technology field to find new ways to use the Internet for public media,” Vossen explains. Details about the solicitation round and where the content will “live on the Web” are now being worked out, but CPB intends to fund it as a pilot project for around $500,000.

WorldLink TV, a digital television channel available to DBS subscribers in 15.5 million U.S. households, is also a new outlet for ITVS programs. ITVS co-founded the channel in 1999 with Internews and other nonprofit media entities; it holds a seat on its board and provides some programming, but has no role in its day-to-day operations. WorldLink plans to introduce a new block of ITVS programs early this summer, according to Willis, who programs the channel.

The block will feature documentaries by American independents on subjects that can be tied to the international theme of WorldLink, such as poverty, health and labor strife, Willis explains. It also will give the service “the kind of critical mass it needs to begin branding itself.”

LATER INTERVIEW

Pifer joined in a Current Q&A in June 2001.

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