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E.C.U.: home for video diarists
Public TV can nurture a new generation of Hi-8 storytellers

Right Here, Right Now premieres on PBS in 2000, but its creator, Ellen Schneider, was developing the series five years earlier, under the title E.C.U./Extreme Close Up. Schneider was then co-executive producer of another series with a three-letter name, P.O.V., PBS's showcase for independent producers' work. She wrote this commentary for Current, published March 6, 1995.

By Ellen Schneider

There are 16 million camcorders in America. Most are used by families to capture birthday parties and trips to theme parks, but some will become the tools of a new generation of storytellers with wider audiences. Why am I so sure? Ever since we put out the word about developing the first American television series of video diaries, a stack of cassettes has mounted on my desk.

A minister from Portland, Ore., sent a haunting but triumphant story about his autistic son's seven-year struggle to communicate with the world. A Cambodian teenager has documented his new, radically changed life in a Bay Area housing project. A biracial young woman, trying to come to terms with her complicated background, is conducting intimate interviews with her biological mother, her foster parents and her convict father.

While Congress and critics are demanding to know "what makes public television different?'' I suggest we take our moniker seriously and make the commitment to nurture these real person-to-public narratives.

Over the last two years—actually, since I witnessed the staggering power of "Silverlake Life: The View From Here,'' which P.O.V. presented in 1993—I've become something of a video-diary devotee. Independent producers have been submitting record numbers of personal works to P.O.V., but it's also become apparent that a growing number of talented nonprofessionals—who in previous times might have glued themselves to a typewriter—are telling their stories on portable, high-quality Hi-8 video.

As in handwritten journals or family photo albums, sometimes the most personal documents are the ones that tell the truly compelling, authentic stories. And as with the introduction of mimeograph machines and word processors, key technological shifts have widened the storytellers' circle of listeners. What fascinates me about video diaries is the deliberate personal effort to explain, define and explore contemporary experience to the widest audience possible. Move over, America's Funniest Home Videos—complicated characters, real-life dilemmas and actually well-crafted narratives could be coming next to the TV screen.

Such powerful, illuminating work deserves a home of its own. With a grant from the Nathan Cummings Foundation, we began a series of regional conversations with diarists in San Francisco, St. Paul (with KTCA and ITVS), New York and Los Angeles. In each city we hand-picked 15 personal storytellers—both independent producers and "civilians'' who had camcorder projects underway. For hours they worked with our team of veteran producers (like Silverlake Life's Peter Friedman and Marco Williams, whose In Search of Our Fathers aired on Frontline a few years ago), media watchers (notably Pat Aufderheide, whose Guggenheim Fellowship is allowing her to study the rise of personal film and television), a dramaturg (Lynn Holst from American Playhouse) and even lawyers (KTCA's Mike Perelstein, KCET's Glenn Schroeder.)

It did not take long to realize that, yes, the stories were out there and that, yes, most would need a lot of support—editorial, technical and moral—to become viable television.

We talked intensively about the motivations behind this work. Why, we asked the participants, were they willing to make private moments public? ``To use my reunion with a grown sister I've never known as a kind of emblem for the black family experience in America today,'' answered Meredith Woods in St. Paul. ``A personal search for justice,'' said Jeffrey Tuchman in Los Angeles, who shot 20 hours of tape when he accompanied his father back to Germany to confront the Nazi officer who killed his grandmother. ``We wanted to offer unscripted glimpse into our lives,'' replied Herbert Peck in New York, whose diary documents his wife's normal pregnancy through the birth of a son with Down's Syndrome. ``Video diarists are taking risks . . . but also showing the power of what TV can be.''

We also asked the participants to probe the ethics of putting their own families on-camera (``Where do you draw the line?'' ``What if my mother changes her mind?''). Our legal consultants fielded rapid-fire questions (``Should I have a release for every answering machine message I use? What about photographs?'') In each city we also invited technical experts to present seminars on the do's and don'ts of one-person Hi-8 production. How do you improve audio quality? What format should you master on?

E.C.U.'s development phase is over, and now we're seeking production funding. As currently conceived, it will come to the screen as a pilot series of four or five episodes, but in the 18 months we expect it will take to complete an initial line-up, E.C.U. will also be a laboratory for answering questions raised in our cross-country meetings. Our team of story editors, programmers and diarists will face the complex challenge of structuring working relationships, often around highly personal material. We'll need to find ways to reach the right points between intimacy and self-indulgence, experimentation and formula, personal reference and wider resonance.

Will this creative juncture between the narrative arts, journalism, culture, regional representation and personal experience have a future with public TV? We'll see. CPB, already bitten by the Hi-8 bug, has followed our progress. ITVS has shown interest, as have individual producers and programmers at many stations. The journalism community, anticipating the day when their tools will be available to virtually everyone, has paid attention; Columbia Journalism Review featured E.C.U. and I've been invited twice by Harvard University's Neiman Foundation to make presentations about the series. Cable is interested—but with a decidedly more commercial objective.

This is not public access, nor are we training complete novices to use camcorders simply because they are experiencing a particularly dramatic situation, as the BBC does with its Video Diaries series. E.C.U. diarists must demonstrate a clear ability to capture their circumstances, and a willingness to shape their narratives to be accessible for television audiences. The primary goal is to seize an opportunity and provide leadership to shape an inevitable, potentially extraordinary new wave of communication.

Look at it this way. Television venues are increasing. New channels are voraciously seeking cheap, attention-getting programming. The law of supply (those 16 million cameras) and demand make it more than likely that home video is going to fill some of those hours, and you can bet that it won't all be funny animal antics and humiliating hidden-camera shots. If left to simple market forces, we can expect sensationalism and exploitation to dominate the development of first-person storytelling.

These days, among our most compelling argument for public television's future is its history as an innovator. We know that only public television would have taken the risk on a Sesame Street, taken the pains to get it right, thereby setting a standard for children's programming. Nova, Frontline, American Playhouse, you name it; public television went out on a limb and viewers applauded.

Video diaries shouldn't be supported simply because they offer a seminal opportunity for many individuals and communities to tell their own stories without outside interpretation (which they do). The fact that they're mission-consistent—remember ``innovation,'' ``diversity'' and ``risk''?—isn't an adequate argument, either (although it's a pretty good one).

First-person storytelling is worth developing because it's a periscope aimed at the unpredictable, perplexing and often uplifting drama of real life—facilitated by an improving, widely accessible technology.

And if that's not a recipe for public television to whip up in the coming millenium, I don't know what is.

"Over the last two years—actually, since I witnessed the staggering power of "Silverlake Life'' . . . I've become something of a video-diary devote,'' writes Schneider. Above: Mark Massi and filmmaker Tom Joslin, who made the video diary about their fight with AIDS, aired in June 1993. (Photo: Judy Linn.)

 

 
. To Current's home page
. Later news: Pilots of Schneider's series finally make it to air in 2000, under the title Right Here, Right Now.
. Outside link: Web site of P.O.V. on PBS Online.

Web page posted March 4, 2000
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