Let me relate to you the story of a fellow videomaker who “made good.” John started like most of us, goofing around with his parents’
film equipment. Though just a child, the creative art of cinematography really clicked for him. He created one film after another to the
delight of his family and friends.
Though the passion for this “art” festered inside John, he became frustrated with the what seemed like a wasting of his time.
The whole purpose of producing a movie was for an audience’s enjoyment. After five years of basement screenings, family and
friends hardly qualified as a legitimate audience anymore. John knew there just had to be a better way, but didn’t latch onto it quite
yet. Much later, in college, John enrolled in the school’s teleproduction class. He knew a little bit about TV production, but was still
mainly a “film” guy. It was here that he discovered what would later “rule” his world–videotape.
Even with excellent marks, John still yearned for that elusive “audience”. Luckily, he was outspoken about this need, and a
professor took notice. The professor, as it happens, was on the board of the local public television station. He was primarily
responsible for development of new. local programming. Thinking of John’s desires, and some of the super productions the students
were showing, the teacher came up with a “Young Filmmaker’s” showcase program. The show would give aspiring film and
videomakers (now John’s medium of choice due to cost and time considerations) a place to present their programming to a potentially
large viewership. Happy ending: John got his audience, the station got quality programming, and viewers got some alternative shows
Not all stories involving broadcast TV are so inspiring, and sometimes PBS networks are the hardest nuts to crack. But the
example above does point out the many opportunities that exist for videomakers looking for distribution of their productions within
these “hallowed halls.” For some reason or another, broadcast television stations have the image of an “insider’s club.” You’ve got to
know someone or already work there in a lower capacity to get an in. If you weren’t a part of the community’s filmmaking “elite,”
your chances for broadcast were nil. Maybe ten or so years ago that was true, but today, this is simply not the case. Especially for
dedicated, experienced videomakers.
One of the reasons for this “opening” may be attributable to the increase in number and types of broadcast outlets on the
map. Before everyone in America had cable, there existed a strong distinction between broadcast and cable fare. Broadcast
programming was free, contained a some locally-produced programming (created at the station, not by independents), and carried the
network shows as they “came down the line.” Cable, on the other hand, carried new movies and other, non-traditional television
material. It was also perceived (rightly so) as being very costly.
As the years passed and more media moguls developed, the number of cable stations quadrupled, the cost for the service
plummeted and the demand by consumers who “wanted their MTV” skyrocketed. This led to the confusing mix of cable and
broadcast stations that currently exists on your channel selector. This influx of new entertainment choices spurred a huge void in the
supply of programming able to fulfill the scheduling needs of the stations.
Another reason broadcast stations unlocked their doors to outsiders was the fact that now they wanted to compete with the
trendy and popular cable networks. The old, stodgy rules of operation were changing, and any new face that had something to add to
the party was welcome.
And, in recent years, a new broadcast outlet, Low Power Television (LPTV) became popular. The limited signal put out by
these stations reaches a relatively small, geographically close audience. The LPTV stations tend to be carriers of downloadable
national satellite programming, mixed with an unusually high amount (for broadcast) of local fare.
While all of this is certainly encouraging (if not educational) for the future of aspiring videomakers, what real opportunities
exist now, in the present, for those of you who can’t wait a lifetime for their dreams to be fulfilled? What does broadcast television
offer you in the form of distribution?
You’ve got a job (that you like) and possess some fine-tuned production abilities. You own a little equipment, no Industrial Light and
Magic, but a respectable “studio” on your own right. You’ve made some industrials, a whole slew of weddings, even an instructional
tape on gardening for your spouse. You got some good ideas for programming that you think will go over big with the locals, but how
do you get it on the tube?
Time saving tip number one: skip the VHF channels in your broadcasting area. VHF slots, usually reserved for network
affiliates, offer the independent videomaker little in the form of finding an audience. The stations are network controlled, meaning
they have mega-bucks at their resources. They’re not rude, but why would they want to mess with your $1.98 Talent Show when they
can program a re-rerun of Who’s the Boss? It just doesn’t make sense for the big boys to play with you.
About the only exposure you may achieve through a VHF outlet is sale of news-type footage. And this comes from personal
experience. My town was literally burning down. A huge fire started in the historical district, and I happened to be at the right place at
the right time with my camcorder. I got some great shots before any of the large news crews showed up. They were aware of my
presence and asked to buy the footage for inclusion in the coverage of the story. I was only too glad to succumb to their wishes. But
don’t plan on getting rich from selling news footage. These deep-pocketed network guys could only scrape together $50 for the whole
30-minute tape. And then I didn’t even get an on-air credit!
If you’ve seen the Weird Al movie of the same name, then you are aware of the possibilities available for independent programming
to air on these channels. While it’s not quite as zany as the Weird Al film, opportunities do exist (especially in smaller markets) for
videomakers to find an audience.
Many UHF stations are becoming network affiliates (FOX has conquered quite a few), so the chances with these stations are
slimming. If you live in a large TV city (one with more than four or five UHF channels), then you should be able to locate a willing
outlet. In the Cleveland-area, a late-night television host on a UHF channel hosts a viewer’s film’s series. It’s a great show comprised
of shorts (one shot-on-video feature has played) broken up with interviews of the videomakers. There is no pay involved, but the
audience is pretty big, and loyal. The program is also real popular with local advertisers who recognize the local customer
base tuning in. If there is a late-night gig in your city, why not hit up the host with this idea? It makes his or her job infinitely easier,
and becomes attractive to sales personnel at the station.
Sunday morning talk and “city” shows also seem popular with UHF channels. Easily produced, these programs focus on
community events and personalities. Often, the production may center on one specific area, and the show is a submission from a
Fairly new to the broadcast arena, Low Power Television Stations are basically UFH stations, only with less signal
amplification. These stations function much like their big cousins, only with a greater concentration of the local goods.
Knowing that there’s some distribution avenues available in UHF and LPTV is good news, but, you’d like some compensation for
your efforts, right? Well, just like the VHF networks, these stations pull in the reins when it comes time to pay. In fact, you may be
the one paying them to show your program.
WAI-TV, part of a three-channel LPTV network in Cleveland and Akron, offers air-time for sale. Going for $250 and up per
half hour (depending what day and time you buy) the channel is a natural for independents. “We have space for sale just like every
other television network. It just happens that ours is available to the independent,” says Bill Klaus, owner of the station. Klaus makes
it clear that the reason an independent can buy time from his network is because it is affordable. “Sure, someone with a home-grown
production could go to their local VHF station and buy a half-hour of time to broadcast the show, but they’d probably have to
mortgage their house to do it. My network makes it affordable, and we often barter time as well so the videomaker can actually make
Bartering, as Klaus mentioned, is another favored option of UHF and LPTV programmers. What this means is that you retain
some of the commercial time alloted within your programming block. As an example, let’s say you buy a half-hour of air time for
$200. That’s the flat rate. With that price, you are the owner of all 8 minutes of commercial space. You can deal with the station,
letting them keep 4 minutes of ad time, dropping your payment to $100. And, it also works in reverse. If they want to buy your show
(yes–that actually happens sometimes), they may offer you the commercial time in exchange for any payment. This way they don’t
have a cash outlay, but fill their schedule. You, on the other hand, have found a profitable distribution outlet.
There are no set rules here. Just remember that it’s the fact that people are able to view your production through their
television sets for free that’s important, not the amount of bills you have wadded in your pocket.
The multitude of small and low-power broadcasting outlets has created a void of original, low-cost scheduling alternatives.
There’s only so many stations that can broadcast The Andy Griffith Show at any one time, and it’s that fact that opens up the
audiences to you.
The large, network-affiliated stations will not likely be interested in your bargain broadcasting, but many independent
stations will take a look. Local interest, interview shows, documentaries, community affairs and sporting events are all good ideas to
present to any small broadcaster in your neighborhood.
When you go door knocking, bring an attractive demo and a professional presentation package outlining your programming
ideas. This packet should present your work in its best possible light. While you may think you are the only indie out there (or at least
the only one in the neighborhood), the fact is that programming managers deal with many proposals from many people. “It’s probably
hard to believe, but I get at least a proposal a week from independent video producers,” states Klaus. “Most of the production ideas
have no substance. If I got one backed by a demo, or put together in a professional manner, I might pay more attention to them. But
too many of them look like a half-hearted effort to get a show on the air.”
“I don’t mind working with independents,” Klaus continues. “In fact I like it, but they just have to be more professional in
their approach. If a videomaker wants to make some money by getting his programming on the air, instead of spending it to buy time,
he should prepare the idea as completely as possible. That would be the type of producer I would look to work with.”