PBS & ITVS: Fertile Soil for Independent Videographers

If you’ve ever dreamed of seeing your video production on television or bringing your vision to a broader audience than friends and family, now is the time and PBS is the place. PBS – both independently and through its liaison with ITVS – offers unparalleled opportunities for videographers with unique vision and a compelling story. You’ll find a surprising number of opportunities with ongoing series (such as Frontline, American Masters, POV, and American Experience), limited jointly-curated series (like Digital Divide and Independent Lens) and one-offs (stand-alone, independent films). This article will help you evaluate whether your project is PBS/ITVS material and show you how to break into this ever-expanding market.

PBS, ITVS and You: The Time is Now

PBS has a strong tradition of working with independent producers. It’s a common misconception, but PBS is not a television network. Instead, it is a membership organization made up of independent public television stations around the country, funded, in part, by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation created by the US Congress in 1967. PBS is available to 99% of US households and strives to reach all portions of the population with quality, accessible, relevant programming. Pat Mitchell, PBS President and CEO, says key components of the PBS mission are "to inform, to inspire and to educate. "

Independent producers frequently challenge convention and provide in-depth analyses of complex topics. PBS makes available programming designed to spur discussion and active community involvement in social issues. Their goal is to provide thorough examination of a story, theme or issue, including all conflicting points of view.

The Independent Television Service (ITVS) was created in 1991 in response to demand from independent media producers and community activists for programming by and for diverse, underrepresented audiences (such as minorities and children) not adequately served by the networks or by PBS.

Acting as guide and gateway into the public television arena, ITVS links independent producers with public television programming opportunities. ITVS offers producers feedback during the creative process (including programs which apply, but are rejected for financial aid), content development assistance, funding options and an extensive marketing and publicity package in conjunction with Community Connections Project (CCP – a network of community organizers).

Content Confab: Programming Possibilities

What are PBS and ITVS looking for and how do you know if your program is right for them? The most obvious question is often the most overlooked: Do you want to produce a program or a series? If your long-range goal is theatrical release, PBS is probably not the proper venue for your project. Some films, however, do get additional play after a public TV release, for example, in educational distribution, at festivals and in home video and foreign broadcast markets.

Though the guidelines and needs vary for each program and funding initiative, it can be said that PBS and ITVS seek innovative, adventurous, compelling stories told in distinctive, contemporary and engaging formats. Of special interest are projects that provide interactive opportunities for community participation. No subject is taboo, though projects too narrow in scope may not have many market options. Wide-market appeal creates more programming possibilities, but success is not strictly about raw ratings in public broadcasting. You should also avoid controversy for controversy’s sake. Journalistic integrity in research, documentation and development is expected.

Is it easier for emerging or established videographers to break in with a one-off or with a series segment? ITVS Executive Director, Sally Jo Fifer explains, "It’s always difficult to get funding because the competition is so fierce. The one essential is to have a great idea and tell it in a creative, thorough, smart proposal. Tell a great story in a unique, ‘the viewer can’t stop watching’ way."


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ITVS offers several initiatives for producers seeking financial support for completion of a film, although it actually funds less than five percent of proposed projects. Open Call accepts proposals in any genre and funding rounds occur twice yearly (in February and August). LinCS (Local Independents Collaborating with Stations) provides matching ITVS funds for producers who pair up with a specific public television station and is perfect for programs with a more local appeal.

PBS is currently implementing a program, called In The Works, to support production on a limited number of projects for use with its series, POV as funding becomes available. An excellent way to keep abreast of developments is to subscribe to the Beyond the Box newsletter. Available funding and application procedures vary for each program and initiative.

Public television is commercial-free, but other outside opportunities exist for acquiring financial assistance. Corporate and minority consortia funds are available for resourceful producers, as are grants from state and national arts councils.

Getting the Green Light

ITVS uses a peer-reviewed process to screen applicants for funding. ITVS selects juries based on diversity of ethnicity, vocation, religion, geographic region and other demographic criteria. The jury considers each application on its own merits, individually evaluated and scored. The screening process has three levels, with weaker proposals eliminated at each stage. The panels often request additional application materials from producers who advance to the next level during the review process. At the full panel meetings, members advocate for their favorite projects until they can arrive at a consensus on which proposals to fund for that round.

Criteria the panel may consider when reviewing your project:

  • Is the project accessible, relevant, formatted in the most effective manner?
  • Is the treatment thorough, concise, written with passion? Does it clearly show the project trajectory and structure?
  • Is the audience easily identifiable? Is it broad enough? Does it represent ITVS and PBS mission statements?
  • Is the producer or the team experienced enough to complete the project on budget and on deadline?

    Ms. Fifer warns that producers frequently do not read the application guidelines carefully enough. She also suggests that producers weigh the appeal of their projects, "Programmers tell us repeatedly that they don’t need six shows on one subject. They especially don’t need six okay shows on one subject. What they need is one great show on that subject."

    Sample materials and written treatments must outshine their competitors. There are not nearly enough programming hours available for the number of submissions received by PBS and ITVS, of course, and top-notch productions often do not make the cut the first time around. You may find the keys to the public programming kingdom in the feedback you get even if your proposal is rejected. But remember, not all venues are suited to all programs. Keep reevaluating your project to determine where it fits best.

    Technical Specifications

    Almost any shooting format is viable for PBS/ITVS programming. Choose the format that most effectively showcases your subject matter or the one that is most readily available. In the end, however, the final video must be digitally mastered and must meet all of the very rigorous PBS technical requirements, as set forth in the Technical Operating Specifications (TOS). This handbook and the ITVS Production manual are available for purchase online. Standard program lengths for PBS/ITVS are 26:40 and 56:40. Feature films of non-standard length are considered on a case-by-case basis.

    Ready, Set, Video

    You’ve set your sights on PBS and chosen the appropriate funding initiative. You’ve studied existing series strands and talked with producers who have worked with PBS. Your sample and treatment are flawlessly prepared and you can meet all of the technical specifications. The story you’ve chosen to tell is unique, passion-filled and appeals to a broad audience while remaining interesting and diverse. Now what?

    Once you mail your application, the review process may take up to six months. If your proposal is selected, you must typically complete the project within one year of acceptance. Should ITVS license your film, they may offer it to stations directly, without benefit of a time-slot or an airdate. The film could be distributed over PBS Plus or on a soft-feed, which allows member stations to fit the program into available airtime. It might even earn a spot on the National Program Service (hard-feed) or another subscription services such as Independent Lens or POV.

    It takes perseverance, persistence, resourcefulness and a dedication to vision, voice and mission, but dozens of independent video producers share compelling stories and unique perspectives via PBS every year. This could be the year the spotlight shines on your work.

    [Sidebar: Electric Shadows]
    ITVS is breaking ground with digital technology. If interactive media and Web release is what you crave, check out Electric Shadows, an extraordinary blend of digital audio, video, interviews and still photography, enhanced with feedback forums and lesson plan suggestions.

    [Sidebar: Contact Info]
    ITVS Information

    Independent Television Service
    501 York Street
    San Francisco, CA 94110
    Phone: (415) 356-8383
    email: itvs@itvs.org

    ITVS Funding Applications and Guidelines:


    Online Resources for Producers
    Producing for PBS:

    PBS Main Switchboard: (703) 739-5000

    Online Version of PBS Red Book:

    PBS Production Guidelines:

    Beyond the Box Online Content:

    [Sidebar: PBS.org]
    Stay current with the needs of PBS. PBS updates their Web site frequently with content priorities. Preview the strands you are interested in producing for before submitting your film or applying for funding. Does your format, vision, style and subject matter fit within the program’s parameters? If not, consider another strand or funding source.

  • The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.