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Independent TV Service to Issue First Grants Today : Funding: Three years after its formation, the self-described alternative to PBS and the Corp. for Public Broadcasting will award about $3 million to 26 programs.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Three years after a group of independent producers persuaded Congress that they deserved millions of dollars to fund projects for public television, the Independent Television Service (ITVS) says it is ready to begin making grants.

The organization is scheduled to make its entrance today as a self-described independent alternative to PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, awarding approximately $3 million to 26 programs. According to spokeswoman Ellen Schneider, the programs will include a documentary on the effects of toxic substances on communities of color, an offbeat children’s drama about a young Latino and an animated short about “the pains and pleasures of becoming middle-aged.”

But the Independent Television Service has drawn criticism even before it has gotten off the ground. Critics as varied as a longtime public television executive and a researcher for the conservative Heritage Foundation say that the agency took too long and spent too much federal money--$1.5 million over three years--getting organized.

The organization’s supporters, on the other hand, say it takes a long time to develop new ideas. In an attempt to truly involve the nation’s independent producers, for example, ITVS started the search for new programming by polling 24,000 people, said executive director John Schott.

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“There were very different viewpoints about what ITVS should be, and there were different viewpoints over how it should be organized, what its mission ought to be and how its budgets should be negotiated,” Schott said.

The Independent Television Service put out a call for project ideas last winter, Schott said, but because of the organization’s efforts to be egalitarian in its decision making, it took a year just to decide which projects would be funded.

Lawrence Daressa, a member of the board of the Independent Television Service and one of its founders, said the service received more than 2,000 proposals for projects. The proposals were distributed to 14 screening panels, and each was read by at least three people.

Producers have yet to receive the funds and begin to make their programs, but according to ITVS, the first shows will be ready for broadcast in the fall of 1992. And unlike PBS, which charges membership fees to public-television stations that want to run its programs, the Independent Television Service plans to make its shows available to public-TV stations free of charge (although they are not obligated to run the programs).

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“You might say we erred on the side of democracy,” Daressa said. “It took time because we wanted to set up something that was not part of public-television’s business as usual.”

But Al Vecchione, president of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, said that he was skeptical about the organization’s approach--especially its lengthy timetable.

“It’s conceivable that there are some legitimate reasons, but it sounds like a hell of a way to run a railroad,” Vecchione said. “We’re airing a new three-part series in January (about education) and it took us four months from top to bottom, from the minute we started until the three shows were in the can.”

The Independent Television Service grew out of a lobbying campaign by the National Coalition of Independent Public Broadcasting Producers, an organization of independent TV producers, that lasted throughout most of the 1980s. The group claimed that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which is responsible for doling out federal monies for public television and radio, was too bureaucratic and favored the production companies affiliated with large PBS stations over independents.

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In 1988, led by Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), Congress ordered the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to help the independent producers set up shop and to then turn over to them $6 million of the Corporation’s own funding each year.

At the time, the idea was vehemently opposed by officials at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, as well as others in the established public-broadcasting community, who said that the funding for the independents would take too large a bite out of the corporation’s scarce resources.

In fact, officials at the Independent Television Service say that the older agency’s reluctance to get started is what set them on the slow track in the first place.

It took an entire year, said Independent Television Service board member Daressa, just to persuade the Corporation for Public Broadcasting--which Congress had said could choose whomever it wanted to set up the service--that it should work with the same coalition of producers who had lobbied for the new law in the first place.

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It took another year for negotiations to proceed to the point where Schott could be hired as executive director and offices opened. And while the Corporation for Public Broadcasting doled out $1.5 million over the three years for ITVS to set up shop and pay administrative expenses, the $6 million that had been promised for programming didn’t become available until last June.

Until then, Daressa claimed, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting had been so stingy that the fledgling operation had to borrow $75,000 last year “just to keep the clerical people on and pay the light bills and buy the airplane tickets so the board could meet.”

The two organizations have since mended their fences, according to Schott and Donald Marbury, director of the television program fund for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Marbury said that while the corporation was “concerned” about ITVS at first, the parent agency is now fully supportive--even down to the length of time it has taken to get rolling.

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“It has taken a great deal on both sides to launch this major initiative,” Marbury said. “But we’re talking about a huge, huge mechanism, brand-spanking new. If you were to go through their activity reports, it would knock your socks off.”

Marbury said that Schott and others at the Independent Television Service cooperated fully with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and in the end took a number of their organizational cues from the corporation’s own procedures.

But Lawrence Jarvik, who is studying the notion of privatizing public broadcasting for the Heritage Foundation, says that’s just the problem.

“They created a replicant bureaucracy of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting,” Jarvik said. “Couldn’t they get it together to make one hour of television by now? One half-hour?”

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And Vecchione, who opposed ITVS when it was being set up, said he still thinks that the agency is unnecessary and that it further tightens the already tight financial situation facing producers who do work within the PBS system.

“I didn’t understand then and I don’t understand now why this group of people has been sliced off to live in some separate universe from everybody else, under some separate set of rules that they set up themselves,” Vecchione said. “It didn’t seem rational to me then and it doesn’t seem rational to me now.”

But to Daressa and other supporters, the reason for the Independent Television Service is clear: Independent producers might have ideas for programs that don’t fit the typical mold of PBS programming, and that will target underserved viewers, such as ethnic minorities and inner-city groups.

“We have a different agenda from a public-television station,” Daressa said. “Our agenda is not to pay the bills. The idea is to try to do something well, rather than to do something quickly.”

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