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Notes from the Reel World: The President's Column, August 2005

By Richard Propper

Dear IDA Members,

Documentary filmmaking is not an easy profession. The creative drive that burns in many of us leads us to uncertain destinations, but there's satisfaction in the journey. Our work has purpose for, hopefully, an appreciative audience. But what if your film is not allowed to reach its audience? 

One channel in the US has been holding the torch for groundbreaking and critically acclaimed documentaries for nearly 40 years: PBS. Recently this channel and its parent, CPB, have been under siege in the halls of Congress. Funding was to have been severely reduced, but was, at the last minute, restored-at least for the short term. There is no question: Many who currently hold political power do not like the content on this network. 

Although many of us live in bigger cities and receive our full channel line-up via cable or satellite, a substantial viewership receives its television programming without the assistance of additional transmission devices. PBS is the network for the masses. This is a place where political parties are examined, not where political parties examine content of programs. There are many places where political agendas can be found on cable; let them stay there. 

Is PBS free of bias? Certainly not. In fact, many of its supporters, including Bill Moyers, have suggested that many interviewees who appear on PBS are from the business and cultural elite, while only a small representation of the mainstream population is actually part of PBS' news content. But this is a channel that provides a structure, while not at all perfect, in which independent documentaries can be seen in millions of homes. I can remember years ago watching Tom Joslin and Peter Friedman's Silverlake Life: The View from Here, not really certain of its content, but watching anyway. As many can recall, this was some of the most compelling filmmaking ever seen on television.

Lawmakers and CPB Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson claim that PBS has a liberal "imbalance" that needs to be rooted out. I know our international membership will laugh at another example of American Puritanism, but recently the well-respected series Frontline was directed to cut out profanity in a documentary about US soldiers in Iraq. Profanity is no longer acceptable for a documentary, but a steady diet of limp bodies, post-car bombs, is.

In an era when commercial media is beholden to corporate conglomerates, public broadcasting plays an especially important role. Support PBS-it's part of our future.


Until next time,

Richard Propper
IDA President