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“We Have to Differentiate Ourselves”: Carrie Lozano Discusses ITVS’s Role in Public Media

By Emily Abi-Kheirs

Photograph of Carrie Lozano, a Latinx woman wearing glasses and a patterned shirt. Courtesy of ITVS

Photograph of Carrie Lozano, a Latinx woman wearing glasses and a patterned shirt. Courtesy of ITVS

In August, ITVS welcomed new CEO and President Carrie Lozano to lead the San Francisco-based nonprofit that has, for over 30 years, funded and partnered with a diverse range of documentary filmmakers to produce and distribute stories that would otherwise be untold. Before ITVS, Lozano built her credentials with varied roles stewarding programs that provide funding, creative labs, fellowships, and artist support. Most recently, she served as the director of Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film and Artist Programs, previously as the director of IDA’s Enterprise Fund, and as an executive at Al Jazeera America.

While broadcast commissioners can often be difficult to access, ITVS aims to lower the bar to entry by holding an annual open call that allows U.S. filmmakers to apply for funding. It is important to note that the open call is not a grant—funding comes in the form of a co-production agreement that “assigns ITVS certain broadcast and streaming rights to your project during the term of the contract,” according to their website. For projects in pre-production, ITVS also offers development and co-production funding through their Diversity Development Fund and Short-Form Open Call.

Since its founding in 1988, ITVS has funded more than 1,400 films and series, many of which have made their television premiere on Independent Lens, the ITVS-curated flagship PBS documentary series, or on other PBS’ series such as POVFRONTLINEAmerica ReFramedAmerican Masters, and others.  A marker of success from ITVS-funded projects include the bevy of awards they have won recently, including the Peabody-winning and Oscar-nominated films Missing in Brooks County (2020), How to Survive a Plague (2012), and Minding the Gap (2018), the Peabody- and duPont Award-winning docuseries Philly D.A. (2021), amongst others. 

It was a pleasure to speak with Lozano, during my first week in a new role at GBH, which marks my return to public media. In the midst of Independent Lens 25th season launch, we discussed the importance of supporting independent voices in today’s media landscape, as well as the vital role public media plays in serving the ever-expansive U.S. audience. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

DOCUMENTARY: With your extensive career in investigative journalism, producing nonfiction films, and funding creative documentaries, this new role feels like a real homecoming for you. What brought you to ITVS?

CARRIE LOZANO: It's funny that you say that because anytime anyone has asked me, “How's it going?” I just keep saying it feels like home. That’s the best way to answer it, both philosophically and tangibly. In a lot of ways, I launched my career with ITVS—The Weather Underground (2002) was the first feature film that I produced, which premiered on the second season of Independent Lens. At that time, public media was really the holy grail for nonfiction filmmakers. Public media had big audiences, and visibility, and also aligned with our values as filmmakers to have the work be accessible to the public.

My career has taken many shifts and turns, but the reality for me has always been that, ultimately, it's about the work and trying to assess where I can do my best work, while also being open to opportunities. Landing here at this moment is both about the business of nonfiction and the idea that public media is still the most value-centered place for the work that so many filmmakers are undertaking. For me, democracy is at the center of everything, and making sure independents are part of the democratic discourse is key to a healthy democracy, because [independent filmmakers] control the funding and editorial of their projects and are not politically or financially influenced. What better place to support the independents and make sure that voice is heard than at ITVS? It’s the perfect time to be here.

D: I noticed you said, “Public media was the holy grail.” Could you talk a bit more about this changing sentiment? What is the importance of public media in the times we are living in?

CL: I think for a lot of makers, it still is, but I do think that there are so many distribution opportunities that came to the forefront in the last decade or more—especially if you are a digital native (which I am not). Digital natives don’t have an attachment to linear television, on any of the networks, including public media. The idea of linear television, and even in some ways serial television, are things of the past for so many younger people who prefer an on-demand experience, whether that’s in a social media or a larger entertainment context. Younger audiences are engaging with content in many different ways. 

I think if you’re coming up as an artist or filmmaker now, you might not understand the value of public media or its reach. They haven’t had to think about audience the way us old-timers had to. It’s something we don’t know much about when it comes to the major streaming platforms. And then there’s those handful of very big deals, and who wouldn’t want that? Philosophically, I understand that. Public media has a value proposition that's really different from those entities. Those entities are publicly traded companies—they have shareholders and a bottom line, which is quite different from public media. 

Our business concern is to serve the American public and to make creative, innovative, diverse content freely available for free to anyone who wants to engage with it. That's something that maybe we are not saying loud and proud often enough. We have to differentiate ourselves.

D: Navigating the public media system continues to be a confusing and complicated process for many. From your perspective, how is ITVS situated within the public media system and how do ITVS-funded works feed into other parts of the system?

CL: ITVS is a congressionally mandated independent nonprofit that exists solely for the purpose of producing independent, creative, innovative, diverse content to feed the PBS system. There are over 300 local stations across the country and PBS national goes out to all those communities. What I hope filmmakers will understand is that ITVS really exists for them to get their work on public media and that there’s a variety of ways that can happen.

One of those ways is through our Independent Lens series. We just premiered a new season earlier this month with Sansón and Me (2022) from filmmaker Rodrigo Reyes, with more docs premiering this fall including El Equipo (2023) from filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz, Three Chaplains from filmmaker David Washburn (2023), and the new 3-part docuseries A Town Called Victoria, all of which were funded through ITVS’s Open Call initiative. We also provide support for films that go to other incredible series that highlight independent work. When you get ITVS co-production funding, not only are you going to finish your film, but you are going to land somewhere meaningful.

D: How does ITVS support PBS’s larger mission to reflect the audiences it serves?

CL: I’m really proud to say that the vast majority of films that ITVS co-produces are from diverse teams. As we know, it can be really hard to parse out this data—that’s been true at every organization I’ve been at. When I was interviewing for this role, I went back and read ITVS’s articles of incorporation and was blown away. They speak to the moment that we’re in today, as well as they did in 1989. It really is our mandate to support diverse content—creative, innovative, and independent, that’s what we're about. It’s really rare to walk into an organization where that’s part of the DNA and always has been. 

Of course, there are different ways that the field and society have evolved to think about these things. ITVS has played a role in the value, ethics, and accountability work, alongside organizations like FWD-DOC which is doing work around accessibility. How do you actually know who is being represented on screen, and how do you get individuals to self-identify? That’s something nobody in the field collects. How could we do that? What would it look like? How could we be more intersectional in our data? I feel like ITVS is in an amazing position, not just for public media, but for the larger field, to help solve some of these big questions for the field. That is the role that we are intended to serve for the public media system and to ensure a diversity of content.

D: There’s a lot of talk within public media about reaching “new” audiences. What does that mean to you? How can we keep public media alive for generations to come? 

CL: The reality is that “new” audiences usually translate to younger and more diverse audiences, and to reach them, you have to be showing work that is pretty boundary-breaking. Those are the types of things that young folks respond to. People of color and other underrepresented communities want to see themselves on the screen, behind the camera. I had a lot of these discussions at Sundance with my colleagues in the Indigenous team about seeing films that really reflect other cultural practices of storytelling that aren’t necessarily three-act structure. All of those things should be on the table if you really want to reach new audiences and reflect our society in a meaningful way.

It’s my understanding that there’s a big goal within public media to understand not only the audience they have but the audience that could be reached. Public media is available in 99% of TV households throughout the country and anybody can access it, whether you have broadcast or broadband. In terms of what I see as possible, this is not about competition. This is about collaboration and how do we get big companies to understand our value proposition and say, “We need you here. We want you to be part of our conversation and we need you to help serve our audiences.” That’s the way it used to be back in broadcast days when there was a public service element to all the broadcast channels. There were certain things they had to do for the public as part of having that access. It’s about what kind of creative partnerships we can have for the indies to make their films available and with some longevity. 

D: In the spirit of collaboration, and with the understanding that the Multicultural Alliance exists and that ITVS used to run the LInCS initiative, what could new partnerships or collaborating within the system look like?

CL: LInCS was an amazing program—The Weather Underground was a LInCS project with KQED. I also want to recognize that the world has changed and everyone is trying to keep up. We need the system to be better resourced overall. Long-term, it’s about making our case that we’re worth investing in, because having that investment will allow us to work together and to try things. In terms of working within the system, I think it’s about thinking not with a scarcity mindset, but one that says, “What’s possible? Where can we experiment?” I think GBH is masterful. There’s already a lot of collaboration that happens, but can we make that easier and more doable? Why shouldn’t we? What are the obstacles and how can we mitigate some of those? I’m excited to collaborate—making films is a team sport. I think we can find ways to work together that would be unique and maybe one-off, but that doesn’t make them not worth the investment and the time it would take to pull off. It’s early for me to say anything with specificity, but that’s what I’m excited about.

D: What has remained your north star through these various moments of crises within the industry?

CL: My north star is the storytellers (and I’m a storyteller myself). The thing about independents that I love is I don't know that you will meet more multi-faceted, multi-hyphenated, multi-skilled individuals, who are so creative and committed to reaching the finish line almost completely against all the odds. Regardless of what happens when you finish your film, the very fact that you finished the film is a mini miracle every single time it happens. For me, helping a group of people who are so committed to what they do has always been a privilege. There's nothing I have found that is more meaningful than being part of an ecosystem so determined to tell some of the most essential stories about what it means to be a human at this time. 

I think independent filmmakers are often the canaries in the coal mine. For example, the entire country knows we have a challenge with policing in our criminal justice system, but filmmakers have known that for an even longer time. At this time of these strikes, we should all be watching Harlan County, USA (1976)And while Oppenheimer is striking a chord, it’s Jon Else’s The Day After Trinity (1981) who captured the real people there. Forty years later, it’s one of the most-watched documentaries right now. That's the kind of shelf life that we have with this work. There is so much longevity. 

If there is one thing I could message, it’s that we know this is a hard time in the field. But we are here, we are strong, and we want to continue to evolve the field. The American audience is who we serve, and we are actively engaging in conversations that are most relevant to the community so that we can ensure this work thrives and we can understand how we can be of service.

Emily Abi-Kheirs is the programming manager for GBH, a renowned public broadcaster and the largest producer of PBS content for TV and the web. She is dedicated to amplifying stories that are underrepresented in mainstream media through film programming and distribution.