An actual market for clever ideas for TV
You have a great concept for a TV show. Maybe a look at racial stereotyping on prime-time television. Maybe a view of the opera world through the eyes of bit players. But then what? Is there a fairy godmother for such bright ideas?
The answer is an encouraging yes. Her name is the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) - or more specifically, the CPB TV program fund - and she's actually looking for formats that probably would not make it on commercial TV, or even public TV, without special help.
CPB - a nonprofit group created by Congress in 1967 to help public broadcasting - wants fascinating but ``different'' subjects, even if they don't promise to set viewership records, because they can make the difference between business-as-usual TV and compelling diversity.
``If you look at commercial television, it's homogenized,'' says CPB's acting program fund director, Gene Katt. ``It's hard to tell one network program from another.
``Something like this fund brings different points of view into play. It gives public television a much more dynamic appearance and provides the viewer with a fuller look at what's going on in his or her culture.''
He's talking about prospective shows like ``Color Adjustments: Blacks in Prime Time,'' a 60-minute documentary that will try to illustrate how TV takes hotly contested special issues and puts them in a soothing entertainment format. Or the San Francisco Opera as seen from the inside - not by its stars, but by its little people, the choristers.
These prospective shows - 17 in all, including four episodes of existing series (see box on this page) - are among the recent winners of an elaborate but hope-inspiring system that CPB calls its Open Solicitation round.
The funding starts with CPB sending invitations to 4,000 or 5,000 public-TV people all over the country.
``Anybody can be considered,'' says Mr. Katt. ``The criteria is the idea.''
Yes, but can the proposer deliver on the idea? That's key. If you're a TV producer with a track record, it helps convince CPB.
``Almost all the ideas we get are good,'' Katt explains, ``but many [of the proposers] have no experience in television. If you put a quarter of a million dollars into something, you want to be sure it will be completed.''
The fund gets 200 or 300 proposals each round - which happens three times a year. ``The staff reads each one,'' Katt says. ``Then we sit down and decide on about 60 that will go to the panel.''
That panel has eight or nine people - none part of CPB, and they change each time the process takes place. It usually includes three or four station program managers, the same number of independent producers, and - depending on the programs being considered - there may also be an expert in a field under discussion.
They pick about 20 each time, and the CPB staff checks them out, considers the proposer's background, and decides to fund about 15.
This gift-giving, according to CPB, makes it the biggest ``nondiscretionary'' funder in public TV. Other sources may come up with more money for various projects, ``but in those cases it's all tied to specific programs,'' Katt explains. The money is pre-committed to planned-in-advanced shows. ``Someone walks into the office of one of those sources tomorrow,'' he says. ``The funders can't do anything. We can.''
The Open Solicitation rounds use $6 million annually - $2 million a round - with each show getting an average of $150,000 to $200,000.
``In the past, individual shows or series have gotten around $250,000 or less,'' says Katt, ``but we may move that up and make it fewer shows with more money.
Open Solicitation accounts for roughly a fifth of CPB's yearly television fund. It's the cutting edge of CPB funding. Says operations manager Pat King, ``If we have extra money in any given year, that's usually where it goes.''
A sampling of the winners
The Republicans: Before and After. A 60-minute documentary on the party's history.
America's Workers. A 90-minute documentary on the working class in America.
The Other Americas. A 10-part series on the civilization of Latin America and the Caribbean.
Gift of the Gods. A six-part series on the history of food and agriculture.
In the Shadow of the Stars. 60-minute documentary on the San Francisco Opera, as seen through the eyes of its bit players.
The Segovia Legacy. A 60-minute portrait of the great classical guitarist.
Color Adjustment: Blacks in Prime Time. 60-minute documentary on racial stereotyping on TV.
Legacies. Four-part series on the Hispanic Southwest.
Days of Waiting. 30-minute documentary on three young Japanese-American artists incarcerated in the United States during World War II.
Four films on language. Four-part series exploring human language - and, no, it doesn't rehash ``The Story of English.''
``All of our stuff is seen nationally on PBS,'' says Gene Katt, acting director of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's TV program fund. ``But we don't fund local programs. We don't have the resources.''
But they do encourage ideas from all quarters. ``There are three main categories,'' Mr. Katt says. ``Children's programming, news and public affairs, and general programming - cultural, drama, performance. From time to time, we'll indicate in our newsletter, which is mailed to everybody, certain areas of interest - it could be children's programming, for instance. Whatever we feel there's a need for in public television.''
For information about funding for TV ideas, write to: Open Solicitation Round, CPB TV program Fund, 1111 16th St. NW, Washington, DC 20036.