Do You Pass the Test?

George Rush April 26, 2010

You are awesome. No, really. I’m talking spectacular, totally incredible, interesting and accomplished and generally just way awesome. Everyone wants to hear every possible thing there is to know about you. Thus, always in a giving spirit, you want to help facilitate the creation of a documentary about everyone’s favorite subject. However, one of the few skills on the planet you have failed to master (but don’t worry, you’ll get to it eventually) is the elusive art of filmmaking. So you start shopping around for the perfect producer who will capture the essence of this groundbreaking topic, namely: You.

After posting some ads, you find such a producer, and pull together a team to begin filming, editing and selling this documentary. You figure that since your life story can offer so many educational opportunities, you might want to distribute it to public broadcasting networks, say, PBS. Now, you haven’t quite yet amassed a huge fortune in all of your endeavors (but don’t worry, it’s coming). So, in addition to the part of the project you will pay for yourself, you’ll need additional people to contribute crucial funds. You think of hitting up tried-and-true donors, like Mom, Dad, maybe some siblings who have made it even bigger than you have.

But wait. There might be something that even you, in your infinite wisdom, have failed to consider. Public Broadcasting networks such as PBS have some limitations on the types of funding a documentary or educational program may receive.

To help increase your odds of getting this incredibly relevant, educational and supremely interesting documentary picked up by PBS, it would serve you well to keep a few basic ground rules in mind. PBS has a public image that they, understandably, want to maintain. Most public broadcasting networks do. They want to remain a neutral, noncommercial and independent body that airs only material that conforms to high journalistic and professional standards. No problems there, though–you got that part of it totally covered, being someone of professionalism and integrity.

However, a potential problem could arise when listing all of the underwriters of such a documentary. An underwriter (not that you need an explanation) is a third party that has voluntarily donated some cash to finance the production of a program. According to PBS’s policies, everyone who pays some money must be disclosed publicly during the end credits at the time of broadcast. So your parents (already proud) will get their public credits at the end of your film, probably only making them more proud. In fact, you will too, since you’ve kind of underwritten a part of your own film.

In order to maintain a public appearance of unbiased subject matter, there are three “tests” that the underwriters must pass before a film can be cleared for broadcast on a network like PBS. The first is the Editorial Control Test, the second is the Perception Test and the third is the Commercialism Test.

The Editorial Control Test is in place to ensure that no one underwriting the project could possibly exercise any editorial control over the content of the film. This means that since you’ve hired the production and distribution team, you might have some improper influence over the way the film is edited even if you are not doing the actual filming or editing. Now, there’s nothing wrong in wanting to portray yourself in all of your way-awesome glory. What could be a problem, though, is that you might demand that the editors delete the part of the film that shows you living in your parents’ basement–even though everyone knows that’s only temporary and you’ll be outta there as soon as you’ve made it. Even if you don’t actually try to exert such control, the possibility that you might be able to (since you’re employing these filmmakers and funding the project) is enough to fail the editorial control test.

There are a few minor exceptions to the editorial control test. If a potential program funder were to make it known that it would be interested in funding, for example, a series on the performing arts or even more narrowly, modern dance, that could be OK. There is nothing wrong with a person conceiving an idea for a program and acting as a catalyst for getting the project done. So, you’re thinking, isn’t that exactly what I did in making my film and choosing the subject matter? Kind of. However, the caveat to the caveat is that the program funder’s right to participate ends where he has removed control and discretion from the producer, by doing things like determining the conclusion a viewer should draw from the film. This means that trying to influence your editors to leave out stuff about you living with Mom and Dad is a big no-no.

The Perception Test is another hurdle that must be cleared when it comes to underwriters. This test goes even further, and indicates that if a viewer might have so much as a perception that an underwriter has influenced the programming, it can’t be aired. The standard is whether a significant number of viewers could conclude that PBS (or another network) has sold its professionalism and independence to program funders. Even if the conclusion is not justified, the program will considered un-airable. How does this relate to you? Someone having even so much as the perception of bias in a funder of your groundbreaking documentary is just totally crazy. Obviously. However, as crazy as it might be to think that family members funding a documentary about you might influence its content, if enough people think it, then you fail the test. Sometimes, having only one problematic funder as a part of many neutral funders could be OK, so long as the problematic funder’s contribution is minimal and is credited as such. It is also true that this standard is applied most stringently to current affairs programs addressing controversial issues.

Finally, there is the Commercialism Test, which involves a concern that a commercial connection might create a perception of bias and could even go so far as to create control issues. So, using your documentary to also try and sell your signature fragrance, featured prominently in the film and developed during the many months it took to capture exactly what it is about your essence that smells so fantastic, is, again, not OK.

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that your underwriters’ connection to your film could prevent it from being aired on public broadcasting networks. Since procuring funds before starting a project is so crucial, this is something that is better to realize before going into a project, rather then after it’s all done and being shopped around. I recently had a documentary that would have been perfect for Independent Lens, but it ran afoul of PBS’s conflict-of-interest policies and they had to pass. You do not want to be in this position. The reality is that there are very few broadcasters out there who acquire independent documentaries, and you don’t want lose a major one by violating these rules.

The worst part about this if I am perfectly prepared to produce, direct and finance a documentary called The Perfect Athlete, featuring me, but knowing about PBS’s rules, I’m not going to bother. What a shame.

Another special thanks to my intern Monica Baranovsky who toiled through some dry regulations in order to prepare this article. She is off to bigger and better things after this semester and I’m sure she will excel where ever she goes.

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