Pubcaster confab won’t bow to commercial heat

Input fest discourages dealmaking

AARHUS, Denmark — Is public-service television entering a brave new phase — or is it about to be swept aside by multichannel competition?

Commercial imperatives seemed remote as approximately 700 delegates from 33 countries gathered for the 26th Input festival, held May 11-16 in Aarhus, Denmark’s second city.

The timing for the showcase of the best of global public TV seemed perverse. Input 2003 coincided with the opening week of the Cannes Intl. Film Festival in France and overlapped with European TV’s top awards, the Golden Rose of Montreux competition in Switzerland.

Other Euro TV talking shops, not least the Edinburgh Television Festival, have changed their colors to reflect the corporate realities of the 21st century. Not Input.

Discreet pitching is permitted, but dealmaking is not encouraged. And although all 87 programs screened receive a certificate, there are no prizes.

“People are here to celebrate the diversity that public television at its best can achieve,” said Carl Otto Dethlefsen, chairman of Input 2003. “Filmmakers come to talk and to learn from one another. If people came to sell their programs or to compete, the atmosphere would be ruined.

Inevitably, many of the films failed to please the discerning crowd. But Input continues to provide a wonderfully subversive antidote to the format-driven schedules of so many TV stations, public or private.

“Caucasian Prisoners,” a documentary depicting the tragedy of the war in Chechnya made for Franco-German web Arte by Russian helmer Yuri Khashchavatsky, was hailed as outstanding.

Other highlights included the U.S. Public Broadcasting Service’s “Daddy & Papa,” examining the experiences of gay parents, shot in San Francisco by Johnny Symons, which will air Stateside June 3. “The Strength of the Moon,” a quirky love story directed by Pablo Solon for Channel 4 RTP in Bolivia, was the first Bolivian program selected for Input.

Execs took the opportunity to air local concerns. Nick Fraser, editor of the Storyville docu strand on Blighty’s BBC, expressed concern that the pubcaster was too closely identified with Tony Blair’s Labor government.

As a result, the BBC may lose its privileged status when the Labor Party loses power.

Pat Mitchell, president and CEO of PBS, said pubcasters needed to redefine themselves because greater channel choice is eroding diversity.

Tony Burman, head of news and current affairs at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. went further. He attacked what he regarded as the malign influence of U.S. webs and their dependence on reality formats and how Canadian channels copied them.

“It’s sad there is no tradition of public service broadcasting in the U.S., a country of 300 million people, beyond PBS. It’s a problem for us all.

“If there is a resurgence in public service broadcasting, hopefully it will be universal.”

Ironically, Input unspooled in Denmark just as the government is preparing to privatize its second pubcaster, TV2.

A consortium of local newspaper owners is likely to end up owning the outfit, which has two channels, TV2 and TV Zulu.

“It’s inconceivable that privatizing a channel will enable TV2 to sustain high quality,” insisted Burman during in a panel discussion that, paradoxically, asked if pubcasters were still relevant.

TV2’s head of programs, Bo Damgaard, disagreed. “We will be able to keep up standards. We don’t yet know who the new investors are. Will it be Rupert Murdoch or Silvio Berlusconi? I don’t think so.”

The consensus was that global pubcasters could survive the digital age. However, the future is certain to prove challenging.

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