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'Calling' takes a break to find funding

By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 7, 2001


Tom Jacobs can't help feeling a little misled.

For years, working at TV news operations in Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, Jacobs heard broadcasters and corporate executives talk about the need for diversity on television and the need for alternative voices.

So he went out and created The Calling, a public affairs TV show that looked at the news from a multicultural perspective. He planned to distribute it to Public Broadcasting Service stations across the country via the PBS Plus system.

Working with Tampa-based Sidestep Productions, Jacobs began cranking out episodes this year -- most of them filmed at the Clearwater studios owned by Paxson Communications' Christian Network.

He flew in journalists, authors, educators, politicians and others as guests (a caveat: This reporter appeared on one such program, discussing the state of minority characters on television).

But the show has ceased production (officially, it's "on hiatus") after about 15 episodes, for a simple reason. They can't find anyone to pay for it.

When the project started, Sidestep covered the show's production costs, now at about $30,000 per episode (a shoestring budget in the world of national television). But, despite promising talk by some corporations, Jacobs and his crew haven't found any foundation, business or government agency willing to pick up the tab.

"People talk the talk, but they don't want to walk the walk," said Jacobs, noting even the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which maintains a fund dedicated to increasing broadcast diversity, has turned him down. "They can find the money to make Weakest Link and Survivor. But we can't get a dime."

Originally Jacobs, who lives in Cleveland, had hoped to move the show to Washington D.C. for greater access to nationally known guests.

But funding troubles kept the production in Clearwater, where WFLA-Ch. 8 reporters Byron Brown and Victoria Lim have hosted episodes (the show's regular anchors are Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Sam Fulwood and Cindy Hsu, morning anchor at WCBS in New York City).

"I haven't gotten a sense that economics have anything to do with it," says Sidestep president Nancy Curtis, a Tampa native, shrugging off notions that the recent economic downturn and belt-tightening at corporations might have made fundraising more difficult (even PBS laid off 9 percent of its staff this year).

"I think these companies are just not enthusiastic about stepping up and saying "We're going to publicly witness in favor of diversity,' " she said.

Sidestep talked with officials at area PBS stations WEDU-Ch. 3 and WUSF-Ch. 16 about housing the show at their facilities (neither station currently airs the program).

But both outlets expressed concern over The Calling's lack of resources, low production values and hourlong length.

"I thought the show was much too long . . . mostly people sitting around talking, which we're trying to get away from," said Bill Buxton, station manager at WUSF. "To sustain an hourlong show, they're going to need to have other (PBS) stations contributing content. They've found a good niche, if they can make the show acceptable to the PBS marketplace."

PBS Plus provides 25 percent of the programing delivered to PBS stations, including well-known programs such as This Old House and Hometime, but it doesn't pay to produce the shows.

Independent producers like Jacobs must find the money elsewhere to create and market their series to PBS stations, which each decide independently whether to air the programs.

"I'm doing the best I can with what I have," said Jacobs, who does everything from booking guests' flights to cooking dinner before show tapings. "Is this the show I want it to be? Of course not. But if these people cared, they'd help us out."

According to information from Jacobs, several dozen stations and cable channels nationwide now air The Calling, which may show reruns for a few weeks while the producer negotiates with WHUT-TV, the PBS station operated by Howard University in Washington D.C.

If WHUT agrees to house their production, Jacobs hopes to file a new request for funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, backed by WHUT's participation.

"People really cared about this show and everybody worked hard," said the producer. "Right now, it's all about saving the show."

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