Making television matter

Everybody talks about interactive TV -- global TV pioneers Kim Spencer and Evelyn Messinger are doing something about it.

By Kaitlin Quistgaard

Published June 15, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

We tune in as Deborah Whitley, a Washington high school teacher, and Sima Daad, an English teacher in Tehran, Iran, meet via satellite videoconferencing. The two women chat about everything from the books they teach to the role of women in their countries; they introduce their families; and, more than once over the course of four days of dialogue, they politely suggest taking a break before a heated moment boils over. We're privy to this conversation -- an oddly intimate, public meeting that animates the deep-seated disagreements and mutual misperceptions of two nations -- thanks to the efforts of Kim Spencer, who co-produced the program for PBS in 1998, and now airs it and similarly provocative programming on the American satellite station he founded, WorldLink TV.

Whitley eventually gets up her nerve to ask Daad about Salman Rushdie: "I would like you to explain how that death sentence was given to him."

"We don't allow some person pretending to be creative to insult and make fun of our principles." says Daad. "He has to be punished because of the insult."

Whitley grimaces. "I don't understand how I can have a really horrible, terrible idea that I've expressed and I must be killed for it."

"How does your country behave against a person who does a crime?" asks Daad. "For example, one person has killed another person. They send him to the electric chair; they take the life from him. This is only a physical crime, whereas people like Salman Rushdie do intellectual crimes, which are much, much more profound and much deeper than physical death and physical destruction. Don't you believe so?"

"It frightens me," Whitley answers, "because if this person's free speech is interpreted as an insult, then everybody will be less confident to speak out for fear that their criticism will be interpreted as an insult. What's the effect of that death sentence on free speech?"

"You needn't worry about such things," Daad responds. "Everyone with a little knowledge can understand the difference between criticism and insult."

"I think I believe too much in the divinity of the individual," Whitley says, "to understand how a person's life can be taken for an idea even if I hate the idea."

"This is the principle of my religion," Daad replies.

Letting us in on this kind of cross-cultural tête-à-tête, focusing our eyes on people and places that are generally overlooked or dehumanized by politicians and the media, is a driving force behind the pioneering work of Spencer, 53, and Evelyn Messinger, 50. Husband and wife, the two independent television producers have spent decades grappling with rudimentary satellite technology and the bureaucratic rigmarole in foreign countries to, as Spencer puts it, "deliver on the promise of the picture phone."

Two decades ago, when it took 2-ton satellites, big trucks and hundreds of thousands of dollars to let people converse via live TV, they managed to produce unimaginable conversations -- like a 1983 link that allowed Soviet and American scientists to discuss the effects of a nuclear winter. The conversation resulted in unprecedented agreement; both sides admitted that a nuclear attack would have a devastating impact. "All of a sudden we realized we were not just making TV, we were shaping the relationships between these two countries," Spencer says.

In 1988, with a bleak Cold War mentality dominating the Reagan administration and much of the United States, Spencer helped cajole members of the U.S. Congress and deputies of the Supreme Soviet to talk via satellite TV. The "Capital to Capital" series, co-produced with ABC News and Gosteleradio (the Soviet radio and TV committee), picked up two Emmy Awards and a Christopher Award.

As he continued arranging unlikely global conversations, Spencer's documentaries continued collecting awards. The International Teleconferencing Association award went to "Vis à Vis: Cease Fire." The show, conceived by Spencer, Messinger and their longtime partner, French TV producer Patrice Barrat, features a conversation between two teenage girls who grew up during war -- one in Bosnia, the other in Ireland. Meanwhile, his work on "Vis à Vis: Beyond the Veil," the Whitley-Daad conversation, made Spencer the first American TV producer to work independently in Iran after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

"I was doing interactive TV before they'd invented it," says Spencer, a former "PrimeTime Live" producer who has directed or produced more than 50 hours of independent television programming. "Now the technologies are there to make it happen."

Working out of a converted Victorian in San Rafael, Calif., and the WorldLink TV studio in San Francisco, Spencer and Messinger are looking to transform the boob tube into an audiovisual party line where people from all over the country, if not the world, can talk, hash out political differences and reveal experiences and perspectives that could change minds.

WorldLink, a 24-hour satellite channel broadcasting to 15 million American homes, is not a bad starting place. The channel launched in December 1999 to offer international and independent programming virtually unheard of on American TV. Spencer, WorldLink's president, got on the air by taking advantage of a law that made a few channels on satellite cable providers DirecTV and EchoStar available free of charge to educational programmers.

Now WorldLink TV is home to "Karachi Cops," a gritty series that follows the real-life dramas of a Pakistani police force apprehending criminals and coercing confessions, and "Black and Blue," another cop series, which brings together two black officers, one in Soweto, South Africa, and one in Philadelphia, to talk about their jobs and the role race plays in their work. The channel airs foreign flicks like the Japanese hit "Tampopo" and documentaries about everything from the appalling conditions in a Jamaican hospital to the humiliation and depravation suffered by Nigerian widows. And WorldLink is the only place to find a daily two-hour world music block featuring Senegalese singers, Nigerian musicians and all manner of folks who don't make the MTV rotation.

"We've always been interested in people telling their own story," says Spencer. "We've focused not just on the movers and shakers but on the moved and shaken, which is really a way of thinking about who gets a chance to speak."

Spencer's vision for WorldLink TV clearly finds some influence in his years spent globe-trotting and living abroad. In 1982, Spencer and Messinger helped found the nonprofit Internews, which trains and supports independent journalists in emerging democracies -- places like Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and East Timor. In the 1990s, the couple lived in Paris, where Messinger worked as the electronic media director for the Soros Foundation. It sent her on extensive travels in Eastern Europe to help independent radio and TV stations establish themselves. Spencer spent that period working with Barrat, the French producer, traveling from Bosnia to South Africa to produce 13 "Vis à Vis" episodes for French television, each knitting together the personal and the political, and sometimes putting Spencer's life at risk.

In 1992, months before U.S. troops arrived in Somalia, Spencer managed to get a two-and-a-half-ton satellite dish into the country to enable a video chat between a United Nations fieldworker confronting the hardships there and a U.N. official in New York who administered funds for such programs.

Says Spencer, "It was halfway through that the scariness overtook the journalist's usual 'Oh well, this is what the situation is and we're going to be OK because we paid $100 a day for this jeep that was stolen from the U.S. Embassy that's got a rocket launcher mounted on back and seven totally stoned Somalis ranging in age from 50 to 12 with various weapons.' There was definitely beginning to be a breakdown in the system.

"The day that we hit a checkpoint and somebody yelled and the guy put a gun through the driver's window and the bullet went out the passenger's window and I was sitting in the front," he continues, "it was at that point that it was, like, 'This is getting a little out of hand.' But by then we were there and we'd managed to get this satellite dish in and we were in the middle of doing the program."

The crew got its tape, and then Spencer persuaded the United Nations to purchase the satellite dish, which became the communications hub of the country. "There was a sense of really being able to contribute something to a real situation," he says.

"In the back of his mind," says Spencer's longtime friend and colleague Barrat, "he always has a secret agenda which has to do not with television but with the real life of the people around. And you realize that silently he has tried to achieve that too."

Which is not to say that Spencer's agenda for television isn't lofty. Since his days at Reed College in the 1960s, Spencer has been out to change the world. His goal then, as now, is to find "the cracks in the monolith and find a way into American television to promote coverage of important issues that weren't getting covered."

"CNN gives you the world," Spencer says, readily admitting that U.S. television now provides at least some international coverage. "The question is what are you seeing: You are basically getting a view of the world as packaged in Atlanta."

On WorldLink the aim is to excise the mediator, so that the worldview presented changes with each hour of programming, with each independent voice whose story emanates from a culture or experience that's likely to be vastly different from one's own. "The real question about independent journalism is," Spencer says, "are viewers getting the truth and what is the truth? The answer to that is in what we do, giving real people the opportunity to express themselves in a spontaneous and real and natural environment."

You could argue that WorldLink's independent documentaries, films and music videos are still framed by producers and editors who can't help infusing the subjects with their own biases. But the channel intends to give people a true voice and has plans to create a platform for spontaneous viewer dialogue, through what Spencer and Messinger call two-way television.

Messinger, WorldLink's director of interactive programming, is spearheading the project, which could ultimately involve viewers appearing live on TV through satellite video links set up in public places. Say you had just watched the "Vis à Vis" episode featuring a dialogue between an Israeli and a Palestinian and wanted to add your two cents' worth. You might drive to a nearby mall and within minutes be linked to the channel by video to join a follow-up conversation. Instead of two talking heads in different TV studios à la "Nightline," the channel would invite participation from people at a cafe or meeting hall -- any place that can be wired for videoconferencing -- and maybe some people linked from their homes or offices. Messinger believes this kind of public communication could revolutionize American politics.

"People are so used to being unimportant, to not having what they say matter," she says, blaming the traditional media for drowning out the common person's voice with a deluge of information and entertainment. "Particularly in the United States, this has completely disempowered people."

To remedy that, she wants to give them a voice that carries just as much weight as that of their senator, a news anchor or any pundit on TV. Already Messinger's done just that in pilot programs with several public television stations.

For example, in 1998, when the Minnesota governor's race that brought us Jesse Ventura was on, Messinger helped the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Minnesota Public Radio and the local KTCA-TV video-link people from four cities for a citizens forum on welfare reform. In outtakes shown on local TV, Mitch Pearlstein, president of the conservative think tank Center of the American Experiment, argued that any discussion of poverty must look at the issue of children born out of wedlock.

In front of another camera, placed in Minneapolis soul food restaurant Lucille's Kitchen, Mahmoud el-Kati let Pearlstein have it. "How do people talk about these social problems without dealing with something like white supremacy and racism?" he asked. "We know that this is a socioeconomic problem that certain people cannot face and they continue indicting this whole group of people about their culture."

Pearlstein tried to diffuse the anger, but those gathered for the citizens forum had already imbibed el-Kati's perspective and were trying on a new awareness of the issue. As they broke into groups to think up questions for the gubernatorial candidates, a blond, blue-eyed man who surely came from Minnesota's Nordic stock proposed one. "Do you think that poverty is a result of cultural or spiritual deficiency?" he asked. "That'll say a lot about where [each candidate] is coming from and how he'll address the problem."

This is good stuff and Messinger knows it. But even with videoconferencing units now portable and pretty cheap (well under $10,000 for the Polycoms she and Spencer use), it takes money to create satellite links. And the fledgling WorldLink doesn't yet have the cash to produce interactive shows.

So Messinger pursues her two-way TV vision as the president and director of the non-profit Internews Interactive. Recently the James Irvine Foundation gave Internews a grant to create interactive programming for PBS, and it is also busy bringing together, via private video links, soon-to-be-released prisoners from San Francisco jails with potential employers, as well as nonprofits and businesses wading through globalization issues after the disastrous Seattle WTO meeting. Eventually, Messinger hopes to transport more of her efforts to WorldLink. Many colleagues have no doubt she'll make happen whatever she sets her mind to.

Larry Werner, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune's reader involvement editor and one of Messinger's partners in the Minnesota citizens forum, marvels at her ambition, even as he chuckles about her brazen approach. "She wants it all. She demands it all," Werner says. She is "someone who illustrates that idiom that it's far easier to ask forgiveness than permission ... She's like any really good creative person -- it's never good enough. The picture should be bigger, the camera should be at a different angle."

Werner adds, "I think even the people who don't particularly like Evelyn respect her passion and creativity."

"Once you realize something could happen, you say why do some things happen and some things that could don't?" Messinger asks. "Because somebody really kills themselves to make it happen. And I guess it's me. I'm killing myself to make this happen."

So is Spencer, who has had to trade in his cameras and flak jacket for a polished sales pitch. WorldLink operates on a bare-bones budget -- $3 million last year to run a 24-hour channel. Spencer points out that Oxygen, the women's cable channel that started at roughly the same time, burned through more than $300 million in its first year. But no matter how little he spends, Spencer must keep raising funds. WorldLink is commercial-free and must remain so under the terms of its license, so he must come up with nearly $10,000 a day, mostly from foundations.

Spencer admits that while he's good at it, he's not as thrilled by fundraising. "I miss being out there, being someplace like Kazakhstan, where the issues are life and death for a journalist, where if you actually get on the air and report the news freely, that's going to change the whole country," says Spencer. "That's where there's real leverage, where television really has meaning."

He's committed to the channel. "On the worst days at WorldLink, it's like being part of this big business of American TV, just another channel, and struggling to finance it," he admits. But he is buoyed by viewer response and optimistic about the future. "I remember where CNN was all those years ago, when people laughed at it, or Black Entertainment Television, which started out as two hours a week or something like that ... The reality is that WorldLink TV is on the air."

Kaitlin Quistgaard

Kaitlin Quistgaard, Salon's former technology editor, writes frequently about the arts and South America, where she once lived.

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