In this week’s New Yorker, Jane Mayer, who has covered the industrialists Charles and David Koch extensively, chronicles the fate of two documentaries produced for PBS, Alex Gibney’s Park Avenue, which explored the lives of both wealthy residents of a single building on one end of the street and poorer New Yorkers at the other, and Citizen Koch, which examined the consequences of the Citizens United decision. Both movies ran into trouble for the same reason: fear of offending David Koch, who has been a major public television donor, and was until recently on the board of New York public television affiliate WNET. While Park Avenue eventually made it to air on PBS, albeit with a recut introduction and a discussion afterwards that excluded Gibney, Citizen Koch, which was initially supposed to be part of the Independent Lens series, ended up off the lineup. Whether or not David Koch was involved, Mayer’s story would still be interesting as an illustration of what happens when two different philanthropic models bump up against each other.
On one side are the foundations. Gibney’s documentary, Mayer reported, “had been produced independently, in part with support from the Gates Foundation.” And both Park Avenue and Citizen Koch were projects of the Independent Television Service, “the small arm of public television that funds and distributes independent films…ITVS, which is based in San Francisco and was founded some twenty years ago by independent filmmakers, prides itself on its resistance to outside pressure. Its mandate is to showcase opinionated filmmakers who ‘take creative risks, advance issues and represent points of view not usually seen on public or commercial television.’” These foundations represent a mission rather than a personal interest, and that mission is to create space and provide support for a range of ideas, rather than to advance particular arguments or worldviews. It’s a critically important role to fill, but it also means that those organizations have some disadvantages when they come up against the other funding model at stake here, in this case, the support of private donors.
As Mayer explains, in addition to his donations to Lincoln Center—where the David H. Koch Theater, home of the New York City Ballet, bears his name—” In the nineteen-eighties, he began expanding his charitable contributions to the media, donating twenty-three million dollars to public television over the years. In 1997, he began serving as a trustee of Boston’s public-broadcasting operation, WGBH, and in 2006 he joined the board of New York’s public-television outlet, WNET.” Unlike ITVS, for example, which is designed specifically to produce content for public television, there are a lot of places David Koch can spend his money. And unlike ITVS, which has an ongoing mission of making sure that new points of view make it onto public television, a setup that means it’s going to have to expend political capital on behalf of its filmmakers on a regular basis, private donors like Koch are more likely to concentrate their leverage on a few issues, or a few pieces of content. If Koch can make a “seven-figure donation,” which Mayer reported he had planned to give to WNET before he resigned from the board, contingent on two hours of programming, while ITVS has to fight for many films—PBS has already aired 15 movies through ITVS’ Independent Lens program in 2013—ITVS is understandably going to be at a disadvantage, as is the Gates Foundation, which may be all too happy to fund a single film, but doesn’t necessarily want to be in the postion to cover a multi-million dollar hole.