The Velvet Light Trap 55 (2005) 39-51
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The PBS and NAATA Connection:
Comparing the Public Spheres of Asian American Film and Video
Public television has been a significant exhibition and broadcast outlet for many American independent minority films in recent years. An examination of the history of noteworthy documentaries such as Who Killed Vincent Chin? (Tajima-Peña and Choy, 1988) and Tongues Untied (Riggs, 1990) shows the importance of these films' relationship to the complex funding and programming system known as PBS. My interest in this relationship stems from my current research on Asian American film and video, which pays attention to the economic and social factors that shape minority self-representation. This article uses Asian American independent film and video as a vehicle to navigate the history of the definitive relationship between public television and American minority media. The purpose of this article is to connect the history of racial and ethnic representation in Americanindependent media with the ongoing struggle to gain access to the power structure represented by PBS as a funding source and broadcast venue. Moreover, in the interests of my larger project, I argue that ethnic labels such as "Asian American" have a primarily political valence. State funding institutions have mobilized such labels to shift meanings according to which population the institution serves, namely, filmmakers and PBS viewing audiences. In other words, in serving the monolithic public sphere of PBS, Asian American film and video has had the function of providing an "official" alternative to dominant modes of commercial television. However, the public sphere inevitably leaves out nondominant production and the needs of the marginalized, which I propose are met by "counterpublic spheres" of Asian American film and video.
By looking at the funding and broadcasting system of PBS, including the Minority Consortia and NAATA (National Asian American Telecommunications Association), CPB (Corporation for Public Broadcasting), and PBS (Public Broadcasting Service), I will show how "Asian American film and video" means different things to different communities, on the one hand, the "public" face of Asian American film and video that is on national public television and that serves a "national audience" and, on the other, the multiple communities of Asian American media-making that thrive on public funding sources based on this identity. In looking at NAATA, then, as a publicly supported institution, I will discuss how such institutions determine conceptions of Asian American identity by funding, distributing, and exhibiting specific work. Specifically, I argue that Asian American film and video has been enabled by institutions that have redefined the rules of minority self-representation through funding and distributioncriteria. I would like to talk about how Asian American media make meaning in (1) the public sphere of national public television and (2) the various counterpublic spheres such as regional film festivals that offer an alternative to the public sphere. I compare the concept of the public sphere, first put forth in the 1970s by Jürgen Habermas to describe discursive spaces not controlled by the state and not beholden to commercial interests, with the term "counterpublic spheres," a term Nancy Fraser describes as "parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses to formulate oppositional inter-pretations of their identities, interests, and needs" (123).1 This comparison will shed light on the regulation of [End Page 39] contemporary minority discourse, in this case, film and video, on the national scale of public television with its "self-governance" by localized minority media groups.
"Asian American film and video," for all intents and purposes, describes, cursorily, films and videos made by and about Americans of Asian descent. However, besides the tautological dilemma this definition presents, one problem that has always surrounded it has been in identifying "Asian American" itself, a shorthand term that, in theory, does not reflect the reality of Asian migration and population in the Americas. Asian American film and video scholar Peter X. Feng notes that Asian American is a term that "cannot be founded upon any notions of stability, for such...