By Gwynn Pritchard

The festival for the best of public service television celebrates 25 years

Input remains one of the best kept secrets on the calendar of international moving image events. If the festival has one guiding principle, it is the complete rejection of the notion that television has either to be “cultural” or “popular”, the kind of thinking which in the UK has led to BBC4 on the one hand and BBC1 on the other. Organisers select programmes which extend the limits of the medium beyond the conventional and the derivative; works which provoke discussion and critical analysis through their content and ambition. Documentary and fiction still tend to dominate the selections, but in Rotterdam this year there was a particularly lively mix of programming aimed primarily at the 16-24 year old audience from around the world.

When it began in 1977, with the support of Howard Klein of the Rockefeller Foundation, INPUT was seen as a vehicle to promote the international exchange of public television programmes, and a way of exposing American public television to innovation and experiment from Europe. Today, delegates still come mainly from Europe and North America, but each year sees a steady increase in delegates and programmes from Africa, Latin America and Asia. Programme makers from China and Hong Kong showed their work for the first time this year and to wide acclaim. The documentaries from China played to packed houses and led to unexpectedly open and spirited discussion. They ranged from Mu Hun, a slow-moving, beautifully observed story of a year spent with a family of nomadic Kazaks in some of the most remote and desolate parts of Xingjang, China’s most western province, through to Youxe Beijing and Zhi Feiji, two searingly painful and superbly executed portraits of homelessness and drug-addiction among the young unemployed of Beijing and with no kind of happy ending in sight.

Each year the festival moves to another country, and in 2001 INPUT went to the southern hemisphere and to Africa, for the first time. The Cape Town festival marked a crucial turning point. With the help of UNESCO and the Goethe Institute INPUT has deliberately sought out programme makers and material throughout the developing world, by holding workshops all over Latin America, Africa and most recently in Asia and the nations of the former Soviet Union. The fruit of this investment is now visible in almost every viewing session with strong material from countries like Uzbekistan, Israel, Estonia, Palestine and Colombia alongside the best of public broadcasting from Germany, the USA, Norway or Ireland.

In addition to the day-long, multiple screenings and discussion, there are large scale debates and symposia in the evenings on common broadcasting issues. Over the years delegates have voiced growing concern over the erosion of public service broadcasting worldwide. When you look at the broadcast slots given to the 2,300 productions which INPUT has presented since 1978, it is clear that in the first decade, most were shown in primetime. Since then however there have been dramatic changes. Most INPUT programmes are now broadcast around midnight or on channels affiliated to the main broadcasters, for instance ARTE, or 3sat in Germany.

Under the shadow of the Labour government’s forthcoming communications bill, it is easy to forget that the drift towards deregulation and self-regulation is in fact an international process and as such a matter of international concern. Public service broadcasting – as opposed to state broadcasting on the one hand, and unregulated commercial broadcasting on the other – remains synonymous with quality and the willingness to take risks, to be challenging or, if necessary, unpopular. This is not simply an issue of the marketplace. It is also a political issue, as the international politics of deregulation encourage greater and greater commercial control of television and concentrate ownership in fewer and fewer hands.

Against these developments INPUT continues to provide a desperately needed and uniquely international forum for everyone who cares about the future of quality television. It is also an enjoyable event, full of surprises and crammed with striking television productions.

On Saturday November 30 this year, the first UK mini INPUT will be held at London’s Goethe Institute.

In 2003 INPUT will be in Aarhus, Denmark from May 11th-16th.

Gwynn Pritchard is Secretary General of INPUT and a media policy adviser to Plaid Cymru.