'Outside the Box' on SD TV

MISSION, S.D. - Imagine American Indians as a panel of experts talking about subjects that may or may not be related to Indian issues and doing it live on television for the first time in a state considered to have racial problems.

Well, it happened, and the reviews were all positive.

It was a gutsy move, but South Dakota Public Broadcasting produced a pilot program called "Outside the Box" to a statewide audience, and it might travel to various locations in the state on a regular basis.

The program, produced by David Livingston of SDPB, copies the style of the now canceled Bill Maher production "Politically Incorrect." It will stay about 80 percent focused on American Indian panelists and issues.

To judge from the first program, the panelists will talk about many issues that are "Outside the Box" of daily American Indian life and sometimes outside their expertise.

As an example, the opening topic was the smoking ban in Florida. The program aired on the day of the Great American Smoke Out. The discussion also included the war on Iraq, reservations, the Miss American Pageant and Indian law.

The diversified list of topics was matched by the diversity of the panelists: Lance Morgan, Winnebago, CEO of Ho-Chunk, Inc.; Russell Means, Oglala Lakota, actor, activist and political candidate; Vanessa Short Bull, Oglala Lakota, Miss South Dakota and a Miss America contestant, and Frank Pommersheim, professor of law, specializing in Indian law at the University of South Dakota. Livingston acted as the program host.

The large crowd in the multi-use building on the campus of Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud Reservation responded without prompting, and Livingston said they really helped the program along.

In Livingston's opening monologue, he told the TV and live audience that he would not be using a teleprompter or cue cards. "Not only am I on live television, I am using my own brain and forming my own sentences. And to put things into perspective, not even the President of the United States does that." The comment was well received by the crowd.

The discussion on the Florida smoking ban brought Means outside the box quickly with the comment that cigarettes were the most destructive drug in American and that 75 percent of health problems and deaths occurred from tobacco and only 25 percent from other drugs.

Sitting next to Means was Morgan, whose company sells millions of dollars of tobacco products through casinos and convenience stores and on the Internet. Morgan said that hundreds of American Indians are employed because of the tobacco products. He added that he was a non-smoker.

It was just the type of repartee the program was designed to elicit, even though the early part of the program was more timid with panelists' reactions. Means, whose background lends itself to a stronger response in these situations, dominated the early conversation.

Short Bull interjected some short responses to questions and didn't get wound up until asked about the Miss America Pageant. When Livingston asked her if she had a good time, she said no.

She clarified by saying that the move to diversify the pageant, which brought together many people of color, led to racist comments from judges and contestants alike.

Morgan said after the program that it was just getting to be interesting toward the end, when people were starting to warm up.

But as it was, the TV viewers and some 200 people in bleachers outside the actual studio audience saw that there are American Indians who have opinions on a variety of subjects and are not afraid to express them. Not one person on the panel supported the potential war against Iraq.

South Dakota Public Broadcasting didn't hold back on expenses, although Julie Anderson, executive director of SDPB wouldn't reveal the amount spent on the program. A large crew devoted a week at Sinte Gleska University to create and set up the set for the program.

Livingston, who was born in South Dakota and attended high school in Elk Point, admitted at the outset of the program that he knew very little about American Indian issues, but spent the past few weeks reading every publication and asking many questions.

The program got its start just a mere five weeks prior to the program date. It all began when SDPB advertised for a person to produce and host a program on minorities. Livingston, an acting coach and actor with 24 years experience in New York and Los Angeles, submitted a proposal and was hired. He happened to be in South Dakota attending to his ailing father who passed on just two weeks before the program aired.

"Outside the Box" is Livingston's first experience with public television and his first time working with state or local productions. He said he had the full cooperation of SDPB, and without revealing any dollar figures, said a huge chunk of money was spent on the adventure.

Anderson indicated the program most likely will find a future life and it will be determined where to set up next, most likely in an urban area such as Sioux Falls or Rapid City, the two largest cities in the state that also have large American Indian populations.

Anderson said comments that came in to the SDPB switchboard were all positive, but she would like to have heard some negative comments in order to make the right adjustments in the program.