PBS, the biggest of the programming services for public TV, has rescheduled two programs that showcase independent producers’ work from across the nation: Independent Lens and POV. The results could put the future of those programs at risk, because of declining viewership.
Diverse, Award-Winning Programs
Independent Television Service (ITVS) programs, many of which are featured either on Independent Lens or POV, have won 13 Academy Award nominations and 54 Emmys. The majority of the work that ITVS funds comes both from diverse makers and is on diverse subjects.
Independent Lens, a programming service of ITVS, has featured a wide range of topics. Among recent programs were Deaf Jam, about deaf students making poetry; Troop 1500, about a group of Girl Scouts who visit their moms in prison; and Being Elmo, about the work of the African-American puppeteer behind the Sesame Street character.
POV’s recent schedule includes Where Soldiers Come From, about Michigan reservists in Iraq; Better This World, about the erosion of civil liberties under laws designed to deter terrorism; and Kings of Pastry, about competing pastry chefs.
Moved for “Market Wars”
The programs were moved from their established place on Tuesdays to Thursday, a very popular day for television viewing. PBS had already agreed that local stations would reserve Thursday to schedule on their own. They usually run their own programs or else well-known syndicated programs, in order to compete with other broadcasters on the most competitive night of the week.
Local stations didn’t take well to having PBS tell them they could work the programs into the schedule. In fact, as an article in Current, the trade magazine of public broadcasting, reveals, the cost of the move has been a drastic decline in carriage and viewership.
PBS’ decision to dump the programs on to a night it had already agreed not to schedule at all apparently was driven by a desire for higher ratings. PBS wants to make room for a new reality program, Market Wars, which is a spin-off of Antiques Road Show. The two programs that feature independent work must have looked like the most dispensable.
PBS, like everywhere else, has real financial worries. It’s looking at every opportunity to make money, whether it is in auctions, pledge drives, back-end royalties for shows it produces or purchases, home shopping, or underwriting, PBSers worry constantly that taxpayer dollars will dry up, and leave its programming service, and the stations that fund it, in the lurch.
Public television takes in millions in taxpayer dollars each year (some stations fund nearly half their budgets with local, state and federal tax dollars), and justifies that taxpayer funding because it serves a public purpose. That purpose, as expressed by a body of local stations, is “to support a strong civil society, increase cultural access and knowledge, extend public education, and strengthen community life through electronic media and related community activities.”
So PBS’ function isn’t just to showcase nice television, or genteel television, or family-friendly television, although it does do that well, and such programs are both needed (for instance, its many children’s shows that respect children) and wanted (Downton Abbey, Sherlock). Its job is to provide programming that supports a strong civil society, increases cultural access and knowledge, extends public education and strengthens community life. That kind of programming meets mission; it justifies public dollars.
The programs on Independent Lens and POV seem to meet mission regularly and impressively. They go beyond simply entertaining; they engage audiences where they live and work; they encourage people to engage more with their own communities and important public issues. ITVS' Community Cinema program, in partnership with nonprofits nationwide, provides screenings that reach tens of thousands of citizens who gather afterward to discuss and exchange views; the programs also reach 400,000 K-12 students each year. POV’s engagement programs feature online resources, classroom education resources, as well as screening partnerships with nonprofits nationwide.
The programs can change people’s lives. Lioness, about the issues of women soldiers in combat zones, triggered a national discussion that resulted in legislation to extend combat veteran benefits to women soldiers. The bill was called Lioness. The film In the Family contributed to discussions that resulted in legislation banning genetic discrimination, so that people who have a genetic marker for a disease won’t be excluded from insurance or a job because of it.
The Cost of Imbalance
PBS’s decision to “move” the programs to Thursdays--a move that seems a lot more like just throwing them under the bus, since stations are almost guaranteed not to bump programming on the one night they program their own material for PBS’ rejects—shows an imbalanced understanding of its priorities. The most dangerous part of PBS’ decision is its demonstration that PBS’ leaders don’t recognize the need to invest in core-to-mission programming. That puts not only the endangered programs but the service itself at risk.
This risk is increased not only by the deficit-hawk attitudes sweeping Congress, but also by the very real and massive changes in the media environment. Technological upheaval is transforming business challenges. Among the most forward-looking entities in public television today has been ITVS, which has created online games such as World Without Oil and is currently running a lab to experiment with open-video technologies employing html5.
Indies Take Action
Now, indie filmmakers coordinated by Kartemquin Films have gotten together to sign an open letter to PBS protesting the move. Scores of filmmakers have already signed. The International Documentary Association (IDA) has endorsed it as well. The filmmakers welcome more signatures; signatories can write PBSNeedsIndies@kartemquin.com and tweet about it with the hashtag #PBSNeedsIndies.
Independent filmmakers have organized before into a force to be reckoned with. It was independent filmmakers who, over the course of a decade, put enough pressure on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (and eventually Congress) to create the Independent Television Service. Independent filmmakers through the IDA pushed Discovery back from its plan to dump all credits onto their website rather than leave them in the television programming.