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Diverse Voices Matter for Public Television

Indie Caucus SpeakeasyIndependent filmmakers are preparing to hear whether WNET and PBS officials will make any changes to programming decisions after engaging in a National Listening Tour.  In a recent The Pub podcast, WNET Vice President for Programming Stephen Segaller referred to feedback from the Listening Tour as “predictable,” “unanimous,” and filmmaker backlash to change, despite the many testimonials that came from constituents beyond the documentary community. Look no further than the New York Times Op-Ed by legendary American television writer and producer Norman Lear, “Is PBS Neglecting Its Mission?”

What was the “predictable” message delivered from community members and filmmakers alike? Leaders from the Indie Caucus gathered for a Speakeasy panel discussion at the recent Full Frame Documentary Film Festival to report back on the Listening Tour. The conversation included an all-star line-up of award-winning documentary filmmakers: Bernardo Ruiz (Kingdom of Shadows), Cynthia Hill (Private Violence), Byron Hurt (Soul Food Junkies), Julia Reichert (The Last Truck) and Heather Courtney (Where Soldiers Come From).  

Diverse Voices for a Democratic Society

Filmmakers are concerned about the programming strategy of PBS and WNET because it could marginalize independent voices, particularly voices of color, said Emmy-nominated filmmaker Byron Hurt. The point of independent documentary programming on PBS is to represent the underrepresented—to counteract the limited and narrow voices in mainstream media.

“Historically we have had to fight to secure and maintain our place on public television,” said Julia Reichert, Oscar-nominated director and founding member of New Day Films. Independent filmmakers fought for several years in the 1980s for the creation of ITVS in order to provide broader voices and untold stories.

For filmmakers, broadcasting untold stories was and is about strengthening democracy. We have to defend democracy in whatever field we’re in, said Reichert. She quoted poet Langston Hughes’ immortal words, “Let America be America again.”

Diverse Voices Marginalized

Emmy-nominated director/producer Bernardo Ruiz pointed out that we are arguably in a golden age for documentary—increasingly new players, digital distribution options, and the most diverse body of work that we’ve ever seen. So now is not the time to be relegating this award-winning programming to the backburner.

How do individual station programming decisions represent the backburner? In one instance, Ruiz’s CPB funded series The Graduates was bumped to 11:00pm on a school night, effectively eliminating the access of core youth/family audiences. In another example, director Heather Courtney’s Emmy-award winning documentary, Where Soldiers Come From, launched with a sold out screening on Capitol Hill with military and government luminaries promoting the national broadcast date. Unfortunately, in Washington, D.C. the film played at midnight on Christmas Eve instead.

Meanwhile, Independent Lens and POV have demonstrably more diversity (greater proportion of minorities) both for filmmakers and in central characters, as outlined in a study by the Center for Media & Social Impact comparing public television and cable networks.

Building Audience

Additional research indicates that the independent film series Independent Lens and POV have better ratings when they are broadcast in primetime spots. Ruiz argued that in an environment where individual stations make the programming decisions, PBS still has the ability to set the tone by prioritizing and promoting these programs.

Director Cynthia Hill pointed out that this means making smarter programming decisions including primetime national broadcast, but also taking into consideration what programming comes before and after. Ratings demonstrate, for example, that any show that airs after Antiques Road Show experiences a significant drop in viewership.

Ruiz and Hurt added that PBS also doesn’t seem to be making a concerted effort to draw younger audiences through promotion of the two series, Independent Lens and POV, who draw the youngest and most diverse audiences of any of their programming. Cultivating these audiences means employing a strategy for programming and marketing that appeals to the demographics.

Indie CaucusFilmmakers Aren’t Backing Down

Byron Hurt agrees with Segaller that it’s clear that no one in the documentary filmmaking community wants the WNET programming changes to happen. But filmmakers’ entreaties rise above characterizations of whining or resistance to change. That would be a mistake, said Ruiz, when it’s clear that indie doc filmmakers are some of the most entrepreneurial folks around. They have to be in order to do good work, and the results are evident. POV’s American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs and Independent Lens’ Brakeless are among today’s recipients of Peabody Awards.

Indie Caucus has clarified their arguments in a recent post, and they are continuing to recruit signatories to a Change.org petition “Keep Public TV Public.” Their messages have both historical foundations and future vision about sustaining diverse voices in public television broadcast.