The free, public hearing on Feb. 19 will showcase the voices not only of filmmakers like Black Public Media’s Jacquie Jones and renowned cinematographer Gary Griffin, but also legislators such as Cong. Donna Edwards, and representatives of communities and constituencies that benefit from indie perspectives on public broadcasting. They include members of nonprofits such as the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates, and funders such as Joy Thomas Moore of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
On stage to listen to them will be representatives from PBS, CPB, Washington, D.C. public stations, ITVS, POV and representing the Washington, D.C. community, one-time mayoral candidate and Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallal.
When WNET threatened to move the two major series for independent, authorial production off its primary channel in primetime, independent filmmakers began to organize to support the best in public broadcasting—its showcasing of diverse, underrepresented voices that bring much-needed perspectives to and trigger conversations in a democratic society.
Or rather, indies began to organize again.
Two years ago, indies organized to block PBS from moving Independent Lens and POV off PBS’ primetime feed to Thursday, which is a night that public TV stations do not carry PBS programming. They succeeded in postponing a larger discussion about the value of independent, authorial work until now.
PBS finds the ratings for the shows to be underwhelming, and stations often move them around even after PBS slots them in primetime. Indies and their allies say that public TV needs to value the underrepresented voices and perspectives that they champion, whether it’s the stories of Ozark teens facing a bleak future in Rich Hill, the story of a 16-year-old good kid turned bank robber in Evolution of a Criminal, or the stories of American girls trafficked for sex in A Path Appears. They argue that taxpayer funding makes public TV espouse different values than ratings-driven commercial TV, and that public TV reaches a far broader and more diverse audience than cable or streaming services.
Way Back When
This argument goes back much further. When public TV was created in 1967, with the help of a White House aide named Bill Moyers, it was created to be a resource for a democratic society. The law stated, ““It furthers the general welfare to encourage public telecommunications services which will be responsive to the interests of people both in particular localities and throughout the United States, which will constitute an expression of diversity and excellence, and which will constitute a source of alternative telecommunications services for all the citizens of the nation.” President Johnson said while signing it, “While we work every day to produce new goods and to create new wealth, we want most of all to enrich man's spirit.”
But political tensions quickly beset the new service; President Nixon did not like documentaries that attacked his loyal campaign funders, stations did not like getting calls criticizing programming, legislators loved to second-guess programmers.
Along the way to shaping expectations for public TV, independent filmmakers played a consistent role as champions of the high-minded early mission, not surprisingly. Often their subject matter featured the diversity of American experience, and not always only its sunny side.
More than a decade of protest over small budgets for independent work and small windows for distribution of it resulted, in 1988, with the creation of the Independent Programming Service, ITVS. Congress created ITVS over the resistance of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Sen. Waxman—the architect of the legislation—recently recalled.
ITVS, now beloved by CPB, today funds tens of millions of dollars of independent work a year, some of which is seen in its “Independent Lens” series, some of which is seen in “POV,” and some of which is seen elsewhere on the PBS schedule.
Indies, Pubcasters and the Public
But the tension between indies—so often a voice for diversity, so rarely the top-rated programming—and public broadcasting never goes away. This time it’s over PBS’ programming choices, which threaten to minimize the visibility of their films. Every time it comes back, it comes back as a question about the basic purpose of public broadcasting.
And it’s back again. What might be different this time, though, is the range of voices from constituencies and communities that watch those diverse and underrepresented perspectives. That would be a wider conversation about the value of public broadcast