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6 Reasons Why Indie Filmmakers Still Care If They’re on TV

POV DocsDoes anyone still need broadcast TV to reach an audience? I mean, hello, YouTube, and hey there, Amazon Prime.

That’s the question that hit independent documentary filmmakers across the country in late December, when it looked like the two public TV series that carry indie docs—Independent Lens and POV—might get moved to the programming equivalent of Siberia. A 1,200 signature petition changed WNET and PBS’s minds for the moment, and prompted a nation-wide listening tour. The first event on the tour, in San Francisco, packed a room with more than 200 people, speaking about how indie film on public TV makes a difference to soldiers, moms, vets, immigrants, young people and more.

But in a cord-cutting world, why are indie filmmakers so passionate about public TV? Here are some reasons:

#1: Broadcast television is still the vast majority of screen time in America.  

Broadcasting continues to be overwhelmingly the most common use of screen time for viewing; in third-quarter 2014, overall Americans watched TV 4 ½ hours a day, only 12 minutes down from the same quarter of 2013.

Significantly more than half of the viewing is done at the time of broadcast, and about a third is time-shifted and viewed within a week; video on demand (VOD) is only a small portion, about 10%.  According to a Nielsen study: “There’s never been a time when U.S. consumers have had as much video content to choose from as they do today. But even with myriad options—and more coming online every day—few areas of the media landscape have the power to engage consumers the way local TV does.

“Amid the changing landscape of media consumption and consumer habits, the unique nature of local markets stands out as a major difference-maker when it comes to how we choose to watch TV.” (Also check out Nielsen Local Watch Report.)

#2: Broadcast television reaches a larger and more representative population than other ways of accessing programming.

Broadcast reaches almost every corner of the U.S. Fewer than 30% of American adults subscribe to the largest streaming service, Netflix, and Amazon Prime is about half hthat. Some groups within the broadcast audience are particularly high broadcast viewers. Nielsen reports, “In the third-quarter of 2014, Black viewers’ monthly time spent watching traditional television was the highest of any group, with these consumers logging an average of more than 201 hours per month.”

#3: Streaming services are even more skewed demographically than cable.

Although neither Amazon nor Netflix  is letting out a whisper about their racial, geographic and gender demographics, we do know that their services skew heavily to the young. For instance, while more than half of Americans 49-67 get cable, only 21% of them get Netflix, and only 10% get Amazon Prime.

#4: Streaming services are extremely hard to access for independent filmmakers, without a broadcast.

Streaming services usually work with brand names and aggregators, not with individuals offering one film. Aggregators take work that has the legitimacy that comes with broadcast. “Broadcast is the first gate, and if you don’t go through that one, you don’t get to the others,” said Gordon Quinn, cofounder and artistic director of Kartemquin Films.

#5: Streaming services are hard to access for independent filmmakers, even if you have had a broadcast.

A Center for Media & Social Impact analysis of three years of Independent Lens and POV programming, 2012-2014, conducted in January 2015 by Prof. Patricia Aufderheide, Center graduate fellow Daniel Farber and Center Ph.D. fellow Olga Khrustaleva, showed that 43% of the programs aired on those public TV series still had not found placement on either Netflix or Amazon Prime, the two main streaming services that accept independent work. Of the shows that had found placement, more than 40% of those were on Amazon Prime, which reaches a much smaller audience.

Pie Chart

#6: Independent filmmakers often make their work not just for audiences, but for the public, because it matters to what they do as citizens. And public broadcasting is widely trusted precisely because it makes a claim to serve the public, not just ratings or markets.

Independent filmmakers expect their work to make a difference, not just make ratings. When Invisible War was shown on public TV, it triggered a national conversation on rape in the military and a bill in Congress. Granito: How to Nail a Dictator was used in Guatemalan war crimes proceedings that resulted in a conviction. The Most Dangerous Man in America was the film that made Edward Snowden think he should be a whistleblower. The New Americans changed the way that social workers do intake on new immigrants. Lion in the House changed how doctors and other medical personnel treat childhood cancer patients.