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Public TV and Documentarians at Silverdocs

At this year’s Silverdocs film festival, the largest documentary festival in the nation, public television had a central role. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was the lead sponsor, and on a panel I had the pleasure of moderating, PBS had some good news for independent documentarians: It’s showcasing indie work like never before.

PBS announced its new lineup, which puts Independent Lens and POV—the two pubtv series that feature point-of-view, authorial indie work—in a great spot on Monday nights after the popular Antiques Road Show and its reality-show spinoff, Market Wars. (Did you know PBS had a “collectibles night”? That’s the night that indies are moving into, according to PBS’ Donald Thoms.) Kartemquin’s Tim Horsburgh explained that PBS made the move after indies wrote a letter—signed by a thousand people—protesting a move that had dropped the shows from PBS’ main schedule. Thoms pointed out that discussions were already underway.

PBS isn’t just accommodating indies; it’s celebrating them, said Thoms, with a film festival as well as promotion. Filmmakers are grateful for the access. On the panel, Bill Hirsch, producer of the cinema verité The Waiting Room (a day in the life of an emergency room in Oakland, filled with the uninsured), testified to the importance of Independent Lens in making it possible to reach virtually every part of the United States, not only with the broadcast but with a wide range of outreach projects. Julie Wyman, whose character portrait Strong (a female Olympic weightlifter facing life after competition) was funded by ITVS, spoke about the importance of public TV for indie productions. 

But as Horsburgh noted, for indies, this was only the beginning. Even PBS carriage in prime time often doesn’t mean getting their work seen. In Washington, D.C., as WHUT-TV (and ITVS) consultant Michon Boston pointed out, WHUT is the only TV station that routinely schedules Independent Lens, and even WHUT doesn't carry POV. Erica Ginsburg of the DC-based indie organization Docs in Progress had tracked down the showtimes for the opening program of this season’s POV in DC, where three stations cover the market: 1:15am Sunday on WETA, 10:30pm the following Sunday on MPT, and midnight the same day at WHUT. These are times that almost require setting your DVR to catch the film—a level of intentionality that all but defeats a filmmaker’s best marketing campaign.

Thoms reminded the filmmakers that PBS can’t control when the stations air the films, and suggested to Wyman—who had been deeply frustrated by attempts to promote her film with wildly different schedules—that she do like many other filmmakers, and hire a “station rep” to interact with the 300-plus stations individually for promotion. However expensive and inefficient, it would, he suggested, deal with the bizarrely decentralized reality of public TV.

By the time the panel had ended, indies were already discussing how to create campaigns to contact local stations, and make them as aware as PBS now is of the vital synergy between creative artists who make the programming, and the people at the station who make the scheduling decisions.  By the end of the day, filmmaker Erik Lang, a Docs in Progress member, had already posted a blog post urging local filmmakers to contact WETA, WHUT and MPT about carrying the indie shows at their prime-time Monday slot.