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Testify: Community Voices on Public TV and Diversity

PubTV ForumAn open forum on the future for independent, diverse voices on public TV packed the theater and featured testimony from dozens of people. The common theme: communities expect public TV to showcase diverse perspectives on important but often overlooked issues in primetime. 

The issue that drew them all to the School of Communication’s theater on a frigid February evening was PBS’ commitment to Independent Lens and POV, two series that feature diverse, independent voices on important but underrepresented public issues. In late December, just before the winter holidays began, WNET announced that it would drop the series from its primetime lineup on its primary station in New York—the largest market in the country. PBS was unsure whether the series would stay in their primetime slot—especially given the pullout by the largest-market station—when the new season is announced in May.

Independent filmmakers see scheduling as an indication of public TV’s commitment to diverse and independent perspectives; scheduling is the most important sign of commitment because broadcast is still the most important way people see programs.  They quickly rallied; within 60 hours, thousands of makers and viewers had signed a petition (which has since gathered more signatures), and the decision was postponed. Organizations and constituencies whose perspectives are showcased on the series also became alerted. Now, public TV executives are listening to viewers across the country, as they make their decision.

The open forum, attended by almost 150 people, featured testimony from representatives of national nonprofit organizations, organized labor, private foundations that fund media, production organizations, membership organizations of producers, and producers themselves. An Afghan-war vet with PTSD, Dominic Fredianelli, explained that participating in the documentary, “Where Soldiers Come From,” helped him reclaim his life; he is now an art student:

Not only did the film help me, I saw how it helped other veterans – I received and continue to receive countless emails and Facebook messages on how the film has made It easier for veterans and their loved ones to understand the effect that war has on soldiers, and the difficulties they have adjusting to normal life.  By programming these types of personal films, POV has not only had an effect on me, and everyone involved with the film, but has also helped so many others.

A stellar lineup of public TV executives listened to the testimony, joined by Busboys and Poets artist-entrepreneur Andy Shallal as a community representative and filmmaker Byron Hurt, representing the Indie Caucus. Hurt closed the event with the comment that public TV was designed to showcase “voices that don’t get heard, people who have creative and artistic and powerful stories to tell. When we marginalize those voices, we act in the opposite way of what public TV is supposed to be about.”

A full report, with selections from testimony, is available here. Some people who could not come to the forum submitted testimony, also available in the report, and anyone who wants to contribute testimony can do so by emailing: das [at] american [dot] edu.