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Documentary Filmmakers Turn Up the Heat on PBS; More from the Trenches

by Anthony Kaufman
March 20, 2012 9:06 AM
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Don't piss off documentary filmmakers. They are an activist bunch, by nature, and when they feel wronged, they band together and fight back. As Kartemquin Films' Tim Horsburgh told me, while I was researching this recent Indiewire article (The PBS Debacle: Why a New Time Slot Spells Disaster For Indie Docs): "It's incredible at how the documentary community be can be a collaborative force when it needs to be. In theory, we should be competing, for grants and for distribution, but it's not like that. We're all in this together."


Kartemquin's petition -- which protests recent programming changes at PBS that have crippled long-running indie doc showcases Independent Lens and P.O.V. -- continues to grow, and the site's comments section has now become a forceful statement, in and of itself, with vociferous commentary from documentary luminaries such as Chuck Workman, Joan Churchill, Bill Moyers, Jennifer Fox, and others.

"Shame on you, PBS," wrote Churchill. "That PBS would banish these two exemplary shows, leaving it up to program directors of local stations to choose to air (or not) the films shown on Independent Lens and POV, is truly scandalous."

There are even supportive comments from film director Mary Harron and playwright John Patrick Shanley, who writes, "PBS is important to the national discourse. Don't make it less important!"

The politics of the programming change is complex, likely to do with the financial health (or lack thereof) of public broadcasting, and its need to serve its older audience base, with the likes of Masterpiece Theatre like programs ("Downton Abbey") and shows like "This Old House" and "Antique Roadshow."

But for documentary filmmakers, PBS has become a necessary and vital platform. As Kartemquin's Gordon Quinn explained to me:

"I'm always trying to make people understand that the biggest audience we're ever going to have is that PBS broadcast. The theatrical audience is miniscule. It just helps build audience for the broadcast. In my mind, 'Hoop Dreams' was a theatrical success, but you can't compare the audience that saw it in theaters with the broadcast. You can compare the money, but in terms of having an audience in a democratic society, in terms of getting people talking about things, there's nothing like a PBS broadcast. PBS is free, and it's huge in getting into rural areas. That reach, all over the country, it's a critically important audience that's vastly underserved."

The doc programming also brings in much needed younger audiences to PBS, as I was increasingly told by producers and executives, which makes the downsizing of Independent Lens and P.O.V. bad not just for filmmakers, but the future of PBS.

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  • Stacey Diehl | April 24, 2012 3:38 PMReply

    Where IS this show? Most channels re-run the h*ll out of everything. I dvr'd this show when it aired the other night but my cable has been screwing up and it didn't record. Now I can't find any sign of a second airing and I am mad as hell. How do you not re-run this when you re-run everything else???

  • Ron Merk | March 26, 2012 10:13 AMReply

    For those of us who have been in the film industry a long time, it's always been very clear that PBS is like any other network in so many ways. This is just another example of them skirting the issue of what we believe is a core value of public television, putting on shows like Independent Lens and P.O.V. For years I complained that American public television was nothing more than a place for tony BBC shows. They often use Andrew Lloyd Webber "celebrations" of his different shows as fund-raisers during pledge week. Hmmm....has nothing changed? They are networks, in every way, good and bad. Lots of staff, bureaucracy and paper pushing, lots of concern about demographics and "supporters" (dare we call them advertisers?) and their "needs" (to reach demographics they target). So why are we surprised when they hang certain shows (independent thinking, younger demographics, muckraking) out to dry? Public television does not serve the public, it serves itself, like any organization. Maybe it just needs a mandate from the public to keep Independent Lens and P.O.V. on the air, but exactly how can that be accomplished? Not just another petition I hope. How about letting their supporters (I mean big corporations and foundations) know that the next generation of their viewers is tuning out PBS and tuning in other more "indie-friendly" outlets? As more and more programming moves to the internet, instead of being strictly beamed to us from networks, at some point, PBS may become irrelevant. Maybe they didn't get the memo on this brave new world of media distribution.

  • Ford austin | March 21, 2012 3:45 PMReply

    It will be a real shame if the PBS "viewers like me" do not get a chance to see the documentary films of the very talented filmmaker Cassie Jaye. :(

  • jessie | March 20, 2012 4:55 PMReply

    Don't be so dismissive of the "older audience base". Who do you think watches documentaries?
    The problem with TV, commercial, non-commercial, cable etc. is it's bloody boringly repetitive.
    Independent Lens and P.O.V. is sorely needed.

  • Stacey | April 24, 2012 3:46 PM

    The problem with tv in general is it sucks. Reality shows about people you don't care about, dumbing down to the lowest common denominator. Boring boring boring. Man, I don't even watch HGTV anymore because it's nothing but real estate shows. Why would anyone not buying a house care about that? Right now, my tv pretty much stays on ID network and their endless loop of true crime stories. USA was my channel but they loused up In Plain Sight and started filling their hours with stupid shows featuring really cute an implausibly "brilliant" 20-something girls. God, TV has turned into one big, lame, sick joke.

  • johnD | March 20, 2012 12:31 PMReply

    Once upon a time on our local affiliate, Channel 13, you might see a Bergman film at 8:00 o'clock on a weekday. Or Berlin Alexanderplatz, for days running. Nowadays, a "classic" at 13 is one in the "Pink Panther" series, and it's "educational" programming is either over-produced embarrassments with ludicrous re-creations of historical events or brazen corporate-sponsored propaganda. You'd think a station which frequently features back-to-back "Antique Roadshows" as prime-time programming would be afraid to show its face in the supposed cultural capital of the world. Alas, you'd be wrong. Independent Lens and POV barely counted as crumbs, even when they were programmed by the main office. How about Occupy PBS?

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