PBS Needs Indies – Guest Blog from Kartemquin Films

For those of you who may not be documentary filmmakers (or even for those of you who are), you may not be aware of a recent decision PBS made which has the potential to impact independent documentary producers.  While the decision to move PBS’ two flagship independent film series Independent Lens and POV, from Tuesday nights to Thursday nights may, on the surface, seem like no big deal, it actually has a great deal of potential impact and has caused an uproar in the documentary community. 

Chicago-based Kartemquin Films — which has been producing documentaries for more than 45 years, including a number which ended up on PBS (The Interrupters, Milking the Rhino, In the Family, The New Americans, and Hoop Dreams just to name a few) — has been particularly vocal on the issue, publishing an open letter to PBS on March 15.  We recently asked Kartemquin’s Communications Manager, Tim Horsburgh to share more of the story of the “PBS Needs Indies” campaign.

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PBS Needs Indies grew out of phone calls and emails shared by independent producers in the wake of an article in Current, published March 12. Alarmed at the confirmation of fears we had all privately held for months, a decision was made to draft an open letter to PBS.

We published our open letter to PBS on Kartemquin.com on March 15. “As independent filmmakers, as participants in the evolution of public broadcasting, as viewers and as citizens,” the note read, “we protest PBS’ decision to move the two premier strands of independent documentaries, Independent Lens and POV, from their established home on Tuesday nights to Thursday, a night on which local stations program locally-selected material.”

The effect of moving the two shows to Thursdays, as reported by Current, was a 42% drop in ratings from the previous season. This dramatic drop in viewership concerned us greatly, suggesting that viewers were now unable to find these documentary film programs in the PBS schedule.

As Kartemquin’s Artistic Director Gordon Quinn stated: “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.”

Worryingly, the treatment of these shows seemed indicative of a diminished sense of their value in fulfilling the public service mission of PBS, and of PBS’ support for airing independent, diverse voices and stories.

More than 1000 filmmakers, viewers and patrons of public broadcasting joined our movement as signatories over the next 3 weeks. But the initial pressure was enough for PBS to announce just one week later that they would reconsider their scheduling.

Major filmmakers pledged their support and made our letter look like a greatest hits of Independent Lens, POV, and some of the best American documentaries of the past decade: A Lion in the House; King Corn; Where Soldiers Come From; Power Trip; Have You Heard from Johannesburg?; My Perestroika; The English Surgeon; Freedom Riders; Hip-hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes; Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room; Enemies of the People; The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court and many, many more.

Our campaign caught fire on social media, under the Twitter hashtag #PBSNeedsIndies. Coverage in the press was also significant, with The New York Times covering the campaign, and positive support from About.Com Documentaries and Alt. Film Guide. Kartemquin Board member Patricia Aufderheide also wrote at the Center for Social Media “Why it Matters Where PBS Puts Independent Lens and POV.” And we were honored to have the Writers Guild of America, East advocate that their membership also sign the letter. For his IndieWIRE article “The PBS Debacle: Why a New Time Slot Spells Disaster For Indie Docs”, Anthony Kaufman spoke to filmmakers who had signed the open letter, as well as Gordon Quinn, and representatives from ITVS, POV and PBS. In a report at Fair.org Peter Hart asked, “Is PBS Trying to Hide Some of Public TV’s Best Work?”

A blog post by PBS veteran Bill Moyers and Michael Winship, entitled “To PBS, With (Tough) Love,” galvanized public television viewers and independent film advocates. “If you think the creativity and unique visions of  life captured by independent producers, journalists and filmmakers deserve the best possible platform on public television,” Moyers and Winship wrote, “you can read and sign [Kartemquin's open letter] yourself.” The response was a deluge of audience support for these programs.

The PBS Ombudsman also weighed in on the matter, stating: “These programs are very important, probing subjects and issues not likely to be seen elsewhere on television.”

Most recently, we formed a steering committee with the full participation of the International Documentary Association, the world’s leading member organization promoting documentary film. The intent of this committee is to continue our leadership role in watching out for independents, and ensuring the PBS mission is met. The initial members of the committee are the following veteran and award-winning filmmakers who have long supported and been supported by public television: Beth Bird, Heather Courtney, Marshall Curry, Tim Horsburgh (for Kartemquin), Byron Hurt, Brad Lichtenstein, Steve Mendelsohn, Paco de Onis, Gordon Quinn, Julia Reichert, Bernardo Ruiz, Carlos Sandoval, Renee Tajima-Pena, Michael Winship, Pamela Yates.

PBS has still not decided on which day the series will find their home. We hope that the final decision will reflect the way in which the programming in these series meets the fundamental mission of public broadcasting. We are grateful and appreciate that PBS has honored the public mission of public broadcasting, recognizing that independent programs showcased on Independent Lens and POV showcase underrepresented viewpoints, serve underserved audiences, and offer innovative strategies for making connections with Americans in ways that help them be more active and productive members of society.

For those just learning of this issue and wanting to pledge their support, our open letter is still open and accepting signatories and comments. We feel it is a crucial time in ensuring the future of these programming strands, and that it is vital for the audience to tell PBS just how important these programs are to them. As Bill Moyers put it:

“The effort has made a difference. Talks are ongoing and the [New York] Times reports that PBS now has “agreed to find a new home next season” for the two series. An announcement is expected to be made at the PBS annual meeting in May. That’s good news, but until the decision is made, it’s important to keep letting them know how you feel — write PBS or sign that petition.”

We encourage all independent filmmakers and fans of public media to join us as signatories by: 

1) commenting on the Open Letter

2) emailing us at PBSNeedsIndies@kartemquin.com

3) or tweet #PBSNeedsIndies to @Kartemquin on Twitter

or 4) all of the above

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Addendum from Docs In Progress: For those of us in the Washington DC/Baltimore area, we have already experienced the impact of scheduling of POV and Independent Lens which have not been carried by WETA, WHUT, or MPT on the national carriage schedule for quite some time, with programs often being programmed several days or even weeks behind the national schedule and, on some of these stations, not in primetime. 

We know that this region has a strong interest in documentary programming based on the number of documentaries being screened around town at any time and the engagement we see at many of our Docs In Progress public programs.  In addition to the recommendations made by Kartemquin, we encourage you to reach out to your local PBS affiliate to request that POV and Independent Lens be screened in primetime at the same time as the national schedule.  Contacts for the three regional affiliates are included below.

WETA – Channel 26
703-998-2600 or http://www.weta.org/contact

WHUT (Howard University Television) – Channel 32
202-806-3200 or http://www.whut.org/whut/?page_id=28

MPT (Maryland Public Television) - Channel 22/67
410-581-4097 or comments@mpt.org

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