Roundtable Round-Up: Navigating Public Television

by Matthew Radcliff, Co-Organizer, WIFV/Docs In Progress Documentary Roundtable

Every other month, the WIFV/Docs In Progress Documentary Roundtable welcomes filmmakers and industry experts to discuss topics of interest to the documentary filmmaking community. On February 9, 2015, we welcomed three speakers to talk about how documentary filmmakers can navigate the world of public television. The speakers were Kathryn Washington (CPB), Robyn DeShields (DeShields Associates), and Ramona Diaz (independent filmmaker). The following are notes I made from the presentation.

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athryn Washington, from the Corporation of Public Broadcasting (CPB), started the evening by describing the public television system as a confederacy. There are many gatekeepers, but that also means there are multiple ways to get a documentary on air. Each public television station is an independent entity and makes their own programming decisions. They are members of PBS, the Public Broadcasting Service, which functions as a TV network and supplys programs to the member stations.

There are two other “networks,” the National Educational Telecommunications Association (NETA) and American Public Television (APT). NETA tends to handle more social issue docs and is very big on engagement with the audience. APT tends to handle more “how-to,” cooking, and lifestyle shows. The three networks broadcast shows via satellite, and then individual stations record those shows and fit them into their schedule.

PBS programs are the ones most people are familiar with; for independent documentaries, we usually think of the series Independent Lens and POV. But these are not the only way for documentaries to be shown by PBS. Each night has a theme: Tuesday is history, Wednesday is science and natural history, Friday is the arts, and Sunday is fiction (e.g., Masterpiece Theater, Downton Abbey). Thursday and Saturday nights are left up to each station to program. On the theme nights, stations are often looking to program something that fits the theme and complements the main program that evening. For instance, if a station programmer knows that The Last Days In Vietnam will be playing on Tuesday night (on American Experience), then she might look for another Vietnam-related documentary to pair with it.

Another source that station programmers have for content is PBS Plus. This is another distribution stream over the satellite to public television stations, and the programs often have a regional focus. Like NETA or APT, PBS Plus provides no money or funding to the filmmakers. Finishing costs need to be in place.

On the topic of funding, PBS can object to the funders if there is a conflict of interest, or even the appearance of a conflict. For instance, if a documentary about a person is funded by the subject, or the subject’s family, PBS would likely object because the program doesn’t appear objective. Similarly, if a non-profit is funding a film about its own mission. Ramona Diaz noted that her film, Don’t Stop Believin’  was given a lot of scrutiny by PBS before being broadcast on Independent Lens. They had to list every contributor and their connection to the filmmakers and film subjects. Even the $5 crowdfunding contributor. The bottom line is, if you are planning to use public television as a distribution strategy, give a lot of thought to your funders and their perceived influence on your film.

The CPB has also set up five minority consortia to promote diversity on and in public television. They are the National Black Programming Consortiumthe Center for Asian American MediaLatino Public BroadcastingPacific Islanders in Communications, and Vision Maker Media (Native American Public Telecommunications). Each consortium individually funds documentaries by and about their community. They typically provide production and post-production funding at varying levels. There may be funding for development of projects, but it is less common.

Panelist Robyn DeShields (http://www.deshieldsassociates.com/) is a marketing and event management consultant with many years of experience. She spoke about her work as a station relations expert. Robyn works for hire for producers who want her help in getting their projects scheduled by public television stations across the country.

There are over 300 public television stations in the country, and each is independently programmed. The majority are all members of PBS, NETA, and APT, and pay dues to those organizations to use the programs they broadcast over the satellite. Some programs are termed “common carriage”, which means every station must show them at the same time, excepting multiple stations in a single market. For example, every station shows Masterpiece Theater on Sunday nights at 9 PM.  While national programs like Independent Lens and POV reach a significant number of stations, they are technically not common carriage.

Programs from APT, NETA, and PBS Plus are fed through a satellite and local affiliates have the option of whether and when to pick up those programs. Each month, there are 2400 hours of programming fed to the satellite, but each station only has 620 hours available in which to schedule programs, so a lot of films have the potential to fall through the cracks! Robyn works to make sure that the documentaries she represents don’t get lost among the many offerings available to programmers. She cautions that one-off documentaries are often programmed at odd times; Sunday afternoons at 2pm is not uncommon. And probably better than Monday morning at 2am….

To make programmers aware of programs she represents, Robyn organizes events, sends out lists, and even hands out tchotchkes. It’s not public television without a tote bag, right? The main thing to remember when working with a station relations representative is to allow adequate lead time. Don’t ask for her help a day or even a week before your film is being sent over the satellite. That is not enough time to get a programmers attention, and even so, they are thinking three months or more down the line. In February, they are already planning programming for May. So give Robyn four-six months from broadcast. It is also worth noting that stations might be more inclined to air a program if there is money and support for them to hold community outreach events based around that program.

When you are planning your distribution costs, make sure you factor in money for public television broadcast. From hiring a station relations agent and creating promotional materials, to paying the fees for one of the networks to upload your film onto the satellite, it costs money to distribute your film via public television. If you want to partner with a particular affiliate to be your "presenting station,” there may be a fee for that. It may be your local television station, but it does not have to be.  For example, if you are based in Washington, DC, but making a film about a Navajo community, it might make sense for the presenting station to be located in Arizona or New Mexico.

Ramona Diaz spoke from the perspective of a filmmaker whose films have all aired on PBS, through either Independent Lens or POV. She has also received funding from the Center for Asian American Media and ITVS. Her most recent film, Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey aired on Independent Lens, but had been funded by investors and a crowdfunding campaign. Along with television distribution through PBS, she had a theatrical distribution deal (and DVD and streaming) with Cinedigm.

Ramona pointed out that funding from ITVS is not “funding” in the sense that we often talk about with grants. It is actually a licensing fee whereby you sign over your broadcast rights to PBS. ITVS will offer your film to either Independent Lens or POV, the two flagship strands for independent documentaries on PBS. In the past, they’ve signed films at both 90 minutes and 60 minutes, but lately have been much more interested in 60 minute films, which is easier for station programmers to fit into their schedules. Ramona also pointed out that since this is a licensing deal for TV broadcast, the funders at ITVS do not want to fund promotional posters or postcards or anything to do with theatrical distribution.  They are now getting interested in aquiring rights for digital streaming.

ITVS looks very closely at you budgets and expect filmmakers to stay in very close contact with them through production. They money comes in installments: signing a contract, 1st rough cut, 2nd rough cut, the fine cut, and then delivery of the locked film. They give feedback at all steps, and you don’t necessarily have to agree; they are open to negotiations about their suggestions.

One of the nice aspects of this arrangement is that Independent Lens and POV will handle all publicity for the films the show. They organize community outreach around the issues in the doc, they build educational study guides, they do all publicity.

WIFV/Docs In Progress Documentary Roundtables switch off between Silver Spring (networking and peer feedback on trailers) and Washington DC (guest experts). The next roundtable in Silver Spring is scheduled for March 9 and the next roundtable in Washington DC is scheduled for April 13.


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