Testimony on public television and independent documentaries

During the holidays, WNET (PBS largest affiliate, based in New York City) announced it would take the independent film series POV and Independent Lens off the national PBS carriage schedule.  While they stepped back from this initial decision after a huge outcry from filmmakers and viewers, they will be reassessing this decision later this year and are engaged in a "listening tour" to hear more about why people feel so strongly about the series not being moved.

 

On February 19, 2015, the Center for Media & Social Impact organized a special forum on public television as part of its annual Media That Matters Conference. While not officially part of the "PBS Listening Tour" (which has already made stops in San Francisco and New York), this forum was an opportunity for filmmakers, film organizations, nonprofits, and those impacted by the presence of independent documentary films on public television to make their voices heard to a panel of public television executives.

 

 

Our Executive Director, Erica Ginsberg was one of those voices. While the event has been well covered by the Indie Caucusthe Center for Media and Social Impact, and Current Magazine, Erica had a little more to say than the two minutes allotted to her. Here is the full testimony she had intended to deliver:

I'm Erica Ginsberg, the Executive Director of Docs In Progress, a nonprofit organization here in the DC Metro area which is dedicated to incubating and supporting documentary filmmakers, particularly emerging filmmakers.  Alumni of our programs have been funded by ITVS and have screened on all three of the local PBS affiliates, on Independent Lens, on NETA and APT, and on America Reframed which would be awesome except that we don't get the World Channel here in DC.

But I actually don't want to focus on independent filmmakers today. There are many others here who I are representing filmmakers very eloquently.

Instead I want to focus on the importance of documentary to audiences. One of the programs we run is a bimonthly work-in-progress screening where filmmakers show unfinished works to general audiences. Except audiences in Washington DC are not really "general."  Very often we get people who are the top experts in their field coming to these screenings and offering feedback in a very different way that filmmakers might. Others who come are just big documentary film lovers. This is a film-loving town which has the capacity to support more than 100 film festivals. And people here LOVE public television.

Yet there seemed for a while to be a disconnect. Until very recently, two of the major public television programs for documentaries POV and Independent Lens seemed to be hiding from these local audiences who love documentaries. We are blessed here to have not one but three local affiliates -- two in Washington and one in Baltimore. Yet, for several years, these incredible documentary programs never played on the national carriage schedule on any of them. Often when I saw social media promotion of the premiere of a new program on these shows, I wanted to share with friends and family, but didn't because there what was showing up in the social media had no relationship to the reality of when people could see these films. Sometimes the programs might show up a few days later, sometimes a few weeks later, sometimes on a Saturday at 3 am. It was very frustrating.

I want to thank WETA for bringing back Independent Lens on the national carriage schedule and I certainly hope that WNET will also ensure that these programs stay on the national carriage schedule for our documentary-loving friends in New York.

While I have talked about audiences in the macro view, I also wanted to talk about two very specific audience members who may be at either ends of the spectrum when it comes to being that audience for documentaries.

One is my mother. She is a longtime PBS viewer, raised me to love public television, and, even though she lives on a modest retirement, she gives a donation every year to one or more of our local affiliates. She's got the tote bag to prove it. She also is someone who doesn't embrace technology easily. She still uses dial-up for her computer, she doesn't have cable or satellite TV, and she doesn't use a DVR, let alone a VCR. For her, public television is really the only place where she sees documentaries on TV, and "appointment television" still has meaning to her. She may sound like a dinosaur, but I have a feeling she is not alone in this country. Many people don't use technology by choice and far many more by economic reality. Public television has been an important place for those audiences to see quality programs about issues they care about  - something we can't always take for granted.

The other person is someone I just met for the first time last week. He is a young bank employee at my local bank. He couldn't be more than 25.  While I was trying to set up a new account, we started chatting and he asked me what Docs In Progress was all about. The second I said "documentary," his face lit up and he started telling me how much he loved documentaries. He said that his mother had insisted on him watching documentaries on a television channel full of them when he was growing up in El Salvador. He said he continued to watch lots of documentaries, particularly about Latino issues, but interestingly he didn't mention public television as a place where he found them. He watches them all on Netflix. It may be because that is an easier way for him to access them, but perhaps it is because he simply doesn't know that public television offers such programming? And not everyone can afford Netflix.

I know a lot of people here tonight are talking about how public television executives should not use the same criteria for market-driven programming as commercial television stations do. I actually do believe in market considerations. Rather than seeing this as a competition between Independent LensPOVDownton Abbey, and Antiques Roadshow, isn't there room enough for all of them? Believe me, my mom knows exactly when Downton Abbey is on. And she loves to watch the documentary programming when she knows exactly when it will be on. Marketing is most effective when it helps create routines.

I'll close by saying that what I do know is that documentaries have made a tremendous difference by carrying content about and aimed at audiences that might not be taken seriously by other commercially-minded broadcasters. As one of our alums Dean Hamer recently said to me half-jokingly but actually quite seriously, " Who else but PBS would broadcast in primetime a film about a transgender native Pacific Islander?" That film Kumu Hina will be broadcast on Independent Lens in May and I do hope I can tell people exactly when they can tune in to watch it.

If this is an issue which matters to you, please join Indie Caucus on their website or Facebook. They will next be at SXSW for a special panel.


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