The PBS Series You May Never Have Watched if You Live in DC

FateofaSalesman.jpgAMERICA REFRAMED is one of the best places to see high quality, provocative documentaries on public television. Unfortunately you probably haven't even heard of the series -- much less seen it -- if you live in the Washington DC area. Docs In Progress Executive Director Erica Ginsberg asks why.

by Erica Ginsberg
Executive Director, Docs In Progress
April 7, 2016

What if I told you there was a documentary strand which has shown nearly 100 amazing social issue documentaries about the forgotten stories of contemporary American society followed by provocative conversations on the issues spotlighted?

It sounds a bit like public television. And it is. The strand is called America ReFramed and it presents 60-90 minute documentaries which are heavy on point of view and spotlight various social issues in the U.S. They are typically followed by provocative conversations on the issues spotlighted with host Natasha del Toro. The series is a program of American Documentary, Inc. which also produces the acclaimed P.O.V. series.

The series airs on WORLD, a 24/7 public television channel which features a variety of nonfiction content (documentary, science, and news) and is produced and distributed by WGBH/Boston, American Public Television (APT), and WNET/New York in association with Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and the National Educational Telecommunications Association (NETA). WORLD is distributed by APT and is carried by 155 stations nationwide, representing nearly 66% of U.S. television households.

Not Washington DC or Baltimore households unfortunately.
WORLD programming is not carried by any of our three area public television affiliates: WETA, WHUT, or MPT.

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The reasons may be arcane to most viewers, but have a lot to do with PBS as a reflection of our larger societal challenges of national vs local. PBS has 350 member stations in all 50 states and a number of overseas territories. The majority of their programming schedules are determined by the local affiliate, not by national PBS.

There are some programs produced by a nonprofit or presented by a particular station for national broadcast (we often think of Sesame Street and Downton Abbey but, in the documentary realm, think of American Experience, American Masters, Frontline, NOVAP.O.V., and Independent Lens). There are many other programs which are produced independently, may or may not have a presenting station, and are distributed through APT, NETA, and other entities; these are distributed to individual affiliates directly; as a result, the program may or may not be carried by all stations. Even if it is, is likely to be scheduled at a variety of times rather than having one set national broadcast. While this can be frustrating for independent filmmakers trying to navigate the system and do outreach without the benefit of a station relations manager, it does reflect the decentralized side of public television which gives flexibility to local affiliates to produce their own content and schedule based on where there is a program slot or when they think local audiences are most likely to tune in.

That’s great. But there seems to be a serious disconnect with available content in the DC Metro area. This region LOVES documentaries.  Local residents attend more than 100 different film festivals annually, many of which showcase documentaries or are doc-exclusive (AFI DOCS may have changed its name from Silverdocs but it is still one of the most esteemed documentary film festivals in the country and, with good reason – packed houses and engaged audiences). On top of the festivals, you can attend a documentary screening just about any day of the year — at think tanks, universities, embassies, cultural centers, cafes, and more than half a dozen independent movie theaters.

When I co-founded Docs In Progress in 2004, our original intention was to create a space for local documentary filmmakers to have a space to share their works in progress and get feedback from other filmmakers. What we quickly discovered was that filmmakers made up only about 1/2 the audience. The other 1/2 was made up of local people who were interested in the topics of the films. Heck, some of them were EXPERTS in the topics of the film. Their feedback was as valuable to the filmmakers as that of their fellow artists. This reminded me was that there is a hunger for and an interest in engaging with documentaries, particularly those on social issues which seep into everything else that Washington is about – policy-making, international issues, academic discussions, cultural critique, and all-around do-gooding by the hundreds of NGOs and nonprofits based here.

FateofaSalesman.jpgWhich brings me back to America ReFramed. We are proud that four Docs In Progress alumni films have already been a part of this series (Rachel Isand Fate of a Salesman are Work-in-Progress Screening Alums; Follow the Leader is a Peer Pitch alum; Out in the Silence is an alum of both programs).  We were especially excited when one of those films (Fate of a Salesman) propelled the series to be nominated for an Emmy. Not a regional Emmy, mind you (which the film had already won), but a national Emmy.

We are less proud that the series is not broadcast in our own region. Some of the films may have been broadcast initially on local affiliates and were picked up by America ReFramed for distribution later, but some are making their premiere on the series, and this can complicate the ability to be broadcast locally at all, and particularly to be broadcast in tandem with the national timeslot.

I was reminded of this recently when I attended the second of two sold-out screenings at the DC Environmental Film Festival of City of Trees, a film from Meridian Hill Pictures which had been workshopped through a Docs In Progress focus group. The film will be screened this week at the prestigious Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and will invariably continue on to other screenings across the country, but it is very much a film of, by, and for Washington DC. It follows a year in the life of a green jobs program funded by the federal stimulus program and intended to provide life-changing job readiness for residents of some of Washington DC’s most underserved communities east of the Anacostia River — most of them young African-American men, including some who are struggling with re-entry after prison. Whether seen as a film about environmental justice; about the continuing divide between race and class; about whether federal jobs programs can have a true impact on local communities; or simply as an inside look at how the sausage is made at a nonprofit balancing mission, vision, and funding realities, City of Trees has a resonance that made it a perfect fit for a national strand. We were not surprised to see that it was picked up by America ReFramed where it will be broadcast on April 19.

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Yes, there is a short window when America ReFramed films will be streamed online so that those in regions where there is no broadcast or who do not own televisions can see the films. However, this presumes that streaming video is an option for everyone. One memorable scene in the film is a reminder of this — when several of the Green Corps members are writing up their resumes on the nonprofit’s laptops and comment that they don’t own computers. Most public spaces for computer access (such as underfunded public libraries in our nation’s urban communities) do not have the bandwidth or time allowances for patrons to stream video. So the irony is that some of the very people in the film may not be able to see it or share it with their friends. The Digital Divide is still very much alive.  As Pat Aufderheide noted in an article for the Center for Media and Social Impact last year, “broadcast television reaches a larger and more representative population than other ways of accessing programming.”

A few years ago, a group of independent producers with a lot of experience with public television took issue with WETA regarding the airing date of Dawn Porter’s Spies of Mississippi; while the documentary was part of a Monday night national carriage broadcast date of Independent Lens in the midst of Black History Month, WETA instead programmed the Independent Lens broadcast of the film five days later in a Saturday late night timeslot. Porter’s Open Letter to WETA was followed by support from a number of other independent producers and the Indie Caucus, a national, independent group of filmmakers who believe in the public mission of public media.  The group has had positive discussions with PBS, CPB, and affiliates including a National Listening Tour which led to the reversal of a notable affiliate’s decision to change primetime carriage of P.O.V. and Independent Lens. The IC continues to advocate for diverse and independent viewpoints through documentaries and those who produce them. Consistent carriage of documentary programming in key markets like Washington DC and New York continues to be on its radar.

I know the challenges that public television programmers face. They are tasked with balancing public interest content while maintaining high rating standards set by shows like Downton Abbey and Sherlock. They also face very real costs of carrying programs where they need to pay licensing fees. However it seems unusual that none of the three local affiliates have the bandwidth to carry programming which is found in ⅔ of the rest of the country…even when that content has a very clear local angle.

In an era when we there is a wealth of content — for those willing to pay for it — the very fact that public television is public means it must be free and available to all. Documentaries produced for America ReFramed — like its cousins P.O.V. and Independent Lens — reflect the diversity of our country. How empowering is it to see and engage with stories of people with similar backgrounds and experiences, and who reflect the full diversity of our country. 

While I would hope that the best solution would be for WORLD Channel as a whole to be carried by at least one of our DC-area affiliates, another solution would be for America ReFramed programs to be carried by at least one of these affiliates on the same date as the WORLD Channel screening. In an era of social media, films benefit significantly from being part of a national conversation.

If you would like to encourage our local affiliates to carry not only City of Trees, but all America ReFramed programming, I’ve included some suggested language and contacts below.

SUGGESTED LANGUAGE FOR DC-AREA DOCUMENTARY FANS

As a local resident and an avid documentary viewer, I wish to request that you air the documentary strand America ReFramed on your channel. This area is so much more than monuments and politics, and we look to our public television stations to share stories that are about and relevant to the people and issues facing our communities. Public television is one of the few places where local audiences can find hard-hitting, personal, in-depth, balanced, long-form documentary storytelling like Independent Lens and POVAmerica ReFramed is a much-needed and desired complement to these vital series. Not only has it programmed award-winning films about DC-area subjects like Fate of a Salesman, Dog Days, and City of Trees (upcoming this season) — these are films made by some of the best and brightest storytellers who call this region their home.

The lack of access to America ReFramed (and WORLD Channel more broadly) in the DC/MD/VA public television market is a major gap in programming. As a longtime public television viewer, I sincerely hope that you are able to listen to the community’s desire for these programs and find a way to bring these stories to our community.

Thank you for your attention and for hearing my concerns.

SUGGESTED LANGUAGE FOR DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKERS 

I recently learned that America ReFramed and other World Channel programming is not carried on your channel. In fact, it is not carried by any PBS affiliate in DC/Baltimore area.  

As a documentary filmmaker, I was dismayed to learn this. This region’s audiences are some of the most curious, informed and engaged audiences for documentaries. [Add a personal anecdote if you have screened prior work in the Washington DC or Baltimore area at a festival, community screening, theater, or on television

The DC/Baltimore area is also one of our country’s most diverse regions and one affected strongly by the digital divide. Public television broadcast remains one of the few places where people of all backgrounds can see films by and about people who look like them or who have similar life experiences. While America ReFramed may be available over streaming services, this presumes everyone has access to be able to stream long-form media. Many do not.

As someone who creates work which aligns with the mission of public television to strengthen the social democratic and cultural health of the United States through expression of a diversity of perspectives, I sincerely hope that you agree that America ReFramed is an important part of carrying out this mission. 

Thank you for your attention and for hearing my concerns.

CONTACTS

Maryland Public Television
Kate Pearson
Managing Director, Programming
Content Enterprises-Maryland Public Television
11767 Owings Mills Blvd.
Owings Mills, MD 21117
kpearson@mpt.org

WETA
Kevin Harris
Vice President and Television Station Manager
WETA
3939 Campbell Avenue
Arlington, VA 22206

or use online form
http://www.weta.org/contact
Select “Television Questions” as your category.

WHUT
Lama Haj
Executive Director of Operations
WHUT
2222 Fourth Street, NW
Washington, DC 20059
lhaj@howard.edu

 


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