Back in April, we featured a guest blog from Kartemquin Films' Tim Horsburgh on the PBS Needs Indies Campaign about PBS' decision to move its flagship independent film series Independent Lens and POV, from Tuesday nights to Thursday nights (a night when many local affiliates could opt instead to show other programming). Following an outcry from more than 1200 filmmakers and viewers, PBS decided to move the series to a national broadcast timeslot on Monday nights beginning this fall with the new season of Independent Lens.
While this is a positive step for the national broadcast, it may be a moot question if you live in the Washington DC Metro area. The good news is that we have a treasure of three local PBS affiliates (WETA, WHUT, and MPT) to choose from. The bad news is that NONE of the three show either POV or Independent Lens on the national carriage schedule.
Recently Docs In Progress Executive Director Erica Ginsberg asked panelists about this discrepancy at a Silverdocs panel called I Loved That Doc! Why Can't I Find It on TV? Donald Thoms, the Vice President of Programming at PBS made it clear it has to do with the decentralized nature of public television programming. While this system allows local stations to play programming marketed to local interests and to pick up programs from APT, NETA, or local producers, it may also have a lot to do with financial realities since local affiliates pay fees for shows acquired and distributed by PBS. As Michon Boston from WHUT made clear, stations like theirs cannot afford to carry every national carriage show and so must pick and choose.
Ginsberg cited the fact that that very week when POV was making its season premiere with Jennifer Fox's My Reincarnation on Thursday night at 10 pm, the show would not air until Sunday on WETA (at 1:15 am no less!) and not until the following Sunday on MPT (10:30 pm) and WHUT (12:00 am).
The challenge for filmmakers, of course, is that all the marketing that PBS, POV and Independent Lens may do for programming may be timed to the national broadcast, but is meaningless for viewers in communities who either are not getting the program on at that time or may never get it at all. Social media marketing is very important (especially to PBS and local affiliates which are trying to reach a younger demographic that may no longer subscribe to print newspapers or is likely to get information on upcoming programs through push-methods of e-mail, Facebook, or Twitter rather than visiting a local affiliate website or reading a TV Guide-type listing). Social media is not limited by geography: if a big marketing push goes out for a film, it reaches EVERYONE at the same time, whether or not the program is actually showing at that time. This creates a challenge both for documentary filmmakers and audiences who love documentaries to rely on the buzz which is so key to getting attention for a film in a day and age when we are all overwhelmed by information. Additionally the traditional approach of hiring a station-relations manager to handle regional marketing may not be financially feasible for all filmmakers (particularly ones who had hoped that being on a national program would help them avoid that additional expense).
POV and Independent Lens have both done stellar jobs in getting the films in their lineups shown in a myriad of places -- festivals, community screenings, educational screenings, and online. They are amazingly supportive to the films and filmmakers in their lineup. However, the question then remains as to the value of the actual "B" in "PBS" - the Broadcast. And that brings us back to the decentralized public television system.
While some stations could argue that their viewers are not as interested in documentaries as they might be in Downton Abbey, Antiques Roadshow or 1970s British comedies, it seems odd to make this argument in the Washington DC market. Probably in no other city in the country are there more people who are interested in social issue documentaries because they themselves are eating/sleeping/breathing/working on these issues every day. The DMV embraces our wonkiness and this can be seen by the number of people who not only attend, but participate in documentary film screening discussions - at Silverdocs, at Docs In Progress screenings, and at screenings going on every day of the year at film festivals, embassies, community centers, museums, think tanks, university campuses, and traditional cinemas around town. Heck, WETA has even been the presenting station for just about every Ken Burns film even though the director lives in New Hampshire. (Needless to say, Burns gets carried in the DC area on the national carriage schedule, but the same does not apply to the several dozen filmmakers whose works screen on POV or Independent Lens).
So what can you as documentary filmmakers and fans do about this? Well one of our alums Erik Lang was sitting at that panel and actually took it upon himself to blog about the issue.
If you want our local affiliates to know that you want to see POV and Independent Lens at the same time as the national carriage, you need to tell them. Here's how:
Mail: WETA, 3939 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206
Maryland Public Television (MPT)
Mail: 11767 Owings Mills Boulevard Owings Mills, MD 21117-1499
Mail: Howard University Television 2222 Fourth Street, NW Washington, DC 20059