Public TV Challenged by Indie Filmmakers

Restating our commitment to independent films.
January 23, 2015
 
Adam Winfield is seen with his parents during a meeting with the family's defense attorney at Ft Lewis.

Still from the most recent "Independent Lens" film, "The Kill Team."

Courtesy of Dan Krauss

An article in the trade publication Current describes a recent summit in which filmmakers challenged PBS and WNET (the primary public TV station serving New York City) to step up their commitment to independently-produced documentaries, especially those that air as part of the series POV and Independent Lens.

It was sparked by WNET’s announcement in December that it would remove those series from its main channel to a secondary station with a smaller broadcast coverage area. Understandably, filmmakers were upset by this downgrade in the country’s largest television market.

Now, it’s well within WNET’s rights to make this change. The relationship between PBS and its member stations is very different from that of a commercial network such as ABC and its local affiliates. We pay for PBS’ program service; in the commercial model, stations give up a portion of their broadcast day to a network in exchange for higher potential advertising revenues. Furthermore, the US public broadcasting industry is fiercely protective of maintaining local control. The result is that we can run PBS’ national programming whenever we want—within reason.

This obviously makes it hard for producers to promote their shows, especially if a significant percentage of PBS stations choose to move them to various other days and times. For that reason, PBS has negotiated some “common carriage” rules that allow them to designate a set number of program hours each year as protected programs that must premiere on the evening of their nationally scheduled airdate. (Even there, there’s a lot of wiggle room.)

However—and to bring us back to the complaints of the filmmakers—neither POV nor Independent Lens regularly enjoy that “common carriage” designation. Certain high-profile films might, but as a rule, stations are free to do with them as they will. And stations do, because for the most part the audience for such content is considerably smaller than that for such PBS mainstays as Masterpiece, Nova or Antiques Roadshow.

Now, here at WILL we generally stick with the national scheduling of the independent film showcases, airing them on Monday nights after Antiques Roadshow. To be honest, I’m not convinced it’s the best night for them. Roadshow is intentionally broad-appeal fare, and it consistently pulls in one of PBS’ largest audiences. By their very nature, POV and Independent Lens tell challenging, sometimes harrowing stories. It’s an awkward fit.

Yet I stand by them, and here’s why. It’s because this is who we are. This is what we do. Public television exists to be a haven for content which may not be commercially viable. Granted, we couldn’t keep going without popular programming that encourages viewers to become members. But stories of unusual perspectives and uncomfortable truths need a home, and they’re not finding it on cable or satellite. (IFC now airs repeats of Batman.) It belongs here, and it deserves to air in prime-time.

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