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Filmmakers Fight WNET Plan to Push Aside Documentaries (EXCLUSIVE)

Documentary filmmakers featured for years on public television mainstays “Independent Lens” and “POV” are fighting a proposal by one of PBS’ flagship stations, WNET, that would push the long-running programs out of primetime and onto a secondary station.

More than 2,000 documentarians have signed a petition saying they fear that the New York station’s action would lead to the shows being marginalized by PBS affiliates nationwide, slicing into their audiences and crippling efforts to raise money for often edgy, controversial films.

Laura Poitras, a favorite for this year’s documentary feature Oscar for “Citizenfour,” called the  potential change “shortsighted and against (public television’s) mandate to provide diverse programming in the public interest.”

Programmers at WNET, stung by the criticism, have put off a final decision on changing the airtime for the two shows. Along with their counterparts at PBS, they are using a “listening tour” in several cities to hear from documentary makers about how to better support their films. A final decision on programming changes is expected in mid-May.

The dust-up pits two sides with potentially irreconcilable motivations: On one side are filmmakers who say public TV has an obligation to support difficult work, from underrepresented and underserved voices, even when it doesn’t always appeal to the largest audiences. On the other side are public TV programmers, who are struggling to maintain and build viewership (and private financial support that goes with it) as their government funding continues to shrink.

“The tension between indies — so often a voice for diversity, so rarely the top-rated programming—and public broadcasting never goes away,” Patricia Aufderheide, director of the Center for Media & Social Impact at American University, wrote in a recent blog post. “Every time it comes back, it comes back as a question about the basic purpose of public broadcasting.”

The controversy over the potential timeslot changes for “Independent Lens”  and “POV” on WNET — moving the shows to a less-popular New York station at 10 p.m. Monday, with a rebroadcast on WNET’s Channel 13 at 11 p.m. Sunday — has also renewed the conversation about the best venue for independent filmmakers.

Passionate, often cash-strapped documakers know that their work will one day have to find viewers via the Internet. But for the time being, they say by far the biggest viewership comes via “POV,” produced by Brooklyn-based American Documentary Inc., and “Independent Lens,” produced by San Francisco-based ITVS.

Despite long-term declines in audience, PBS ended the 2013-14 season with the fifth-largest English-language primetime household rating on broadcast and cable outlets — behind CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox.

“Access to primetime audiences still is important today,” said Sally Jo Fifer, chief executive of ITVS. “Will it be important five years now? It’s anybody’s guess. But there is so much speech on so many platforms today that this audience becomes even more important.”

The scheduling controversy erupted late last year. WNET had aired “Independent Lens” and “POV” at 10 p.m. Mondays, the time when the program feed arrives from PBS. (Seasons of  “POV” and “Independent Lens”  run one after the other in that slot.) Programmers at the New York station said they planned to move the shows from their main channel, 13, to the alternative Channel 21 in the Monday at 10 p.m. slot. The shows would be repeated the following Sunday at 11 p.m. on Channel 13.

WNET programming chief Stephen Segaller said he had a couple of reasons for suggesting the change. The two documentary vehicles had drawn anemic ratings — dropping off roughly 80% from their lead-in, “Antiques Roadshow.”  At the same time, the station was looking for additional airtimes for arts programs — like “American Masters” and “Great Performances” — that it produces.

“There is a scheduling and broadcast challenge,” Segaller said. “And, even in public television, we look at audience and ratings with some attention.”

Segaller said he hoped that with two weekly broadcasts, “POV” and “Independent Lens” would draw at least as many viewers  in their previous once-a-week niche on Monday nights. And arts programming, which he said is in high demand in the cultural capital of New York, would have a much-needed additional timeslot.

But many filmmakers — like Gordon Quinn, producer of “Hoop Dreams” and “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” — scoffed at the notion that documentaries would get as much attention under the reconfigured schedule. “It’s a smaller audience, a much smaller footprint,” Quinn said of Channel 21, adding that Channel 13 remains the primary public television brand in New York City.

“This just would muddy the waters and make it impossible for a somewhat hungry audience to find this programming,” said Tracy Droz Tragos, whose “Rich Hill” won the grand jury prize for U.S. documentary at Sundance 2014.

That film’s television debut Jan. 5 on WNET was just a couple of weeks away when WNET announced its plan to shift airtimes. Tragos and many other producers protested that they had been blindsided, with little time to inform their audiences.

“PBS is one of the last homes for truly independent films, where the filmmaker retains the copyright and editorial control,” Tragos said. “It’s ultimately about choices and PBS showing some leadership, supporting a consistent (air) time and putting some promotion dollars behind these films.”

Documakers felt doubly stung by this year’s proposed change because the time of the programs had been shifted before, by PBS. In 2011 PBS moved the affiliate feed of the two shows to Thursday nights — on a day when the stations are free to run whatever programs they choose. Ratings promptly dipped 42% before making a partial recovery.

Producer Quinn said foundations and others who pay to make films about tough subjects are less likely to donate if they don’t think the films will have the biggest possible platform in New York City. “It’s critically important to our funding,” he said.

Some subjects raised via “POV” and “Independent Lens” — like the Koch brothers’ influence on American politics — have proved controversial. A furor erupted two years ago when it was revealed that WNET offered David Koch (then a WNET board member) the opportunity to screen and then rebut Alex Gibney’s film, “Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream.”

That episode has a group of filmmakers who have formed the Indie Caucus wondering if the provocative subjects they tackle might also be relegating them to the more obscure TV schedule. “Is the subject matter too controversial? I don’t know,” Tragos said.

Segaller said it was preposterous to suggest that WNET had a censorship motive when both programs have run, uninterrupted, for more than a decade. “One disputatious moment in a many-year history does not a conspiracy make,” he declared.

At a January hearing at the San Francisco Public Library, more than 200 filmmakers and political activists were in the crowd, with many telling WNET and PBS representatives they were skeptical of a move away from Monday night.

Another “listening tour” session on the subject has been set for Feb. 23 in New York, with additional hearings expected in Chicago and other cities.

PBS programming chief Beth Hoppe conceded that documentary makers hadn’t been properly consulted in previous programming shifts. She vowed to change that this time but said the network also deserved credit for its past performance — a longer and deeper run of documentary broadcasts than any other TV outlet.

She pledged that the system would not only work to get the schedule right, but to do more to promote films. “We are deeply committed to independent films,” she said. “We want to get more reach and more viewers. That is our ultimate goal.”

Segaller, who ultimately will help make the programming call at the New York station, called the input from the film community important. But he added that the ultimate impact of the change could not be known unless it is tried.

“Unless you actually do the experiment…you don’t get any data,” Segaller said. “We can talk all day long about what might or might not occur, but there is only one way to find out.”

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