Public television executives have agreed to keep two long running documentary film programs — POV and Independent Lens — in primetime and to substantially increase marketing support for the shows, PBS announced Thursday.
The public television network said it would continue to transmit the two programs at 10 p.m. Mondays and that affiliates, including WNET Channel 13 in New York, would broadcast them at that time. That reverses an earlier proposal by WNET that film advocates worried would spread to stations throughout the PBS system, effectively moving the programs out of primetime.
PBS said the new agreement would not only keep “POV” and “Independent Lens” in their Monday night slot and promote the shows, and documentaries in general, in a number of ways — releasing the films on a streaming platform, expanding theatrical releases, creating a new college curriculum and establishing “programming events” that package docs with “thematically-related programming.”
Producers of the two TV series said in a statement that they supported PBS’s moves, while filmmakers said they were cautiously optimistic that WNET and the public television network would continue to support the two principal shows for indie documentaries.
Part of their ongoing concern, said members of the “Indie Caucus” lobbying group, is due to the fact that they have only received a commitment to keep the two shows in prime time for one year. They had hoped for a longer commitment. They said they will be watching closely to make sure that the public television executives follow through on their commitment to expanded promotion.
A PBS spokeswoman said the agreement has “no specified end date,” adding: “We will be in regular contact with the series producers and stations to evaluate our progress.”
Despite some outstanding questions, the agreement ends four months of controversy that began when WNET said it would move the two programs onto a secondary station, Channel 21, before showing them on its lead outlet, Channel 13, on Sunday nights. Many smaller stations around the country were expected to follow suit, causing a substantial hit to the programs’ profile.
Hundreds of documentary makers opposed the shift, voicing their displeasure through the “Indie Caucus” and at hearings in New York, San Francisco and Chicago, as well as at South By Southwest and the Sundance Film Festival.
Among the prominent opponents of rescheduling “POV” and “Independent Lens” were filmmakers Alex Gibney and Laura Poitras and venerable TV producer Norman Lear, who wrote an op-ed in the New York Times this month protesting the change. Lear accused PBS of a ratings-chase that “could devastate independent documentary filmmaking.”
Officials representing the public television network, WNET and the two documentary shows all heaped praised on the new agreement. PBS programming boss Beth Hoppe said in a statement that the new approach “will better support this important work and help us reach the younger, diverse audiences who are among the most passionate fans of indies.”
Sally Jo Fifer, chief executive of San Francisco-based producer of “Independent Lens” also welcomed the agreement, saying PBS was “bolstering the visibility of these films through this new multi-platform strategy.” Simon Kilmurry, Executive Director of POV, said the plan represented a strong showing of “PBS’ commitment to independent film as a core part of its programming offerings.”
The furor began as WNET proposed the shift late last year, in what it said was a response to sagging ratings for the two shows. The duo – which succeed each other during the year in the same time slot — both had the popular “Antiques Roadshow” as a lead in. But 80% of the audience fell away for the documentary programs, WNET said. The New York station also wanted to make space for arts programs like “Great Performances” that it produces and that boost fundraising.
WNET proposed moving the shows to the same 10 pm Monday time slot on its Channel 21, which does not serve all of the New York Area. It then planned to re-air “POV” and “Independent Lens” at 11 p.m. the following Sunday on its flagship Channel 13.
Documentarians said the shift would give them access to many fewer viewers and also harm their ability to obtain grants from foundations – many of which insist that programming have a platform on a big New York outlet.
The filmmakers said they felt twice burned, because public television had moved the two shows in 2011 from Tuesday to Thursday nights – causing a huge ratings decline. The doc makers protested back then that their voices would be diminished and PBS quickly reversed course. It moved both shows to the Monday 10 p.m. position.
After the fierce opposition to the latest proposed change, execs from WNET, PBS and the two doc shows launched a national “listening tour” that became a forum for filmmakers and activists to vent about what they saw as a lack of support for independent film.
PBS on Thursday responded with a multi-platform strategy to address those concerns.
The network said it would support “several” theatrical releases of documentaries. Though it did not give a number, the network said filmmaker Stanley Nelson’s “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” would be among those it backed in theaters.
PBS also announced it had entered into a licensing agreement to have the subscription streaming service Indieflix release more than 85 films, including “Spies of Mississippi” and “Soul Food Junkies.” It said that, in addition, it would create a curriculum for a non-credit college course based on films from the two doc shows, screening them on PBS LearningMedia, an on-demand service that it said can reach as many as 30 million students.
PBS also outlined the new strategy of packaging some of the documentaries with related content “to optimize audience flow throughout the night.” Those special evenings will get extra social media and marketing support, the network said, though it did not say how many docs would get the special handling.
PBS said it planned such expanded salesmanship to connected with indie film fans and that it would back its local affiliates in doing the same. It said it would improve its website and create create indie film “play lists” to help audiences find the independent fare on OTT services like Apple TV.
Indie Caucus activist Gordon Quinn welcomed Thursday’s news. “We have come a long way from December when the surprise announcement was made that the premieres of these series would no longer be on WNET, New York’s primary PBS channel, in primetime,” Quinn said. “We’re glad that decision has been officially reversed.”
Another member of the filmmakers’ group, Bernardo Ruiz, said he was pleased with the renewed PBS commitment. “I think we have all learned that there is a large, diverse and active set of audiences for these films and it’s now time to think about further growing these audiences — in particular, younger and more diverse viewers,” Ruiz said.
(Pictured: “The Invisible War” on Independent Lens)