How PBS’ Docu Slate Continues to Shine Amid Stiff Competition

Nova Documentary PBS
Courtesy of WGBH Educational Foundation/BHA

The 1967 Public Broadcasting Act created the Corp. for Public Broadcasting, paving the way for the founding of PBS. Section 396 of the act includes the directive, “It is in the public interest to encourage the development of programming that involves creative risks and that addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences.”

Justine Nagan, executive producer of documentary franchise “POV,” has been thinking about that line quite a bit as PBS celebrates its 50th anniversary.

“We sit directly at that locus,” Nagan says of “POV.” “That is the role that we provide in the PBS landscape.”

Launched in 1988, “POV” showcases feature-length films, many of which take on broad social issues by telling the human-level story of an individual. It’s one of the cornerstones of PBS’ documentary efforts. And documentary is as important a piece of PBS’ identity as is children’s programming or costume drama — one that has evolved as PBS adapts to a changing media landscape.

The transformation of television from a linear medium to one dominated by digital on-demand services gave birth to the peak TV era, in which more programming of all kinds than consumers have ever had access to is available instantly. In the documentary space, new entrants and legacy programmers looking to appeal to fragmented audiences have jumped into a field that at one time PBS had nearly all to itself.

“When I came to public television, there weren’t that many games in town,” says Lois Vossen, who became the founding executive producer of “Independent Lens” in 1999 after having worked as a doc programmer for the Sundance Film Festival. “There was PBS, and there was HBO. And that was kind of it.”

But in recent years, new streaming entries such as Hulu and Amazon Prime Video have become outsize presences on the festival circuit, as have long-standing brands including Showtime and ESPN. Netflix proved the commercial viability of documentary series with 2015’s “Making a Murderer,” and its success in the format since then had been significant.

Even as the documentary field has become crowded, PBS has grown its volume of offerings by staying true to its brand with a continued focus on science (“Nature,” “Nova”), history (the work of Ken Burns), social issues and current affairs. Longform investigative-journalism series “Frontline,” produced by WGBH Boston, has found a sizable audience on YouTube, where in the first six months of 2020 its full films have garnered more 20 million streams — with an average viewing time of 29 minutes per stream — up 4.1 million streams of full films in the last six months of 2019. Sixty-two percent of those watching “Frontline’s” content on YouTube are younger than 44 years old.

“Younger people are really hungry for this kind of fact-based, trusted journalism in this form,” says “Frontline” executive producer Raney Aronson. “And we found on YouTube a real hunger for our factual, long-form documentaries.”

American Portrait,” from production company Radical Media, has been a multiplatform initiative from the beginning. Developed for PBS’ 50th anniversary, the project gathers material through an online platform from viewers, presents that content in multiple forms online and curates it into broadcast documentaries about the way Americans live now. An “American Portrait” special on the coronavirus pandemic aired on PBS in May, and four documentary features are set for early next year.

“We assume everyone must have Netflix, that everyone must have Disney Plus, but not everyone can afford that,” says RadicalMedia CEO John Kamen. “Not everyone can even afford cable television. And that’s the beauty of PBS. It’s in 300 million homes and it’s free and community-based. The uniqueness of it is something we’ve always enjoyed, and the gifts that it’s given to the American public.”