March 15, 2012
The following is an open letter to PBS. We encourage all independent filmmakers and fans of public media to join us as signatories by commenting below, or emailing us at PBSNeedsIndies@kartemquin.com, or tweet #PBSNeedsIndies to us on Twitter.
Kartemquin has a long history of supporting public broadcasting, and we feel we must again rise to the challenge in raising our concern, and hopefully awareness and action, over the issues below.
As independent filmmakers, as participants in the evolution of public broadcasting, as viewers and as citizens, we protest PBS’ decision to move the two premier strands of independent documentaries, Independent Lens and POV, from their established home on Tuesday nights to Thursday, a night on which local stations program locally-selected material.
We saw the change in the programming to Thursday night and were concerned about the effect it would have on the ratings. As filmmakers, we are acutely aware of the importance of program placement in a broadcast schedule. With the publishing of the March 12, 2012 article by Dru Sefton in Current magazine, we have now seen documented the dramatic effects of this shift, and that our fears were realized. We cannot wait any longer to signal our concern.
PBS’s programming decision has, effectively, moved these two award-winning series off the main schedule, by leaving it up to stations to program them on their own, on perhaps the most competitive night of the TV week. Both series have carved out a trusted relationship with audiences on Tuesday nights. PBS’ John Wilson has acknowledged that Thursday, a local-programming night, is a “no-fly zone” for PBS programs. Asking stations to drop programming among the most popular with their members is unreasonable.
Public television is not just a popularity contest, or a ratings game. Taxpayers support public broadcasting because democracy needs more than commercial media’s business models can provide. PBS’ programming decision makes a statement about PBS’ commitment to the mission of public broadcasting. We note the definition in the recently-revised and reissued Code of Editorial Integrity for Local Public Media Organizations:
“Our purposes are to support a strong civil society, increase cultural access and knowledge, extend public education, and strengthen community life through electronic media and related community activities.”
These are the stations that PBS serves. These are the stations that are well-served by well-crafted, well-told stories about underrepresented topics, meeting needs of underserved audiences in innovative ways. These are the stations that benefit from community activities related to the strands, such as ITVS’s Community Cinema and LINCS programs. These are the stations that benefit from IL and POV’s constant technological innovation and experiment in engagement. And these are the stations that need to cultivate younger and more diverse audiences, the kind that can be attracted by the innovative, diverse films in these series.
Films such as Where Soldiers Come From, Heather Courtney’s film about Michigan reservists’ journey to Iraq and back; Chris Paine’s Revenge of the Electric Car, about a crucial energy issue; Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock, which revives the memory of the civil rights activist, and was directed by Sharon La Cruise; and Connie Field’s Have You Heard from Johannesburg?, about the history of apartheid, serve important functions at a local and national level, reaching underserved audiences, providing both perspectives and information unavailable in the marketplace, and doing so with expert craft. They serve a critical function in the public broadcasting ecology. They serve the democratic mission of public broadcasting.
We recognize the importance of public broadcasting. We have been able to reach national audiences with significant work, and we have seen meaningful democratic engagement as a result. For instance, when In the Family showed on POV, with a multiplatform campaign, legislation was pending on genetic non-discrimination. The broadcast fostered productive conversations across the nation about the consequences of that discrimination in people’s lives. The showing of Lioness on Independent Lens fostered a broad public discussion of the rights of women veterans who had experienced combat, and was instrumental in the passage of legislation, named for the film, winning these veterans the right to Veterans Administration benefits. The showing of Farmingville on POV fostered deeper, more complex and thoughtful public discussions, both online and in person, on the effect of immigration on local communities. We are deeply concerned that PBS’ poorly-considered decision could jeopardize both the meeting of public broadcasting’s mission and also stifle the innovation that is crucial to the future of public broadcasting.
James Spione (James Spione)
James W. Donaldson
Copyright 2012 American University