PBS reschedules

Treaty puts indie films in Monday slot

By Dru Sefton

United front: PBS programmer Donald Thoms joins toast with indie crew at reception marking POV’s 25th anniversary and Indie Lens’s 10th. From left: Thoms, Indie Lens producer Lois Vossen, POV’s Cynthia Lopez, ITVS director Sally Jo Fifer and POV’s Simon Kilmurry. (Photo: Martin Allred, PBS.)

Independent Lens and POV, the PBS series at the center of a dispute about public TV’s commitment to independent film, are moving to Monday nights, PBS’s highest-rated evening.

The schedule change, which takes effect Oct. 29, will be the second in a year for the documentary showcases. After PBS uprooted the indie-film shows from their longtime Tuesday timeslot last October, audiences and station carriage dwindled in the new Thursday-night spot (Current, March 12).

The move to Mondays at 10 p.m. Eastern time puts the shows in a strong position to begin winning viewers back. Ratings powerhouse Antiques Roadshow leads PBS primetime on Mondays, and PBS plans to heavily promote Market Warriors, a new series set for 9 p.m. that will become the lead-in for indie films.

Ratings for Mondays in Nielsen-metered markets scored 42 percent above the PBS primetime average of 1.09 last fall, according to audience analysis firm TRAC Media Services. Thursday night ratings, by contrast, scored 24 percent below the average.

Independent Lens has languished in its Thursday timeslot, its ratings plunging more than 40 percent at one point below the previous season’s.

“We certainly can’t deliver a better lead-in than what we’ve been seeing on Mondays,” said John Wilson, chief programmer for PBS. Although Market Warriors is still an “unknown commodity,” he added, “we have fingers crossed that it’s the same audience profile as Antiques Roadshow, and more fingers crossed that it’s the same audience size.”

Lois Vossen, Independent Lens series producer, said staffers are already thinking of creative ways to take advantage of the lead-ins, which are expected to deliver “a wide, diverse audience. We’re an anthology series, with wide, diverse programming. So there are similarities for us to tap into.”

Simon Kilmurry, executive director of POV, which occupies the Independent Lens time slot in the summer, was pleased with the outcome. “During our conversations with PBS, we spent a lot of time looking at options, doing research, and ultimately everyone was happy where we ended up,” he told Current. “Hopefully, our audience and filmmakers will be happy, too.”

Sally Jo Fifer, president of the Independent Television Service and executive producer of Independent Lens, said: “By broadcasting indies’ mission-focused stories on Monday nights, we hope that more PBS viewers will have the opportunity to engage in the community and educational activities that independent films inspire.”

As part of the new scheduling plan, PBS and producers also agreed to create a multiplatform film festival for mid-2013 to showcase independent producers. “Much like we’ve done with the PBS Arts Festivals,” Wilson said, “we’ll use the film festival to shine a brighter light on independent work.”

The outcome is the result of months of high-level negotiations among representatives from PBS, POV and ITVS. Talks intensified after Chicago-based documentary house Kartemquin Films (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters) circulated an open letter online on March 15 expressing concern to PBS about the Thursday timeslot. Among more than 1,000 signatories were veteran newsman Bill Moyers, activist Michael Moore and Oscar winners Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side) and Barbara Kopple (Harlan County). Drawing on that support, Kartemquin established a permanent PBS Needs Indies Steering Committee, in partnership with the International Documentary Association, to work as a liaison between filmmakers and PBS.

Gordon Quinn, a founder of Kartemquin, reacted to the new schedule in the statement from PBS: “We are happy that PBS has chosen this exciting way forward and we stand ready to support the new strategy and PBS in every way we can.”

Producers of both shows are especially eager to secure Monday-night carriage in Los Angeles and New York, two centers for independent filmmaking. Mel Rogers, president of PBS SoCal, endorsed the schedule change. “As the flagship PBS station in the market most known for film of all types,” Rogers told Current, “we are pleased to be airing Independent Lens and POV on feed at 10 p.m. on Monday nights. PBS SoCal loves independent film and the community that fosters it.”

WNET in New York hasn’t committed to airing the shows on Mondays because it hasn’t finalized its fall schedule. “We’re exploring our scheduling options,” said Kellie Specter, spokesperson.

EARLIER STORIES

PBS goes for the flow among history-related programs on Tuesdays, attempting to retain viewers from one program to the next.

Indie docs lose viewers and carriage as PBS moves them to Thursdays, March 2012

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