What a difference a day makes. Last May, PBS announced that two of its popular independent documentary showcases, Independent Lens and POV, would move from their regular Tuesday nights into Thursday slots.
Ten months later, a time slot can look like a death sentence. As Current reported last week, this season of Independent Lens suffered a ratings plunge of 42%. Now prominent members of the documentary and creative communities are crying foul, condemning PBS for abandoning its core mission.
Chicago-based documentary company Kartemquin Films ("Hoop Dreams," "The Interrupters") published an open letter to PBS Friday decrying the change and laying out exactly why the scheduling shift is as good as banishment.
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.
With over 250 signatures as of Monday from the likes of D.A. Pennebaker, Alex Gibney, Rory Kennedy, Steve James, Bill Moyers, Laura Poitras and Jessica Yu, as well as support from Writers Guild of America East, the open letter has served as a focal point for members of the American documentary community who feel outraged that two of their most important and essential distribution avenues are being seriously threatened.
"[Tuesday] was an ideal slot for those series," said Kartemquin founder and artistic director Gordon Quinn, who has long campaigned for documentary filmmakers on issues ranging from funding to fair use.
In fact, the 10pm Tuesday slots were part of the shows’ identities: Independent Lens and POV have followed the popular Frontline for as long they’ve existed (10 years and 24 years, respectively).
"There's overlap in the audience," said Quinn. "We bring some of the Independent Lens audience to Frontline and vice versa, and the obvious connection was there. Thursday night is a problem. That's when the local stations program their own stuff. As a consequence, [the series] won't get programmed, or they won't get programmed at the same time."
According to ITVS senior exec Dennis Palmieri, New York and Los Angeles have broadcast several Independent Lens documentaries on Sunday nights at 11 p.m. or later.
Not only is this a problem for viewers who have grown accustomed to the Tuesday night slots (and don't want to stay up late), but many argue that such a change fragments the audience and lessens the potential "event" of a single screening time on a specific night.
"In an effort to keep us on the air, local stations have us all over the map," said Palmieri. "Sometimes within a timeframe of three weeks, which makes it incredibly difficult to marshal a premiere broadcast."
Added Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus ("The Farm," "Bobby Fischer Against the World"), "It's depressing. Independent Lens is one of the very few spots where you can get real audiences for your film, and having that slot marginalized is a problem."
For Quinn, losing access to a diverse public broadcasting audience is especially troubling. "In terms of having an audience in a democratic society, in terms of getting people talking about things, there's nothing like a PBS broadcast," he said. "And PBS is free, and it's huge in getting into rural areas. That reach, all over the country, is a critically important audience that's vastly underserved."
Trying to serve that audience becomes especially tricky if you can’t say when you’ll be serving them. Said Macky Alston, whose new documentary "Love Free or Die" is slated for this season's Independent Lens, “We're doing 500 community-based screenings and for all of them, we're taking the moment to say the broadcast is coming up, so we're making a promise to these folks." But Alston can’t say with any certainty where and when viewers can find it.
Many filmmakers view the scheduling deprioritization as reflecting a change in PBS strategy that favors programming like the British soap "Downton Abbey" and home improvement series like "This Old House" or its new upcoming "Antique Roadshow" spinoff "Market Wars."
Pat Aufderheide, director of American University’s Center for Social Media accused PBS of "just throwing [Independent Lens and POV] under the bus... the two programs that feature independent work must have looked like the most dispensable."
A PBS spokeperson said the broadcaster is currently working closely with ITVS and POV to look at possible scheduling changes for next year's season.
"As we evaluate the National Program Schedule as a whole, we’ll review the results of the year-round, weekly slot Thursdays at 10pm and consider other scheduling options for Fall 2012 and beyond," the spokesperson said in a statement. "We always work closely with our series producers. As we lock in the overall PBS schedule going forward, we will discuss options with Independent Lens and POV."
POV executive director Simon Kilmurry said they're currently conducting weekly meetings with PBS and ITVS "to explore how best to support indie docs within the schedule and to evaluate options moving forward."
While he admitted they still have "concerns about how the new schedule is affecting audiences," he is confident that PBS is looking for ways to either help the new Thursday slot work with further promotion and carriage or looking for another slot for them to succeed. "We're hopeful we can find a home that's as good as or better than Tuesdays at 10pm," he said.
"The goal is to come up with different solution that we can announce at the annual PBS meeting in May," says ITVS' Palmieri. "Now we're going to get in there and fight like hell."
Filmmakers hope their efforts succeed. Alston, for one, has some advice for the broadcaster. "PBS has been fighting for its life for a long time," he says. "And the way it's going to survive is not with 'Antique Roadshow' or 'Downton Abbey,' but by fighting for the critical content only it can provide. If they stop offering unique films, people are going to forget why it's worth supporting PBS at all."