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Documentary Filmmakers Turn Up the Heat on PBS; More from the Trenches

Documentary Filmmakers Turn Up the Heat on PBS; More from the Trenches

Don’t piss off documentary filmmakers. They are an activist bunch, by nature, and when they feel wronged, they band together and fight back. As Kartemquin Films’ Tim Horsburgh told me, while I was researching this recent Indiewire article (The PBS Debacle: Why a New Time Slot Spells Disaster For Indie Docs): “It’s incredible at how the documentary community be can be a collaborative force when it needs to be. In theory, we should be competing, for grants and for distribution, but it’s not like that. We’re all in this together.”

Kartemquin’s petition — which protests recent programming changes at PBS that have crippled long-running indie doc showcases Independent Lens and P.O.V. — continues to grow, and the site’s comments section has now become a forceful statement, in and of itself, with vociferous commentary from documentary luminaries such as Chuck Workman, Joan Churchill, Bill Moyers, Jennifer Fox, and others.

“Shame on you, PBS,” wrote Churchill. “That PBS would banish these two exemplary shows, leaving it up to program directors of local stations to choose to air (or not) the films shown on Independent Lens and POV, is truly scandalous.”

There are even supportive comments from film director Mary Harron and playwright John Patrick Shanley, who writes, “PBS is important to the national discourse. Don’t make it less important!”

The politics of the programming change is complex, likely to do with the financial health (or lack thereof) of public broadcasting, and its need to serve its older audience base, with the likes of Masterpiece Theatre like programs (“Downton Abbey”) and shows like “This Old House” and “Antique Roadshow.”

But for documentary filmmakers, PBS has become a necessary and vital platform. As Kartemquin’s Gordon Quinn explained to me:

“I’m always trying to make people understand that the biggest audience we’re ever going to have is that PBS broadcast. The theatrical audience is miniscule. It just helps build audience for the broadcast. In my mind, ‘Hoop Dreams’ was a theatrical success, but you can’t compare the audience that saw it in theaters with the broadcast. You can compare the money, but 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. PBS is free, and it’s huge in getting into rural areas. That reach, all over the country, it’s a critically important audience that’s vastly underserved.”

The doc programming also brings in much needed younger audiences to PBS, as I was increasingly told by producers and executives, which makes the downsizing of Independent Lens and P.O.V. bad not just for filmmakers, but the future of PBS.

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