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The War on Indie Docs: After Surviving PBS Debacle, NEA Slashes Doc Program Funds More Than 60%

The War on Indie Docs: After Surviving PBS Debacle, NEA Slashes Doc Program Funds More Than 60%

I’m beginning to wonder if there’s a conspiracy afoot. After PBS’ highly controversial move to re-schedule its independent documentary shows, Independent Lens and POV, damaging their playability and reducing their audiences, here comes the news that the National Endowment of the Arts is stripping more than $1 million in federal aid from PBS shows, effective April 25, including drastic cuts for “Independent Lens” from $170,000 to $50,000, and at “POV,” from $250,000 to $100,000.

The two independent documentary strands are home to some of the best American nonfiction being made today, from Oscar nominees “Enron: The Smartest Guy in the Room,” “The Weather Underground” and “Waste Land” to this year’s “Hell and Back Again.” And the PBS exposure, is essential.

As I reported on the initial trouble with PBS, Kartemquin Films’ Gordon Quinn told me: “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.”

“We are hoping people will look at them and say they are way too severe,” WNET president Neal Shapiro told the New York Times, regarding the cuts.

Simon Kilmurry, executive director of  “POV,” called the proposed cuts “a huge surprise and a blow to how much we can support filmmakers, and it’s perplexing.”

Susan Sollins, executive director of Art21, said her organization would “have to scramble as a result” of the cuts, noting that other financial backers often take their cues from the N.E.A. in deciding what to support. But she said: “I don’t think it’s a fault on the N.E.A. side. I think it’s a fault on the Congressional side. The N.E.A. should be funded more amply so it could serve more people.” 

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