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Series Producer Lois Vossen Talks The New Season of ‘Independent Lens’ and the Current Conversation About Donors and Public Broadcasting

Series Producer Lois Vossen Talks The New Season of 'Independent Lens' and the Current Conversation About Donors and Public Broadcasting

PBS documentary series “Independent Lensannounced its fall line-up today, so Indiewire hopped on the phone with founding and series producer Lois Vossen at ITVS to talk about the new season, the films, balancing well-known titles like “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” with ones from emerging talent and ITVS being in the news recently following the organization’s decision to pull funding from the doc “Citizen Koch.” 

READ MORE: Independent Lens’ Fall Season Includes ‘Don’t Stop Believin’,’ ‘How to Survive a Plague,’ ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’

Last we spoke, “Independent Lens” had just made the move to Monday nights. How has that that been working out after a year in that slot?

It’s been for us working out wonderfully — our viewership has been bumped not to where it was previously when we were on Tuesdays, but we’re actually higher. We have our all time highest viewership, which has been an incredible, remarkable turnaround, and we have routinely one million to two million viewers for all of our films — so we are absolutely thrilled with our Monday night timeslot.

What do you think it is about Mondays that is so suited to nonfiction films? HBO has also embraced Monday nights for their docs.

We wanted back on what’s considered the primetime schedule — Sunday, Monday, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are nights that PBS programs more stations, then stations have Thursday night and the weekend to do their own scheduling, so they show a lot of local programing. That was what was problematic about Thursday night — it’s a big night for local stations, they might have things they produced themselves or a tradition to air Britcoms. It was very difficult for stations to program us on Thursday nights because they already had programming that was working for them.

So the move to Monday put us right smack back on the PBS primetime schedule, and that increased our carriage in terms of the number of stations showing us at the same time, allowing us to get a lot more national press because we didn’t have the “check local listings” issue. We have this great lead in with “Antiques Roadshow” and also people just watch a lot of television on Monday nights. We had what I think is a pretty remarkable season. We were thrilled to have nearly two million viewers for films like “The Invisible War.”

This years kicks off with “Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey,” which is a real crowd-pleasing doc. What is it about the film made you want to start the season with it?

PBS is doing an Indies Showcase — a four-week stunt where they are taking two films from “Independent Lens” and two films from “POV” to demonstrate to the viewers their commitment to independent films. I was working with Simon Kilmurry, my college at “POV,” to find four films that we felt represented the range of what the two series bring to PBS and to our audiences. I specifically wanted films that showcased diversity, which is of course our core mission and mandate. It was an incredible opportunity to showcase our mission and how these stories are front and center of what our society is.

“Don’t Stop Believin'” is obviously about a band that most of us know and a song most of us are familiar with, but it has this great story, from Arnel’s journey from Manila to the United States and what it means to come here. We like to talk about it as this Cinderella story. It’s a very unique way to talk about immigration and cultural differences. It may not on first brush seem like the most obvious “Independent Lens” film but it actually is in keeping with the kind of films we show.

You have some other high profile docs in the lineup, like “How to Survive a Plague” and “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” Are there any that may be new to people that you would like to call out to give them some added attention?

It’s always hard to pick one or two. I might highlight “The State of Arizona” which is coming in January, which is a remarkable film that looks at SB1070, the bill in Arizona, which has been a national story in terms of whether it was leading the charge in immigration discussion or if it was not. It really looks at the issue from all sides. We meet the people who sponsored the bill and people who are affected the bill and citizens of Arizona on both sides of the topic. I believe it will spur conversations and bring people from all sides of that discussion to the table because the filmmakers really spent a lot of time in Arizona, and in fact, went back and went back again and waited until the Supreme Court decision. It really is a very deep dive.

We are thrilled to have “Spies of Mississippi,” another film in our continuing legacy of looking at the Civil Rights Movement from different angles and telling new stories that people have never heard of. In this case, most people are not aware that the state of Mississippi had a sovereign commission and was actually paying African Americans to spy on other African Americans who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement. To my knowledge the first film on that subject matter. And “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” is another great film which is just beginning its theatrical run and obviously looks at Ali’s life when he lost the title and converted to Islam and was up for the draft in Vietnam but refused to go.

This will be the 12th season of “Independent Lens” — how do you see the series as having changed or evolved over the years?

I do feel we have evolved and continually evolve. One of the things that I’m very focused on is our mission to bring diversity and these untold stories, but also, because we are the largest showcase for independent films on television and we have a nine-month season, we very much try to bring programing that we know will speak to viewers over that long season.

We are able to bring in films like “Muscle Shoals” that are still social issue documentaries but have a broader appeal because we are looking to program year round. We also evolved in the number of programs we feature online. So we are trying to find our viewers and serve our audience both on air and online. And we’re involved with more films earlier — working with films from R&D through production through broadcast. So there been a number of different areas where the series has grown up and matured.

You’re going into this season with more media scrutiny due to the New Yorker story about “Citizen Koch.”  I was curious as to what conversations that’s brought up in terms of “Independent Lens.”

It hasn’t impacted the work we do; we’ve always been a series that has welcomed films that are challenging, films that cover important social issues. I’m trying to think if it even has come up in conversations. We continue to welcome films that are really creating and pushing conversations forwards, and we always had a mandate in terms of presenting and supporting those films. I think our current slate speaks to the fact that we are still doing that. 

It does seem to speak to larger conversation to do with public broadcasting in general, as there is less federal funding available and more of a reliance on donors. Is that something that’s talked about on your end?

I think they are great questions, and the discussion of how big money influences politics or how big money influences anything is a really great topic and we encourage that conversation very much. I know there are other film being made that look at those issues and I can’t wait to see those films, to see if any of those are appropriate for “Independent Lens.” There is no big donor support supporting us. We don’t have any connection or link to that world, directly.

I think it’s more of a conversation that is happening in terms of media in general, both public and commercial television and perhaps stations who might or might not be closely involved in that, but we never had at Independent Lens any donors for that matter. We have not had corporate sponsorship.

It’s one that we are seeing on the commercial side as well, certainly with ESPN and “Frontline” recently. 

Exactly. I think there will be more and more instances, and it is a complicated issue. Public television has always been traditionally underfunded, but I know my colleagues at PBS and I’m confident that all of us feel strongly that our job is to present great stories that look at these issues in a thoughtful way. I don’t think we are going to shy away — I know we are all committed to presenting those stories when we have a great documentary that can present the information in a way that’s compelling and allows a lot of people into a conversation. But with that said, there is certainly a larger conversation that needs to continue.

Are there films in the current lineup that you feel are representative of conversations that push the edge, maybe not the one in question, but that raise particularly potentially divisive issues?

Yeah — I don’t think it is my job to signal which shows which I think are going to be pushing every conversation. I honestly try and present every show that you will be engaged with on some level. But if I look at the current slate there certainly are films that I know from their festival release or from the screenings that they have had that they certainly bring up topics. “The New Black” is a wonderful film that looks at the issue of the civil rights movement and the intersection with the lesbian gay marriage equality movement, and I think there is a really interesting conversation there that’s happening that the film crystallizes in an important way.

“God Loves Uganda” is similar, although the topic is based in Uganda, but again it’s about civil rights and how those civil rights are determined. Even if you look at a film like “The Trials of Muhammad Ali,” you enter a conversation about how religion affects public image and what people put on the line at times to stand by their principles. And while that may not seem controversial now, it was hugely controversial when it happened.

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