The Mailbag: Discord Yields to Discussion

Posted by Michael Getler on

I finished putting this mailbag together on Monday afternoon. But literally minutes before it was to be posted, the contentious, internal issue within PBS—that was the subject of the posting—was resolved, at least temporarily. So, what to do? My solution was to convince myself that it was still a worthwhile story, deserving of being shared, and it even had some news.

The news came in a “joint statement from PBS, WNET, ITVS, Independent Lens and POV regarding independent film on THIRTEEN and WLIW21.”

The statement said: “WNET, PBS, ITVS, Independent Lens and POV are working together in partnership over the next four months to develop a national strategy to raise the profile for independent film on public television and to reinforce PBS as the home for indies. Together, we will be hosting a listening tour with independent filmmakers across the country to engage producers, stations and other stakeholders in the process. While these discussions are underway, WNET will continue its broadcast of Independent Lens at 10 PM on Mondays on THIRTEEN.”

WNET/THIRTEEN is the flagship PBS-member station in New York City and PBS’s biggest market. WLIW21 is its smaller, sister station based in Long Island, N.Y. ITVS is the outfit that seeks out independent films for PBS programs. Independent Lens and POV (Point of View) are two popular, long-running series of those independent films.

The controversy began to unfold in public last week when Current, the trade newspaper and online news site for public broadcasting, reported on a decision by WNET to switch these programs, beginning in January, from their current home on THIRTEEN on Monday evenings at 10 to WLIW21. The programs would then be repeated on THIRTEEN on Sunday evenings beginning at 11, which is immediately after the huge hit Downton Abbey but is also after the prime-time viewing hours. What has been the regular 10 p.m. slot for these programs on Monday nights for New Yorkers would be filled instead with repeats of PBS arts programming.

Current reported on concerns about the switch from ITVS, from a filmmaker’s organization, and quoted POV Executive Director Simon Kilmurry pointing out “WLIW has a much shorter reach and is not where people are used to looking for us.”

The controversy has produced a fair amount of coverage among other trade publications, including TV Guide and Realscreen. But the first, and most thorough, coverage of this situation appeared in Current on Dec. 18.

Almost three years ago, PBS also sought to change the schedule for these programs and was also met by resistance from independent filmmakers. The shows reportedly suffered a significant ratings drop as a result of the change and were eventually moved to the current Monday evening prime-time slot.

So, it is not surprising that what appeared to be another rather sudden change of viewing venue for these two series, both with devoted followers, stirred up some controversy and produced some letters to the ombudsman. The letters are posted below, followed by an earlier response from WNET’s top programming official, Stephen Segaller, that explained the initial decision to switch the programs and was provided toCurrent before the latest solution to put the changes on hold and discuss this matter further.

Here Are the Letters

I respectfully and urgently request that WNET return Independent Lens and companion series POV back to THIRTEEN at 10 p.m. Monday nights. Treat your audience and this nation’s independent and diverse voices with the respect they deserve from the public television they fund.

Marilyn Ness, New York, NY

~ ~ ~

I’m writing in response to the decision by WNET to move Independent Lens and POV from its primetime lineup and place them, instead, in a much less accessible late-night Sunday time slot on a station that serves a significantly smaller audience. The decision by WNET to present encore broadcasts of arts programming seems to be a simple kowtowing to market forces. It seems a shame that WNET and PBS have all too often forgotten their heritage: that they came to life to be vehicles for the public good and to pursue that mission IN THE FACE OF market forces.

As a retired magazine journalist and former employee of a PBS affiliate, I find it increasingly difficult to sing the praises of those I once considered “family” when I see those institutions preferring to court the almighty audience dollars while they marginalize the diverse voices in their broadcast lineup. At one time, diverse voices such as Independent Lens and POV would have been held up to great esteem. They are still viewed that way by thinking audiences members and by critics and journalistic organizations (witness the awards they continue to garner for PBS and affiliate stations). It’s a shame that the powers that be at WNET and PBS don’t share the feelings that the rest of us have for these much-needed series. I urge WNET to reverse its decision and return these documentary series to the primetime schedule on the flagship station, Thirteen. And I urge PBS to do all it can to effect that reversal.

Rick Clogher, Berkeley, CA

~ ~ ~

As a life-long New Yorker and an independent filmmaker, I cannot stress enough the value that having independent documentary film provides to the lives of millions of people. There is no doubt that these films need to be seen by masses of people during primary viewing hours, and without that support, they will be lost. There are countless times in my life when I've been in conversations with regular people who have seen documentaries on PBS that exposed them to new issues, ideas and ways of understanding their own experiences. It's a very cool thing to happen as a filmmaker - to know that people in my profession are making a difference to people who otherwise would never have heard stories from around the world. Unfortunately, most audience members really don't know that you need to hear their voice to understand this -- because all your messaging is about asking for money.  But as filmmakers, we feel the impact of our collective efforts. It will be a real quality of life crime if Independent Lens documentaries are taken out of the public spotlight of New York viewership.

Matthew Kohn, Brooklyn, NY

~ ~ ~

I am writing to express my deep disappointment that WNET has decided to move Independent Lens and POV off the established 10pm Monday Thirteen/WNET schedule. WNET has set the standard for good public television in the past; this move does not serve the public and sets a new low in your standards of quality television and marks a suppression of remarkable yet marginalized American voices and their audiences. These two series in particular are a premier platform for independent voices and diverse stories.

The announcement of this move came with no warning to the public or the independent community and only two weeks before the scheduled Independent Lens start date. WNET shows a lack of respect for the independent voices that richly contribute to the public discourse for which public television was created. This move also represents a careless dismissal of donors, foundations and institutions who have been dedicated to supporting the broader mission of public television for decades, and who have a profound understanding of the need to protect independent voices in public media.

WNET, return Independent Lens and companion series POV back to THIRTEEN at 10pm Monday nights. Treat your audience and this nation’s independent and diverse voices with the respect they deserve from the public television they fund.

Susan Mumpower-Spriggs, Atlanta, GA

Better Ways?

I strongly oppose the move of independent documentaries from their slot, creating a variance from the standard PBS schedule.  I have worked in broadcast programming and understand the pushes and pulls of different factors.  This is a case, however, where there are better ways to satisfy the multiple constraints. For example, if viewers consider some of the programming biased, offer a variety of programming featuring contrasting points of view -- to broaden and deepen the conversation. That's public broadcasting's job. Where else but PBS is there a safe space for people to experience their similarities and differences with those on the left and on the right, and find the complexity within themselves? That's public broadcasting's job. The real "moral majority" consists of those of us in the unheard, un-shrill middle, with commitments that straddle the divisions of the day. And we -- we are counting on you to provide stimulating content that nurtures the complex commitments that can lead the world past its current polarization.

Milwaukee, WI

~ ~ ~

Please keep Independent Lens and POV at their primetime Monday evening slot.

C. B., Larchmont, NY

~ ~ ~

As a viewer, supporter, and filmmaker, I'm sharing my feedback to the latest move of Independent Lens and POV from their regular time slot on WNET. Your annual campaigns beg us for money, promising to continue the important programming of Independent Lens and POV. Many of us found a way to scrape money from somewhere to support those award winning programs, because they've voice to so many for the first time. When you reached out to us, we were there! You need to honor your word, and restore the Independent Lens and POV programming that you committed to airing, if we would fund you. I'm hoping that an outcry from enough viewers of WNET will shift this unpopular decision.

Connie Bottinelli, Fort Myers, FL

Here Is the Earlier Response (to Current) from WNET’s Segaller

“I have been an independent film maker and have worked with independent film makers during my entire career at PBS. No one is more of a champion than me. However, we work with independent film makers to create all types of films for WNET through various program strands — Great PerformancesAmerican MastersNatureSecrets of the Dead and many others. And in every case we hope to put their work in the most advantageous possible place to attract the widest audience and the most attention. In this case, we simply want to schedule Independent Lens and POV in time slots where the series will have a chance of getting a still larger audience. And we hope the same thing for our Arts programming. We are now going to carry Independent Lens and POV on two stations instead of one, and we are scheduling it on the most-watched night (Sunday) and second most-watched night (Monday) following the most-watched series on PBS (Masterpiece) on both stations. It was a strategic decision that we believe will benefit both the series and independent filmmakers we so value — and we’ll review this plan in six months to evaluate how it’s doing."

Posted on Dec. 23, 2014 at 12:11 p.m.

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ABOUT THE OMBUDSMAN
As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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