The Future of Independent Film on PBS

Below is the blog post I wrote in advance of the February 23 PBS Listening Tour in NYC. I also wrote up my impressions of the event after the fact, along with some (fairly strongly worded) recommendations.

 

I’ll be attending a “listening tour” here in NYC this afternoon, inspired by local PBS station WNET‘s decision to give the indie film series POV and Independent Lens a less prominent place in its schedule. I’m looking forward to a rich discussion about the future of independent film on PBS. (I’ll be tweeting from the event over at @getgoodthings.)

For those who don’t know, I’m the former director of PBS.org (though it’s been a while – I left to start Good Things Consulting in 2006), and have consulted for a number of public media orgs over the years, including NPR, the now-defunct Integrated Media Association (where I wrote a column on public media innovation) and one of the indie film series in question, POV. When I worked at PBS, my favorite producers to work with were POV, the Independent Television Service (ITVS – which produces Independent Lens) and FRONTLINE/World  — all indie, all intensely creative and collaborative and passionate to leverage the storytelling potential of the web. 

It has frustrated me for years — first as a PBS employee, and subsequently as a passionate public media supporter — that PBS doesn’t “own” its relationship with indie film in a bigger way. By “own,” I mean, talk about it more, market it, play it up. Indie film is hip; so are documenatires. They’re popular with the smart, young audiences public media is always trying to attract. And PBS is sitting on this incredible story it could be telling about itself in a bigger, splashier way, because they have always been a huge outlet for indie film, both locally (at individual stations) and nationally. And when I say “nationally,” I don’t just mean the official indie film showcases of POV and Independent Lens | PBS— I also mean other signature series like FRONTLINE and American Experience, which rely on work by indie filmmakers. Indie film courses through PBS’s blood.

PBS is at Sundance every year. Why is that an obscure fact to the public?

If I were the queen of marketing at PBS, I’d be crowing about this indie film connection from the rooftops. I’d leverage it in my branding.

Reading about the brouhaha that prompted this listening tour, and reading coverage of said tour, it sounds so much like PBS — and its series producers — are stuck in thinking about content in a very old-school way. It’s all about when things air. I don’t know a single person — not people my age (nearing 40), not people my parents’ age, and certainly not people in their teens or 20s — who pay any attention at all to what time a thing originally airs. Everything is consumed via on-demand. It is ridiculously antiquated to be worrying about time slots. 

But I get it. It’s not about time slots in a literal sense, but a symbolic one. Because time slots signal importance. Downton Abbey sure doesn’t air at 11pm, but in many markets, POV (home to Oscar-winning documentaries) does. 

The real issue isn’t scheduling. It’s whether PBS will take more ownership of indie film as part of its brand, as a core part of its identity…and whether its stations will allow it to (PBS is a membership organization, for better or worse, it is nearly impossible for it to make a move without station buy-in). Which gets to an even bigger issue, which is: Who gets to decide what content PBS creates and distributes in 2015? Are they the right people? This isn’t an attack on anyone who currently works at PBS (I don’t even know who that would be) — it’s a larger question about how we program a truly public media. As I blogged once before:

I believe passionately that noncommercial media is essential to our democracy. But I think that if the government continues to fund PBS, NPR, local stations and other public media organizations, the programming process at these organizations must be overhauled. Executives in board rooms shouldn’t be the only ones with a say in what makes it to the airwaves — there should be more accountability, transparency and responsiveness in order for public media content to truly meet the needs of diverse Americans.

I hope this “listening tour” can spark constructive conversation on these real issues, and not just dwell on time slots. And I hope that local and national PBS executives emerge from these conversations and others like it with heightened awareness that (a) being associated with indie films and documentaries is good from a brand standpoint and good for reaching new audiences, and that (b) showcasing diverse and independent voices is essential to the mission of public media…and doing so may require new ways of doing business.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. And I’ll be sure to share post-event thoughts later this week. 

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