PBS’s NYC Listening Tour Yields Narrow Discussion of Independent Film’s Future

Yesterday I shared my thoughts in advance of the forum on the future of independent film on PBS; below, I share my impressions of the event, as well as my recommendations.

The sign outside the SVA Theater on 23rd St. in NYC welcoming us to the PBS Listening Tour

At yesterday’s PBS Listening Tour that was ostensibly devoted to the subject of the future of independent film on PBS, I spent two hours listening to independent filmmakers and PBS executives discuss scheduling.

At times I felt like I needed to pinch myself. Were we really having this conversation in 2015, a time when “watching TV” has become synonymous with binge-watching shows on Netflix or Amazon — when even Snapchat (yes, that thing your niece uses to send pictures to her tween friends) is getting into the content game?

“Content” is everywhere. As much as I hate it, Dove Soap is a content provider leading a campaign for social change. Buzzfeed and Contently (among others) are reinventing how sponsors support content in ways that you’d think public media might be paying attention to. But no. In public media land, the debate about whether a show will broadcast at 9pm or 10pm rages on.

In his opening remarks*, Simon Kilmurry of POV (one of PBS’s premiere indie film showcases) shared that a recent study showed that 80 percent of the viewing on PBS happens at the time of broadcast (given PBS’s extensive on-demand offerings this really surprises me — I am trying to track down a copy of the study). Kilmurry later clarified via Twitter that his intended message was that we need to “embrace & nurture new viewing patterns, but don’t forget digital transition is slower than people might know.”

(*This paragraph has been updated. An earlier version incorrectly stated that the study showed, more narrowly, that 80 percent of those who watched either POV or Independent Lens did so at the time of original broadcast. I apologize for the error, and also removed a paragraph below that was based on this mistake.)

In the distance, you can see the crowd lining up for a chance to share comments at the mic at the PBS Listening Tour in NYCThe crowd yesterday seemed to accept this study’s findings to mean that there is no legitimate way to reach diverse and historically under-served audiences other than via PBS broadcast.

Do we really think that ten years from now, we will be talking about appointment viewing? That it will matter whether something airs at 10pm on a Tuesday or 11pm on a Sunday? 

There’s just no way. Sure, in 2015, more people still see a television program via broadcast than via any other method — but the key data point to watch when planning a strategy isn’t just what people are doing today, it’s what they’re trending toward doing tomorrow, particularly because strategies aren’t enacted overnight. And according to Nielsen, streaming video is skyrocketing, and “with smartphones topping 70% penetration and tablets inching toward the 50% mark, the growth in digital consumption can only increase.” In addition, rather than being beholden to a schedule, people increasingly steer their own content discovery experience — making discovery (making it easy to find your content) just as important as distribution (being available in a particular place).

So to the passionate, brilliant people who were in that room yesterday, I say: Please, take a longer view. Don’t just plan for this year or next year. Plan for the future. 

Part of planning for the future is attracting younger audiences to public media. I was astonished that only one person mentioned Millennials during yesterday’s 2-hour forum. Do we really think today’s 20-year-old says to herself, “Ooh, gotta be home by 10pm so I can watch Independent Lens”? No way. Maybe, maybe, if it were a serial, and she wanted to be able to talk about the latest developments with her friends in real time…but a series of unrelated independent films? Why would she rearrange her life around that, when she can just Google any title or topic and find content of interest right away?

POV is one of the top showcases for independent film on PBSI appreciate being mindful that different demographics access TV programming in different ways, and that despite the major shifts in technology, not everyone has Netflix or a smartphone (though I note that streaming media growth is happening across a number of demographics, and Hispanics are 72% more likely to stream video than non-Hispanics). I deeply respect (and share) the desire to serve, literally, everyone. But I question: Is that realistic?

Please let that question sink in for a moment, and I would truly love to hear your responses:

Is it realistic to expect to serve, literally, everyone? 

Another one: Is scheduling the way to make something accessible to everyone? As Dan Palotta so persuasively argues in his TED talk, marketing is essential to any nonprofit organization’s ability to truly deliver on its mission. (Let’s engage Palotta in this discussion, eh?)

And — stick with me, here — considering the fact that local stations make independent programming decisions, is it rational to rely on them as the sole approach to universal accessibility? Writing this, I couldn’t help but think of libraries as part of the equation. What if there was a big push to partner with libraries to have a dedicated viewing kiosk that streamed PBS programming? 

Admittedly, there are — of course — nuances to all this. One big one is that, according to the folks I spoke to yesterday, a filmmaker still needs a big glossy primetime broadcast slot to attract support from funders. Over on the Media Impact Funders website, a blog post this morning notes that foundation leaders feel that “national broadcasts of independent docs serve as anchors and catalysts for impact campaigns around issues central to our democracy.” I don’t dismiss that out of hand — but I do question what, exactly, constitutes a “national broadcast” on PBS when PBS can’t ensure when stations will air a thing. I mean, having a celebrity spokesperson for an indie film would also be a catalyst for impact, but should every indie filmmaker be expected to achieve that? Or is it more responsible to explore avenues of impact that are more within an individual’s reasonable control — and that rely less on gatekeepers, and more on tools like social media. I mean, social media fuels revolutions — certainly, when strategically applied, it can get people to watch a film, and take action.

Independent Lens is one of the top showcases for independent film on PBSFunders, I implore you — do not equate a primetime PBS slot with the path to success. Adapt to the new ways that people find and consume media. Otherwise, your enormous resources are in many ways being used to hold back the films you ostensibly want to support. 

The goal, for many of the filmmakers traditionally drawn to PBS, is not just getting their films in front of as many people as possible. Those of us drawn to public media are passionate, earnest folk, and it’s not enough to make an astute, gut-wrenching, eye-opening film — we need to use that film to create social change. The goal, then, is impact — getting the film in front of diverse audiences, facilitating discussion, partnering with community organizations to use the film as part of education and outreach campaigns to create on-the-ground change. (If this interests you, check out Active Voice and its How Do We Know (If We’re Making a Difference) project, and look into the Media That Matters conference — see also my client Alison Byrne Fields’ excellent article, Films are Films: Measuring the Social Impact of Documentary Films.)

For so many years, the formula for creating this kind of change has relied on having the imprimatur of a POV or Independent Lens or PBS. They get behind your film, and funders and partners are more likely to take your calls, return your emails, RT your tweet.


But let’s take a closer look at that cache. That cache comes without cash (zing). As a filmmaker commented at yesterday’s event, “When my film airs on HBO, they pay for it; when it airs on PBS, I pay for it.” So…the filmmaker hustles and fundraises and pays their own way, in order to get the coveted PBS broadcast slot…which stations may or may not honor?

If I were a funder, I’d be more interested in ensuring a film’s placement on PBS.org (available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week — thoroughly indexed by Google — and, I assume/hope, mobile-friendly), than in the so-called PBS schedule — along with a strategic marketing campaign. If I could get it on Netflix and Amazon too, even better. For those without Internet access, I’d partner with libraries to arrange to have computers there set up to screen the film, and I’d make copies of the DVD available there, too. Maybe I’d partner with community organizations to distribute smartphones equipped to show the film. I’d also hope that stations would make the film available via broadcast, but I would not rely on that, or consider that the holy grail.

There are a lot of documentary film fans out there. Are we doing all we can to reach them?Yesterday a filmmaker stood at the mic and made an impassioned plea to WNET executive Steven Segaller to keep POV and Independent Lens easily accessible via the station’s channel 13 — instead of relegating it to their channel 21. “My mother doesn’t know how to find channel 21,” she said, echoing several other testimonies that by changing the time at which these shows aired, WNET was essentially sounding their death knell — and sending a big “fuck you” to members of the public who didn’t have cable. 

While I cannot contest that this filmmaker’s mother doesn’t know how to access channel 21, I am reminded of the outrage readers feel in the wake of a favorite website’s redesign (NPR’s Linda Holmes articulated this resistance nicely in the wake of an NPR.org redesign). We do not like change. We feel threatened by change. We feel abandoned by it.

This is not to say that Segaller is making the right move. It is just to say that if our collective goal is to get the beautiful, important films that these filmmakers are making in front of as many people as possible, clinging to a time slot strikes me as a very shortsighted approach.

In a blog post over at the Center for Media and Social Impact, the always astute Pat Aufderheide lays out six reasons that indie filmmakers still care if they’re on TV. It’s a persuasive case and an excellent read, but I do feel it ultimately argues the case that broadcast is essential today…not necessarily tomorrow…and that it falls into the trap of equating PBS airtime as the only or best way to reach diverse and even under-served audiences. She writes:

Independent filmmakers often make their work not just for audiences, but for the public, because it matters to what they do as citizens. And public broadcasting is widely trusted precisely because it makes a claim to serve the public, not just ratings or markets.

While I appreciate the distinction between audiences and the public, I think it’s ultimately insular and academic. Filmmakers want to reach people and create change. Doing so relies on strategic marketing efforts that are in tune with how people increasingly find and watch films — not the PBS imprimatur or that of POV or Independent Lens. Aufderheide herself says that her own study, conducted last month, found that 43% of the films that aired on POV and Independent Lens from 2012-2014 had “still had not found placement on either Netflix or Amazon Prime, the two main streaming services that accept independent work” — so it’s not like that brand association necessarily opens doors.

Crowdfund. Put your film on YouTube. Market it strategically. Partner with libraries. I’m not saying this is the one-size-fits-all solution; I’m not that arrogant, plus, I don’t believe in one-size-fits-all. And I’m not saying creating a robust strategy for independent film’s future with or without PBS will be easy or that it will always work. I’m just saying, there are possibilities outside the same-old framework.

The future will not be found in the primetime grid.

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2 thoughts on “PBS’s NYC Listening Tour Yields Narrow Discussion of Independent Film’s Future

  1. There was one giant thing I learned in the 15ish years that I worked at a PBS station that you hit on the head: this organization is terrified to change. 'But that's the way we've always done it," or "If we don't pledge, how will people give us money?" I heard over and over. Having the same fear of change apply to new media delivery doesn't surprise me.


  2. Jen: Most organizations are. Most people are. And I get that — I truly do. But I think what this process needs is an infusion of fresh thinking — of people outside the echo-chamber who can say, "But what if it looked like this?" – and get people excited about some new possibilities.


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