Imagining a New Way Forward for Indie Film on PBS and Beyond

This quote is often attributed to Lincoln. I'm not sure who said it...but I like it.

This quote is often attributed to Lincoln. I’m not sure who said it…but I like it.

This morning I saw Norman Lear’s op-ed in the New York Times in which he voices his concern that by giving documentary series P.O.V. and Independent Lens a less prominent place in the primetime schedule, PBS is moving away from its mission. While I share his passion for ensuring these films find a robust audience, I feel it is short-sighted to focus the conversation on the PBS primetime schedule rather than taking a more holistic look at what we could be doing to bring these films to the world. (This is a continuation of a topic I’ve explored before.)

Let’s start with where we agree. I agree that we need these films. We need them as a democracy. We need them, as Lear says, because they take on subjects too often ignored by commercial outlets. We need them because they show us diverse people and experiences that we can’t find in mainstream media, allowing our media to be more of a mirror for who we really are, and more of a gateway into a richer understanding of human experience. 

And I agree with Lear that “Freedom of expression is hollow if you can’t be seen or heard” — ie, if a film airs in a forest, does it change the world? — but here is where we differ, because I would argue that there are so many places to be seen and heard beyond primetime. Yes, PBS currently reaches more people via broadcast than via other methods. But PBS — and P.O.V., and Independent Lens — have no marketing budgets (or, at least, very paltry ones, compared to commercial counterparts). If they could afford to actually promote themselves, then where would their audiences be? The solution — the thing that will ensure the brightest future for these series — is to invest in marketing and varied distribution, rather than clinging to the old ways.

“Moving the films out of prime time means fewer reviews, and less publicity,” Lear writes. I understand that this is how things have traditonally worked, and that there are certain entrenched ways that writers at traditional outlets determine what to review. But taking a larger view, in 2015, something doesn’t need to have a primetime broadcast slot to generate interest. Just look at the popularity of Buzzfeed — which, incidentally, reaches more people via social networks than via its website, underscoring that the primary point of distribution is less and less important to overall impact, these days. Of course, an Independent Lens film is hardly the same thing as a listicle of cat pictures or whathaveyou, but the people behind Buzzfeed are interested in producing substantive content, too. Why not reach out to them for ideas about how to package, distribute and market these important films? Maybe it’s time for Buzzfeed TV, featuring a social issue docs hour. 

To be clear, I’m not saying that the answer lies with Buzzfeed, specifically — more generally, my point is that things without a primetime footprint generate buzz and audiences, each and every day, thanks to smart, strategic and creative marketing efforts that take content to audiences where they already are. Let’s get folks like nonprofit marketing expert Dan Pallotta on board to help strategize new ways for PBS to market its documentary offerings. I find it genuinely exciting to think about the possibilities. 

Look at an organization like TED. I’d say they’re having a huge social impact, and they certainly don’t have a primetime broadcast. What they do have are tons of distribution partners all over the world, from NPR to Japan’s NHK, who showcase their content in a way that is right for a given outlet’s functionality and audience. For example, TED has curated collections on Netflix — why couldn’t P.O.V. do the same? Maybe they’ve tried; I don’t know. But right now, if I find one P.O.V. film on Netflix, not only does it not point me to others — it doesn’t even tell me the film aired as part of P.O.V. 

Lear writes that giving independent films a less desirable slot in the primetime schedule “also threatens funding: When filmmakers apply for grants from foundations or philanthropies, the promise of a robust distribution platform is crucial.” I know that traditionally, funders have wanted films to have a primetime broadcast slot to reassure them of the potential for impact, but in recent years funders seem to be investing more in digital than in traditional broadcast. Still, some key funders do seem to be sending a message that primetime matters — here’s an excerpt from an article in Current:

To fulfill the charitable mission behind MacArthur’s media philanthropy, filmmakers must “do their best to distribute films free or at low cost to the largest number of viewers possible,” said Kathy Im, director of media, culture and special initiatives at MacArthur. “Public television is the best way to do that.” 

I applaud MacArthur’s commitment to bringing this important content to everyone, not just elite watchers of Netflix or HBO. But I caution them and funders with similar philosophies not to over-emphasize the importance of the primetime imprint. They will serve these films, and filmmakers, better in the long-run if they support filmmakers in lining up creative distribution and marketing to connect with audiences where they are…and, increasingly, as any trend report will tell you, “where they are” is not traditional broadcast. 

As someone who prefers these docs over PBS’s other offerings, it would be lovely if I could tune into PBS at 8 or 9pm any night of the week and see Independent Lens instead of Antiques Roadshow or Downton Abbey or the latest Ken Burns epic. That would tell me, loud and clear, that PBS was all about independent film, the way commercial networks are about sitcoms and police procedurals.

But PBS is a variety show and these films are only part of the package. Having POV air in primetime one night of the week doesn’t change the fact that the schedule is filled with all these other things that have nothing to do with “nonfiction films on challenging subjects.” Any given primetime slot is just a drop in a larger and quite varied bucket. And the truth is, more and more of us aren’t looking to primetime to make our content choices, and so in the broader universe, the challenge becomes helping me find these films no matter when I look, and no matter where I want to watch them. 

Look: As a writer and performer and passionate supporter of other artists, I hate how hard it is for filmmakers to get the funding they need to make these important films. I hate how hard it is for them to find an audience. I get their frustration, and Lear’s frustration, that this one outlet that is supposed to have their back no matter what, is putting an obstacle in their path. But I also deeply believe that the fervent effort going into protecting primetime is like putting a band-aid on someone with cancer. And since I know your time and energy are finite, and there are only so many battles you can fight, I implore you to instead channel your passion toward exploring new approaches. I truly believe a bright future is possible.

d love to hear your thoughts about all this. Also, what do you think about convening some truly diverse thinkers to imagine a strategy for the future? …opening up the conversations that have been happening on the PBS Listening Tour to include the likes of Pallotta, Buzzfeed’s Jonah Peretti…. who else? 

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