[NOTE: This piece was first published on September 8, 2015, at Medium. It was subsequently named a “Must-Read” by MediaShift, and shared on social media by Los Angeles Times TV columnist Robert Lloyd, San Francisco Chronicle theater critic Ellin Stein, Gideon’s Army director Dawn Porter, Ingrid Kopp of the Tribeca Film Institute, the Alliance of Women Directors, and film critic Anne Thompson, among others.]
Jonathan Demme’s new film Ricki and the Flash opened in theaters recently, and it’s yet another miraculous act by a director with a very rare gift for delivering the goods: it makes a literal rock star out of Meryl Streep. In 1991, though, he pulled off what is inarguably his most astonishing feat with The Silence of the Lambs. A critical darling and one of the highest-grossing films of that year, it also garnered all of the “Big Five” Oscars (Best Picture, Director, Actress, Actor, and Adapted Screenplay); launched a “Hard R”-rated franchise (the Hannibal Lecter series) that has, to date, raked in nearly a billion dollars worldwide; and left an instant, indelible mark on popular culture — one still felt almost a quarter of a century later as an acclaimed NBC drama that owes as much to Demme’s images and ideas as Thomas Harris’s source material comes to an end. As far as Hollywood success stories go, you really can’t do better than that.
So how did the director follow this unprecedented triumph? He immediately spent some of his incredible new cachet bringing a very different kind of movie to a mass audience: a deeply affecting, nonfiction passion project about his reunion with a long-lost cousin, the late Rev. Robert Wilkinson Castle. Among other things, the film documents some of Castle’s time as rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, a congregation serving mostly black and Latino parishioners in Harlem. It was there, the New York Times notes, that “he ran an energetic ministry in which spirituality and social action were indissolubly linked,” and this is exquisitely captured by Demme in his feature.
Cousin Bobby premiered at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival, and was effusively reviewed by many major critics. Despite all this, and the strength of Demme’s brand at the time, the film’s art-house run in the U.S. was limited and VHS release modest. If you’ve seen the first film the hot-as-a-pistol director of The Silence of the Lambs made coming off that phenomenon, you probably have the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) to thank — and, more specifically, their documentary series POV, which first aired the film in the fall of 1993.
POV exists for the purpose of broadcasting films like Cousin Bobby out to public television’s sizable viewership. The documentaries chosen for airing are selected for “their intimacy, their unforgettable storytelling and their timeliness, putting a human face on contemporary social issues.” PBS’s other documentary showcase, Independent Lens, similarly states that it “seeks to bring…rich stories to even wider, more diverse audiences, engage communities in conversations, and provide an authentic space for many voices.” Between the weighty questions raised by Rev. Castle’s prophetic politics, the images of everyday realities faced by New Yorkers of color, and the deeply personal nature of Demme’s exploration, Cousin Bobby is fairly representative of the documentaries shown on POV and Independent Lens to this day. Without these programs, such visionary and indispensable films of social importance would have much more difficulty being seen by the multitudes.
As reported on their website, POV is currently available to “over 97% of the American viewing public, with a cumulative audience average of 2.5 million per program.” Independent Lens also does very well by the films it features with its place on most of PBS’s more than 350 member stations. These are relatively huge numbers for documentary programming of this kind, making POV and Independent Lens essential venues not only for auteurs of Demme’s stature who work in both narrative and nonfiction, but also such titans of documentary cinema as Errol Morris, Michael Moore, Alex Gibney, Freida Lee Mock, D.A. Pennebaker, Michael Apted, Ross McElwee, Joshua Oppenheimer, Jon Alpert, and this year’s Academy Award winner Laura Poitras (Citizenfour) — all of whom have had films of theirs featured on one or both of the shows.
So imagine just how invaluable POV and Independent Lens are to up-and-comers and those from underrepresented communities. Emmy Award-nominated filmmaker Byron Hurt, for example, imagines what the television landscape would be like for him without Independent Lens (which aired his films Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes and Soul Food Junkies in 2006 and 2013, respectively): “I would no longer have a broadcast television platform where I was absolutely certain that I was going to have editorial control over my content, and would be able to make films about race and class and gender that would be valued and respected, and would not be watered down or diluted to fit the constraints of commercial television. It would place severe limitations on the kind of work I’d be permitted to make for broadcast. Independent Lens is one of the very rare spaces available for me to use my authentic voice as an African-American filmmaker.”
In fact, Independent Lens is a singular platform for diverse representation in documentary cinema. Pointing to findings from the Center for Media & Social Impact’s 2014 report Diversity in Documentary TV Programming in the United States: Comparing Public TV and Cable Networks, Tracy Nguyen-Chung, Director of Sponsorships and Marketing for the LA Asian Pacific Film Festival, notes that “30% of Independent Lens filmmakers are of color, compared to 13% on HBO and 0% on both CNN Films and ESPN Films. 25% of Independent Lens producers are of color, compared to 5% on HBO, 17% on CNN, and 6% on ESPN. 82% of leading characters in Independent Lens documentaries are of color, compared to 23% of HBO, 18% of CNN, and 63% of ESPN films.”
It was this salient point and others that independent documentary filmmakers and supporters of these programs asked leaders from PBS and elsewhere to consider earlier this year during a series of packed-house stops across the U.S. as part of the “Independent Film on PBS Listening Tour”. Representatives from PBS, POV, Independent Lens and its parent organization Independent Television Service (ITVS), WNET (PBS’s primary station and content provider), and Indie Caucus (a group of independent filmmakers who “believe in public media”) hosted this series of conversations in order to allow “local and national independent film organizations, public media advocates, educators and community leaders” to sound off about potentially devastating schedule changes for POV and Independent Lens. The trouble began in December of last year, when PBS announced suddenly that the two shows would move from Monday nights (the schedule’s second-best-rated time slot) on WNET (their highest-rated station) to the same time slot on the comparatively much-less-watched WLIW, with re-runs appearing on WNET at 11 p.m. on Sunday nights.
Though it sometimes seems that audiences are moving rapidly to watching television with the help of DVRs or online platforms, making time slots largely irrelevant, this is not necessarily the reality for everyone. “There is a movement away from viewing ‘by appointment’ [during a program’s scheduled time slot], though it’s slower than some people think it might be,” notes Simon Kilmurry, Executive Director of International Documentary Association (IDA) and former Executive Producer of POV. (Kilmurry stepped down to take over the leadership of IDA at the end of April, and his replacement at POV, Justine Nagan, was recently named.) “I think we’re still in a broadcast age, believe it or not,” says Sally Jo Fifer, President and CEO of ITVS. “80% of PBS viewers watch by appointment, and more than half of commercial television viewers watch by appointment as well.” Gordon Quinn, Artistic Director of Kartemquin Films, the Chicago-based production company behind such classic documentaries as Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters, puts it simply: “If broadcast weren’t so important, [WNET] wouldn’t [have tried] to take this very advantageous time for their [in-house] arts programming. The programming slots matter — that’s why people fight over them!”
Fifer also points out that audiences for Independent Lens are “more diverse, and include more people who make less than $40,000 per year” when compared to HBO, Amazon Prime, and Netflix subscribers. Independent filmmaker and former public television producer Jack Walsh, whose Feelings Are Facts: The Life of Yvonne Rainer premiered in the Documentary Panorama at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, adds, “There are more openings for filmmakers at places like HBO and Netflix, but PBS still has a larger audience reach than those entities right now. It’s technically free — if don’t have a cable hook-up or a dish, you can still get the channel if you have a TV. In some rural areas with no broadband and limited dish service, you might be left with ten channels to choose from: nine commercial outlets and PBS.” Quinn echoes these sentiments as well, drawing on his experiences with the inner-city Chicagoans who have been the subjects of many Kartemquin productions: “This myth that everybody has a cable box and internet access really needs to be challenged.”
Adding to the frustration of filmmakers and supporters of the shows, POV and Independent Lens fought a similar battle only a few years ago: in the fall of 2011, the shows were moved from Tuesday to Thursday nights, decimating their ratings. In an effort to mend fences, PBS eventually moved the shows again to the Monday night slot. Despite the fix, the cost of all the movement was not insignificant. As Quinn puts it, “To keep moving the shows is a problem. Every time you move a series, you lose viewers and have to start building again.”
In addition, such moves have a huge impacts on the lives of individual films: in a stinging op-ed for the New York Times, People for the American Way founder and All in the Family producer Norman Lear notes that these changes can mean “fewer reviews, and less publicity,” and also threats to funding since “grants from foundations or philanthropies” often depend on “the promise of a robust distribution platform.” Quinn adds: “We independents are sometimes building our audience six months to a year out, doing all this long-lead promotion. Sudden, unilateral decisions leave us in the lurch.”
Because the showcased films often focus on social problems, coordinated action campaigns can be adversely affected as well. As Fifer points out: “It’s not just the quality of the stories that’s at issue, but the quality of engagement with the public that these stories have. They have a long tail with educators, community organizers, and NGOs. That’s what we would be losing if we lose that primetime primary [spot]. We would be losing some of the financing, the press, and the strategy that gets used in the long-tail work of educating the public about very important issues and stories that come from underserved spaces.”
Things get complicated when considering the nature of the venerable public television organization at the center of all this, however. “PBS is a strange beast,” says Kilmurry. “It’s a membership organization made up of three-hundred-plus independent, local stations that pay dues to access the programming that PBS provides. They also value their independence, understandably, and that independence includes control over their schedule.” There is a problem with this independence, though, as critic Andrew Lapin observed in an impassioned essay for The Dissolve: despite PBS’s recommendation that its participating stations air the shows in their Monday night time slot, “increasingly, each station has found more valuable properties to air during those timeslots — usually shows with more appeal to the elderly viewers who plunk down dollars at pledge time.” As the filmmakers and supporters see it, the solution here would be to make the shows “common carriage,” which would require participating stations to air the shows on Monday night. Kilmurry affirms the importance of local station’s independence, but adds, “At the same time, there has to be an examination of how we are servicing our publics. How are we telling their stories? How are we reflecting the diversity within our communities?”
The sticking point in the common carriage conversation would seem to be the ratings of POV and Independent Lens: while their numbers are phenomenal for documentary showcases on television, the shows’ viewerships are low by the standards of common carriage content. For example, Antiques Roadshow, on the air since 1997, is nonetheless garnering its highest audience numbers in ten years, with its first episode of this season watched by an impressive 11.6 million viewers. In addition, Downton Abbey’s fifth season premiere from earlier this year was seen by 10.1 million viewers — only a bit less than watched the fourth season premiere, which was “the highest rated drama debut in PBS’s history.” Even other kinds of documentary programming have been ratings monsters for the network: this past fall’s premiere episode of The Roosevelts, Ken Burns’ latest opus, was seen by a remarkable 11.7 million viewers. With PBS dependent for its very life on viewer support, the more common carriage programming that can be offered to draw in huge and potentially beneficent audiences like these the better.
On their website, PBS lists its funding sources as “member stations’ dues, the [government-created/funded] Corporation for Public Broadcasting, government agencies, foundations, corporations, and private citizens.” For much of public television’s history, though, government support has been precarious: as the Los Angeles Times put it in their coverage of Mitt Romney’s infamous presidential campaign threats to PBS’s funding, “since at least the mid-1990s, government sudsidization of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has been a perennial front in the culture wars.” This has led to increased reliance on donations, so the more eyeballs on public broadcasting as often as possible the better. PBS’s priorities, then, are in some ways not so dissimilar from those of commercial networks; the enterprise has to remain viable — and that hasn’t always been easy. “While my heart is with the documentary filmmakers, my head understands that PBS is in dire need of support considering the erosion of government funding in recent years,” says Dave Bussan, an associate professor in the Department of Cinema at Denison University, whose new documentary The Gospel According to Charlie screens in October at the NYC Independent Film Festival.
That said, PBS has certain unique responsibilities that mean it can’t just make decisions based on the bottom line — in fact, it was born to be socially responsible above all else. In 1961, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Newton S. Minow, in a now-famous speech to the convention of the National Association of Broadcasters, referred to commercial television as “a vast wasteland,” stating “in a time of peril and opportunity, the old complacent, unbalanced fare of action-adventure and situation comedies is simply not good enough.” Within six years of Minow’s speech, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), and later PBS and National Public Radio (NPR). It also endows the public airwaves with special duties; among other things, the law asserts that “it furthers the general welfare to encourage public telecommunications services which will be responsive to the interests of people both in particular localities and throughout the United States, which will constitute an expression of diversity and excellence, and which will constitute a source of alternative telecommunications services for all the citizens of the nation,” and “it is in the public interest to encourage the development of programming that involves creative risks and that addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly children and minorities.” PBS, then, has other priorities that set it very much apart from the commercial networks.
Competing priorities mean that everyone involved in this conversation has to be prepared to make concessions. But at what point do things go beyond necessary compromise to the point of subverting public television’s mandate? We seem to have arrived at an especially problematic place when the President of the United States appears on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, as he did right before the host’s departure, lamenting that “it is very hard now” to get “the entire nation’s attention focused” on “an hour-long special” or “classic documentaries.” It sure shouldn’t be, and it will certainly get harder if POV and Independent Lens get scuttled.
Perhaps recognizing this, PBS announced at the end of April, right after the conclusion of the listening tour, a “new strategy to increase visibility of independent film on PBS and its affiliates.” Among the highlights of the new strategy: POV and Independent Lens will keep their Monday night time slot after all; PBS will create programming events and new digital initiatives to help grow the audience; and, in order to support the documentary culture, PBS will offer a non-credit college course on documentary filmmaking, re-launch their independent film website, and give even more support to the theatrical and online distribution of new films.
There is one big catch, though: as Variety reported in their coverage of the decision, PBS has only committed to keeping POV and Independent Lens in prime time for another year. This means the shows and the filmmakers could soon be right back to square one. Even with PBS’s push, the reality is that these shows still might not be able to perform at the level of Downton Abbey or Antiques Roadshow. Consider the state of theatrically released documentaries: even the most phenomenally successful of the lot haven’t been able to compete financially with the crowd-pleasers. The highest-grossing documentary in U.S. history, Michael Moore’s 2004 anti-Bush fulmination Fahrenheit 9/11, netted $119,194,771 in 2,011 theaters. For scale, compare that with the same summer’s biggest hit, Shrek 2, which grossed $441,226,247 and was in 4,223 theaters at its height. Documentaries have historically commanded a comparatively limited audience, so this leaves PBS with an important question: how much prime real estate is the broadcaster/distributor willing to devote to programs that fulfill the mission of public television with aplomb but don’t necessarily shatter ratings records?
Of course, it’s also a moment of self-reflection for audiences: another of PBS’s crown-jewels, the children’s show Sesame Street, just announced that it will begin airing on HBO, with reruns to appear on public broadcasting nine months later. However necessary the move, it is still troubling to many, including PBS’s ombudsman. The show has always shown special attention to underprivileged viewers, and a recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that it has been “the largest and least-costly [early childhood] intervention that’s ever been implemented” in the United States. Creating a viewer hierarchy that gives children in homes with pay cable a nine-month jump on poorer children just doesn’t seem like something Big Bird would do. Writing about the show’s move for the Washington Post, though, Alyssa Rosenberg was blunt: “This may not be the outcome that we want. But it’s the outcome we were willing to pay for.” Viewers just didn’t step up to the plate with donations to support the show and keep it 100% public.
Any move away from PBS would have grim consequences for POV and Independent Lens. In addition to shrinking their audience size and reach, there would be the pressures that come with negotiating corporate media culture. “When I was [a student] at CalArts back in the mid-eighties, Gene Youngblood preached how cable TV would open up vast venues for independent filmmakers,” says Bussan. “Unfortunately, his vision did not perceive that these new ‘networks’ would be beholden to corporate America just like, say, CBS.”
Indeed, even those filmmakers currently finding distribution outside of PBS are worried about what they see. “I feel we live in an incredible time for documentaries, when these works of art can be at the center of public discourse the way Citizenfour and HBO’s The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst have been recently,” says Brent E. Huffman, an assistant professor at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University, and director of Kartemquin’s new co-production Saving Mes Aynak, which was recently televised by Al Jazeera America. “At the same time, I am so troubled about the future of documentaries on PBS — a free-to-view, commercial-free, bias-free venue where docs should and always have thrived.” Ashley York, co-director of Tig, a new documentary about comedian and cancer survivor Tig Notaro, which is currently streaming on Netflix, adds, “The spirit of public media is that it promotes diversity, tolerance, and inclusion in our society. Independent Lens and POV are vital distribution outlets for independent filmmakers. It’s absolutely necessary for these outlets to exist for filmmakers to share their work with rich and diverse audiences across America, and they must be held in the highest regard in every respect.”
If POV and Independent Lens are going to survive in their present form, they first need people to tune in and watch. It’s as simple as that — and that’s not a difficult proposition when you consider the quality of the documentaries being shown: Independent Lens opened their season with Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Trago’s Rich Hill, which won the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize last year, and POV’s current line-up includes Jesse Moss’s The Overnighters, one of the best reviewed films of 2014. The shows will also need the support of viewers — financial or otherwise. As Quinn says, “Stations want to know that their local community is watching and that the programming is important to them.”
Filmmakers will always have other options for distribution, but the immense, open platform offered by public television is crucial for certain kinds of work. Demme, for instance, has worked steadily as a documentarian outside of PBS, but returned to POV in 2012 with the stunning I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad, and the Beautiful. The film chronicles his friendship with the eponymous New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward resident and community activist. Watching over the director’s shoulder as she gives him a personal tour of hurricane devastation, and at a public hearing as she gives former mayor Ray Nagin a piece of her mind, the viewer comes away exceptionally glad to have met Carolyn Parker. Without making her acquaintance, crucial aspects of New Orleans’ post-Katrina story would likely have eluded many of us. Without POV and Independent Lens, where else would so many of us have the opportunity to meet Carolyn Parker, Rev. Robert Castle, and others like them? Would we even be able to meet them at all? And where would we be then?