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Thursday, April 17, 2014
PBS Ombudsman

Independent Lens Brings a Focus on PBS

This comes under the heading of "nobody asked me, but . . ."

Viewers have not written to me about recent scheduling changes that affect two major, long-running PBS series of independent documentary films — Independent Lens and POV, which stands for point of view. But the changes and the controversy they have stirred are getting a fair amount of attention in the press, at least in those segments that pay close attention to public broadcasting, within PBS and among independent filmmakers. So that makes it seem worthwhile for me to record the issues for readers of this column.

The changes amount to shifting both programs to Thursday nights at 10 from what had been their usual weekly prime-time spot on Tuesday nights at 10. The Independent Lens series, which usually presents about two dozen films, started its season on the new schedule in October. POV will take over that time slot in June when its new season begins. It typically airs 14-16 films.

So, What's the Big Deal?

Critics point to several factors. They are all complicated, but they are simplified here for purposes of concision.

One is that the audience for the first series to be switched to its new time slot, Independent Lens, is, so far, well below last year. The numbers differ slightly in various news accounts, as you will see below, but all are down significantly. PBS officials also offer explanations and some updated numbers.

That slippage is, in part, because Thursday night traditionally has been scheduled more heavily in many cities as the time for local programming, which is very important for many station managers. So the new schedule now reportedly makes it harder to schedule local programming, which public broadcasting is pledged to support, and also pits it against these independent, nationally-distributed film series.

Another reported factor is that these sometimes edgy films are now more easily bumped out of prime time altogether, diminishing PBS's commitment to bringing diverse points of view to its audience in favor, critics suggest, of programs that are more broadly pleasing to general audiences and produce higher ratings, even though non-commercial PBS is meant to be immune from ratings.

Pushing Around a Heavy-Weight

And one other factor is that the rescheduling has pushed the highly-regarded Frontline investigative series later into the prime-time hours of Tuesday evenings. I asked Frontline officials about the impact of this and they said: "Frontline was moved from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. in December because of a programming schedule decision by PBS. We regret that POV and Independent Lens have lost their slot. We believe that the mission of independent filmmaking is an important contribution to public broadcasting, and trust that programmers will do well by both series."

In the Spotlight

The problems were first reported by Current, a print and online news publication for public media. After that report, hundreds of independent filmmakers and supporters signed a petition to PBS protesting the decision to move these two programs. Then The New York Times added additional reporting and cast a national spotlight on the dispute.

PBS has also reacted, saying it is "fully committed to independent film and the diversity of content they provide," that they will review the results of this first year "and consider other scheduling options for Fall 2012 and beyond." So the future does not yet seem cast in stone.

Here is how the issue was cast in the leads of the news reports.

From Current: "The shift of Independent Lens from Tuesdays to Thursdays this season has created ratings and carriage woes for the indie-doc showcase and highlighted two often-conflicting objectives of programmers: winning larger audiences by serving highly valued loyal viewers, and getting more diverse and sometimes daring programming into the public TV lineup. The 42 percent drop in ratings this season over last has prompted ongoing high-level negotiations between the Independent Television Service (ITVS), which strives to bring diverse voices into the schedule, and PBS, which is reworking its primetime lineup to retain audience from one show to the next."

From the Times: ". . . the prime-time schedule for PBS this television season has, in the eyes of some, effectively marginalized its two award-winning independent film series: 'Independent Lens,' which started its new season last October, and 'POV,' which will begin new episodes June 21. After being bumped from Tuesday nights to a hodgepodge of time slots, 'Independent Lens' has lost 39 percent of its average audience for new episodes this season, compared with a year ago, according to Nielsen ratings provided by ITVS, which produces the series."

From the filmmakers: "As independent filmmakers, as participants in the evolution of public broadcasting, as viewers and as citizens, we protest PBS' decision to move the two premier strands of independent documentaries, Independent Lens and POV, from their established home on Tuesday nights to Thursday, a night on which local stations program locally-selected material."

Et Tu, Bill

The hardest shots came from within the collection of protesting filmmakers, who concluded by stating: "We are deeply concerned that PBS' poorly-considered decision could jeopardize both the meeting of public broadcasting's mission and also stifle the innovation that is crucial to the future of public broadcasting."

Among the signers was the former PBS icon Bill Moyers (whose new program is now distributed by American Public Television). Moyers, along with writer/producer Michael Winship, said: "This is another retreat by PBS from its mission of providing a prime time forum for alternative voices and independent producers in favor of programming that skates on the surface of conventional wisdom."

The Logic

Early this year, as Current also reported at the time, PBS officials explained that prime-time scheduling changes were planned, based on new and better viewership data, in order to give the broadcast service "a better chance of hanging onto viewers between programs." PBS chief executive Paula Kerger said, "People have had difficulty navigating through our schedule," but "being able to build destination nights and really build programs that link well together on a single night seems to be working out quite well."

So, as part of the new audience retention strategies, for example, Mondays became anchored to Antiques Roadshow and related programs. Tuesdays was history and public affairs with shows such as American Experience, History Detectives and Frontline. Wednesdays was science night with Nova and Nature. That's how the two independent film series got pushed to Thursdays.

In response to questions, PBS's vice president of corporate communications, Anne Bentley, made these additional comments:

On the audience statistics used in various news reports, she said of the 42% cited in Current's article, "that represents household data for six Independent Lens films only in October and November year over year. Now that season-to-date numbers are in, you should reference those: comparing season-to-date ratings October through February for both '10-'11 and '11-'12 seasons, household levels for Independent Lens are down 26%, year over year. 26% is the national number and represents plays from everyone, including DVR plays and repeats."

As for the numbers in the Times' report, Bentley says, this is all persons from all ages, from 2-99, and the Times' preferred metric. She says the "premiere episode [meaning the first showing of each episode] average rating is down 39% when comparing the season thus far," but adds that "the 26% figure is more representative because it includes premieres and repeats, which is our usual way to cite numbers, and is an accurate view of how the full series performed."

As for the status of the new discussions, she said PBS, ITVS, POV and IL have been meeting weekly since March 8 "to develop new and creative ways to leverage diverse and independent content within the PBS primetime portfolio. As PBS evaluates the National Programming Service schedule as a whole, we will review the results of the year-round, weekly slot for Thursdays at 10 p.m. and consider other scheduling options for Fall 2012 and beyond."

I also asked: "Before the change, how many or what percentage of stations (PBS has more than 350 member stations) actually ran IL in the 10 p.m. Tuesday time slot as opposed to running it at other times? And how, as a general rule, member stations value public affairs programming such as IL and POV in comparison to other perhaps less controversial programming?"

Bentley said, "About a third of stations were carrying Independent Lens in primetime on Tuesday nights. In addition, POV and Independent Lens have each had one or two common carriage specials each season. Program evaluations and scheduling decisions are made on a station-by-station basis so it is tough for us to speak on behalf of stations."

My Thoughts

My concerns about this situation are propelled more as a longtime viewer of PBS rather than as the ombudsman. I'm not passing judgment on these programs and no editorial challenges have come my way.

PBS needs viewers and it needs money to keep doing what it's doing. Contributions to PBS member stations from presumably satisfied viewers are one of the important ways it raises money. But PBS also "is committed to serving the public interest by providing content of the highest quality that enriches the marketplace of ideas, unencumbered by commercial imperative," states its editorial standards. It must also be "responsive to a diverse public and has a responsibility to explore subjects of significance" in that marketplace.

POV and Independent Lens are both what one might call leading edge, sometimes controversial programs. POV describes its films, for example, as among "the best, boldest and most innovative programs every year on PBS . . . putting a human face on contemporary social issues." Over the years, it has won 27 Emmys, 13 George Foster Peabody Awards, three Academy Awards and other honors. Independent Lens has won five Emmys and describes itself as "the most diverse series on television."

Such themes are certain to lead at times, I assume, to differences of editorial opinion with PBS programmers ultimately responsible for what is distributed by the service. That is normal. But on balance, these programs are very important, probing subjects and issues not likely to be seen elsewhere on television.

So my concerns as a viewer are two-fold.

One is that the series not be marginalized if that is what the schedule change winds up doing.

The other is that, at least at this stage, the current situation seems to fit a pattern that I sense of diminishing or less prominent public affairs programming distributed specifically by PBS in recent years.

Moyers, of course, is gone, at least from PBS, as is NOW on PBS with David Brancaccio. And the hour-long Need to Know is down to 30 minutes. Other smaller and unique efforts such as Wide Angle, Worldfocus and Expose: America's Investigative Reports, which had been tucked into the Moyers Journal for a while and was one of my favorites, are also long gone.


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