For the past 30 years, POV has curated and presented the timeliest character-driven stories to American audiences. A lot has happened in this landmark year. Since January 2017, POV:
- Announced its first new board leadership in 12 years
- Kicked off 30 years with 3 premieres at Sundance
- Had films nominated for four Peabodys, a Webby, two CINE Golden Eagles, a Critics’ Choice Documentary Award, an IDA Award, three Film Independent Spirit Awards and 12 Emmy Awards
- Had films that won a Peabody, a Shorty Award Audience Honor, an Emmy Award and more
- Launched its 30th season with five films spotlighting the Syrian war and refugee crisis
- Created new interactive tools on voice assistant devices and a new community network
- Hired new VPS to head digital projects and business affairs
To close out an historic year, we connected with our past executive producers to ask what POV means to them. Starting with the series’ founder, Marc Weiss, POV will publish a letter from each executive producer every week through the end of January to coincide with POV’s first television marathon and its special 30-day streaming period featuring 30 films from the archive.
In Marc’s letter we learn about the inception of POV, and the groundbreaking idea germinating in the 1980s that the proliferation of independent documentary filmmaking be accessible to the public—that is, on public media. First written for POV’s 15th anniversary, Marc’s letter is updated below.
Here’s how he made it all happen:
“It all began with the filmmakers and the films. They were the reason POV was created, and they have kept it vital for 30 years. To be sure, there is the MacArthur Foundation, which has sustained POV since it began. And there are the TV critics, the executives at PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the presenting stations, the programmers at public TV stations around the country and the loyal—and engaged—audience. All of them have played essential roles over the years. But it is the films, with their unique blend of passion and intelligence, with their emotional power and their humanity, that have rallied support from everyone else.
It wasn’t always that way. When POV was first proposed, PBS didn’t want it. The NEA turned it down for funding. Other funders wouldn’t even talk to us. There were even influential voices in the independent community that felt an acquisition series of independent documentaries was a bad strategy, a distraction, a ghetto.
But POV had an idea at its core—a fairly simple idea—that propelled it forward:
There were wonderful films being made by independent nonfiction filmmakers, films that brought unique and powerful perspectives to important subjects, and they deserved a home that could, over time, build a consistent national audience.
The modern independent film and video movement germinated in the late 1960s, often inspired and nurtured by social, cultural and political movements of the time. In the ’70s, independent work began to blossom with an astonishing range of styles and subject matter. Although public television was the only place independent work had even a shot at a national broadcast, the public TV system didn’t make it easy.
When it came to submitting and evaluating independent work, it was catch as catch can. Who do I send my film to? How long before I hear back? If they want to show it, will they pay anything? Will I have to raise more money to get it ready for broadcast, do publicity, et cetera? If each station does its own scheduling, how will I know when it will be on and how will I do publicity?
With all of their skills and passions, independent filmmakers were not necessarily the best candidates to navigate the multiple bureaucracies of public television. After spending years making their films, they often arrived at public TV’s doorstep exhausted, in debt and eager (if not desperate) to have their work seen.
So, for starters, a series could be a place to run interference on behalf of independents, to systematize the submission, selection and acquisition process, to build relationships with the decision-makers and master the intricacies of a somewhat Byzantine system whose rules, if they were known at all, shifted from year to year. But independent documentarians were outsiders for a reason and the challenges facing them were far more profound than penetrating a system not designed with their needs in mind.
What made—and still makes—the best independent films so powerful is their commitment to telling real stories, sometimes stories that take months or even years to unfold. Add fundraising and editing, and it’s not unusual for a film to take four, five or more years to complete. Only a certain tenacity can get the film made, and only a vision can make it powerful. In a public TV system that was essentially cautious and risk-averse, filmmaker’s fierce commitment was seen as a problem. While traditional journalism calls for “objectivity” (a debatable concept), the most interesting indie docs are often the opposite: intensely subjective, made to represent a perspective that the filmmaker feels is missing or distorted in the mainstream media.
It becomes even trickier when a film takes on a controversial issue. In the mid-1980s, a film about a revolutionary (and, much later, a Nobel Prize winner) called When the Mountains Tremble created such a stir when it was broadcast that it was referred to as “When the Stations Tremble.” Dark Circle, a film sounding the alarm about the dangers of nuclear weapons and nuclear power, was first accepted for broadcast, then rejected when the filmmakers refused to make a list of changes demanded by PBS.
When I started POV, my mission was to reposition the independent documentary. Not just to acknowledge that independent films came from a different tradition than most made-for-TV documentaries, but to embrace and celebrate that.
Everything flowed from this: the title of the series, the filmmakers on the screen, talking about why they made the film, the printed program schedule and the publicity materials that were sent to TV critics and the stations.
POV was not only a strategy for providing a presence for independent work on national television; it was a strategy for changing the relationship between independents and public TV. In the mid-1980s, neither trusted the other. We positioned POV as the go-between, the honest broker that could at once build a relationship of trust with independent filmmakers and provide a measure of accountability to the system.
On the public television side, I got early and invaluable advice from David Fanning of Frontline, Barry Chase of PBS, Henry Becton of WGBH and Melinda Ward of Alive from Off-Center. Becton introduced me to David M. Davis, then the executive director of American Playhouse and someone with a long history in public television, widely known and respected. Davis helped me to convince the four major producing stations that stood behind Playhouse to create a new organization, American Documentary, Inc., with the same board of directors, and with Davis as Executive Director. With their backing, doors began to open.
I had been an independent filmmaker—and an advocate for independents—for many years. I knew the problems and it wasn’t a big leap to come up with solutions. Circulate a call for submissions; say upfront what we could pay; describe the selection process, who was involved, how long it would take; lobby the stations to schedule broadcasts on the same night as the PBS national feed; make sure first-time filmmakers were included in the mix along with veterans; take responsibility for publicity—and take it seriously, for heaven’s sake. I also created an editorial committee with an equal number of independent filmmakers and station representatives who advised on the final selection (and, in the process, educated the system about independent work and educated filmmakers about the needs and limitations of public television).
In the summer of 1989, POV’s second season, I was invited to speak to the New York chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. I decided to talk about Dark Circle, the film that had set off such a controversy a few years earlier, when the filmmakers refused to make changes demanded by PBS. It was now scheduled for broadcast on POV—uncut and unchanged—with PBS’s blessing.
Just days before my presentation, the filmmakers had been dramatically vindicated as stories played out on the nightly news. The Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant—which Dark Circle claimed was killing people who lived near the plant—was raided by dozens of FBI and EPA agents collecting evidence about the widespread environmental violations there (the plant was permanently shut down later that year, after nearly 40 years in operation). I began my talk by saying, “Independent filmmakers are the poets, the pamphleteers and the prophets of our time. They put themselves at risk and make enormous sacrifices to help the rest of us see what we can’t or don’t want to see. And they are critical to the health of our democratic society.”
I end this where it began, with the filmmakers and their films. POV is not the product of one person’s vision; it reflects the cumulative vision of independent filmmakers who are driven to tell stories that must be told.”
For more information on #POVxWORLDMarathon and the 30-day streaming period, visit pbs.org/pov/30marathon.