The 24-hour news cycle, social media and an onslaught of notifications and alerts can leave many of us overwhelmed by news and information.
But this media saturation has also left the public hungry for authentic voices. It’s a space that documentary can fill, says Justine Nagan, executive producer for PBS’ long-running doc strand, ‘POV’.
“A well-made indie doc has the ability to reach people — to get around that narrowness. Indie docs, if well made, have the ability to speak to people outside of the news vortex, whatever side of the aisle they are on,” Nagan tells realscreen.
PBS’ ‘POV’ was first developed in 1986 by Marc Weiss — an activist in the indie media community who believed there should be a space for bold, independent point-of-view documentaries on public television. Finding a place on the American public broadcasting service in 1988, ‘POV’ has become the longest-running showcase for independent non-fiction films, and has won numerous film and broadcasting awards, including 34 Emmys, 19 Peabody awards and three Oscars.
Over the years, the strand hasn’t shied away from controversy. In 1991, ‘POV’ aired Marlon Rigg’s Tongues Untied — a doc that explored sexuality and race, depicting what it’s like to born both gay and African American. In 2014, in an era of growing societal divide over abortion, the strand aired After Tiller, which followed the only four remaining doctors in the U.S. who openly perform third-trimester abortions.
But controversy can, and does, promote dialogue. Beth Hoppe, PBS chief programming executive and general manager, says the strand, now into its 30th season, and its focus on tackling challenging subjects through documentary is an integral part of PBS’ DNA. “It’s part of who we are and remains as important now as it ever was,” she maintains.
As ‘POV’ moves through its milestone 30th season, Realscreen caught up with Justine Nagan to discuss the strand’s future, its digital strategy and the industry impact of SVODs.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How has ‘POV’ evolved since its 25th anniversary?
Since our 25th anniversary, there has been an explosion in content and a heightened awareness of the importance and presence of documentary. The caliber of our field, in general, has matured.
One of the challenges for us is asking how we can continue to serve this growing field and bring top quality films to public television audiences and viewers across America for free, whether they have access to high-speed wifi or they can afford cable or a streaming service.
We want to make sure they [the public] can participate in their democracy and have access to these films – which are increasingly the way people are becoming educated, informed and engaged with the issues around them.
How do you feel the climate for airing provocative or challenging docs has changed and how do you feel about that space right now given the current administration in the U.S.?
A good example of a film that speaks to this is Pervert Park (2016). The staff, our production team and our editorial committee were strongly behind this film. It’s a really difficult film for everybody, I think, to watch. It’s super controversial and it’s about sex offenders. It led to fascinating conversations that I think point again to the importance of what we do and the spirit of what we do.
On the one hand, there was this perception that PBS wouldn’t touch a doc of that nature with a 10-foot pole, and on the other hand, no one else would air it. No one would see the importance of a film like Pervert Park and the conversations it could facilitate about responsibly housing sex offenders and how to help different communities broach a topic that nobody wants to talk about.
With any films about controversial topics, whether they’re about abortion or the Israel and Palestine conflict, there are audiences that are going to be upset. But we stand by our process.
How does ‘POV’ position itself against SVODs like Netflix and Hulu entering the doc space?
In general, we are excited that there are so many opportunities for filmmakers right now. There are new funders, distributors and platforms, and that’s good because historically it has been – and still is – an under-resourced field. But this complicates things in some ways for ‘POV’.
Hulu, Netflix and Amazon are both partners and competitors. We work with them on some projects, which is great. We value those relationships. But there will always be some films that we both go after that we’re not able to work out.
We try to be flexible in working to get amazing projects for PBS, but also to be flexible so filmmakers can get as much exposure and money for their work as possible.
We are never going to be able to go head to head with Netflix, Hulu or Amazon. One of our real strengths for viewers is that sometimes with other sites, there is a lot of content you have to wade through, and I think we can provide an alternative to that.
How did ‘POV’ come to partner with The New York Times and Snapchat?
We had an evolving relationship with The New York Times over the years with different departments. This particular collaboration came out of the MacArthur Foundation and the journalism work they were doing. We had a lot of great conversations with them over the years about our ideas on how the form is evolving and the role we should play in the field.
A conversation with them and our digital team led to the idea of, “What if we embedded media makers in a newsroom?” Being in New York, what better place than The New York Times?
The Snapchat Film series came out of thinking “What are the new platforms for documentary?” Once we started thinking about using Snapchat, the questions internally evolved into “How do we structure a project that could stimulate both emerging media makers and veteran media makers to be comfortable with this new platform?”
We had a lot of workshops here and conversations about what a documentary on Snapchat would look like, what it should feel like and how long should it be. It was really fun and exciting and I think we learned a lot along the way.
What do you hope for ‘POV’ in the immediate future?
With our long-form content, I hope we are able to continue to do what we are doing. We have an amazing partner with PBS. I hope PBS and CPB [Corporation for Public Broadcasting] continue to get the funding they need to function at the level they do now. It’s important for the work we do to serve everyone.
One of the difficult things about the proposed CPB cuts is the people who would be most impacted would be the small stations. If they stop functioning, we would no longer serve everyone in the same way — and we would have to think about how that accessibility would continue.
That accessibility is important, and we want to continue to do more with community engagement. We need to continue to talk to people about how we’re doing and how to get the films out to where they need to be. I want to see a thriving ‘POV’ digital department and help media makers push the form out in the world.