PBS agrees to “alternative scheduling options” for doc strands

While programmers mull over potential new time slots for 'Independent Lens' and 'POV,' the docmakers that protested PBS' decision to move the long-running doc strands to a night typically associated with local programming vow to continue to raise awareness around the importance of public television.
March 26, 2012

PBS has agreed to find a new time slot for ‘Independent Lens’ and ‘POV’ after independent documentary producers took to the web last week to protest the pubcaster’s decision to move the long-running doc strands to Thursday nights.

This season, PBS decided to move the ‘Lens’ from Tuesdays to Thursdays, a night typically devoted to popular local programming, with ‘POV’ slated to move to that night upon its season launch in June. As a result, many local programmers have shifted the docs around the schedule, and in some cases, out of primetime.

Independent Television Service (ITVS), which funds documentaries for ‘Lens,’ reported a 42% drop in viewership for documentary premieres in October and November year over year. PBS reports that October to February, household levels year-over-year for the strand went down 26%, year over year – a number that represents premieres, repeats and DVR plays.

Once the ratings were made public, Chicago-based non-profit production company Kartemquin Films published a petition online protesting the new time slot that has since received signatures from over 600 producers and directors as well as the International Documentary Association (IDA) and the Writer’s Guild of America, East.

Kartemquin was gearing up to take its campaign directly to viewers when, following a conference call with producers from ‘Lens’ and ‘POV’ last Thursday, PBS announced it would consider a schedule change.

“Our joint conversations have been productive and we agreed to alternative scheduling options for ‘Independent Lens’ and ‘POV,'” PBS spokesperson Anne Bentley said via email to realscreen. “Our goal is to share these updates at PBS’ annual meeting, which is May 14-17 in Denver, Colorado.”

Lois Vossen, series producer for ‘Independent Lens’ was encouraged by the news but said weekly discussions between all parties that began on March 8 will continue in order to determine what exactly the alternative scheduling option will be. Her goal is to see the strands “move back to a primetime slot during the core national schedule, which is Sunday through Wednesday.

“I believe that PBS understands the value of this work and they want to continue to be, as they always have been, the original home of independent documentary film,” she added. “We’re working on resolving [the issue] in terms of having definite information.”

The producers that galvanized the indie film community will also continue to raise awareness around the importance of public television by creating an ad-hoc steering committee in conjunction with the IDA, which helped publicize the campaign to its membership.

“We’re still paying close attention because we obviously want it to go into a slot that’s going to be effective for that kind of programming,” said Gordon Quinn, founder and artistic director of Kartemquin Films. “Ideally, we would’ve liked to see it back in its old slot behind Frontline. The fact that they’re finally talking about moving it off of Thursday night, which couldn’t have been a worse place for it, we’re very pleased with that.

“This has been a wake-up call for our indie community,” he added. “We have to continue to pay attention to not only these two vital series, but also [to] public television which is a vitally important part of the media landscape… It’s a different kind of voice than what the marketplace can provide.”

On Monday, Kartemquin will send out a letter calling for steering committee members and is continuing talks with the IDA to solidify the details of a non-formal affiliation.

In an email interview with realscreen, Anne Bentley reasserted the public broadcaster’s commitment to broadcasting independent documentaries during primetime.

“PBS is fully committed to independent film and the diversity of content they provide. Just last year, approximately 120 independent productions appeared in the PBS primetime schedule,” she said. “We recognize the many outstanding awards earned by the independent filmmakers we have presented. Their acclaimed work contributes immeasurably to our schedule.”

PBS initially moved the doc strands off Tuesday night as part of a strategy to boost primetime ratings by aligning programs that attract similar audiences. Thus, history-oriented shows such as American Experience and History Detectives joined flagship news show Frontline on Tuesdays and science strand ‘NOVA’ moved to Wednesdays, leading to a 47% increase in viewership.

Overall, PBS averaged a 1.33 primetime average rating during 2010-2011, an increase of 4% over the previous season.

“Our focus now is to extend the primetime content strategy to more nights and more genres in a way that builds the audience for our distinctive programming,” Bentley said. “We have been working closely with our colleagues at ‘POV’ and ITVS to implement this.”

New promotional strategies for ‘Independent Lens’ and ‘POV,’ which will launch its 25th season in June, are also part of the talks between producers and the network in order to ensure independents receive more consistent carriage across the whole system.

“Carriage is important because that can often help drive press and awareness and make it easier for people to find the programming,” said Simon Kilmurry, executive director for ‘POV.’ “The PBS schedule doesn’t change that often so any time you have this many changes happening, it’s going to be difficult.”

About The Author
Justin Anderson joined Realscreen as senior staff writer in 2021, reporting and writing stories for the newsletter and magazine. During his 20-year career he’s filled a variety of roles as a writer and editor at a number of media organizations, covering news and current affairs as well as business, tech, the film and music industries and plenty in between. He’s also spent time behind the scenes in television production, having written everything from voiceover scripts for documentaries to marketing copy. He has a degree in Journalism from Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University).