PBS revamped indie film strategy keeps docs in primetime

Indie doc strands 'POV' and 'Independent Lens' will continue to air in primetime on most PBS stations but sometimes on different nights as part of the U.S. pubcaster's events-based strategy to promote independent film.
April 23, 2015

Indie doc strands ‘POV’ and ‘Independent Lens’ will continue to air in primetime on most PBS stations—but sometimes on different nights—as part of the U.S. pubcaster’s events-based strategy to promote independent film.

On Thursday (April 23), PBS unveiled a multi-platform plan that will see increased resources devoted to event-based broadcasts of documentaries, as well as theatrical distribution, VOD, social media and an educational program for post-secondary film students.

The crux of the plan will see both strands remain on Monday nights at 10 p.m.  on New York’s WNET and most member stations for the 2015-2016 season, except when a film is identified as a “special presentation” that could be paired with an event such as a live town hall along the lines of America After Ferguson, for example.

Those films will air in primetime but on another night, and will be given extra promotion across social media and marketing channels.

The event-based strategy brings independent documentary film in line with the content strategy PBS is using to promote its other programming areas, such as science, natural history and scripted.

“There have been some gains for the series in their current time slot and so it was important for us to continue to assist them in developing those gains and, in addition to that, look for new opportunities to expand the reach of their reach,” Marie Nelson, PBS’ vice president of news and public affairs, told realscreen. “The events essentially would create more flow with other programming that may land on other nights. Any of those things would be primetime common carriage events.”

“What is exciting about this new strategy is the level of commitment of promotional support from PBS, which is going across not only the specials and the events but also the Monday night series themselves,” added ‘POV’ executive director Simon Kilmurry. “I think there’s a very good chance both will be enhanced by that.”

The films from the upcoming season that will receive the event push have not yet been selected but ‘Independent Lens’ executive producer Lois Vossen said it will be “a significant number.” Producers still need to complete budgeting and negotiate with filmmakers.

“The events do offer an opportunity to highlight key issues that are, of course, central to why the filmmakers make these films,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to bring more exposure and we’re excited about the idea of having every film on the series get additional support. That will go a long way for building the profile for all of the programs.”

The strategy will also free up the Monday night time slot for New York member station WNET to air arts and performance programming– the issue that initially sparked the need for PBS to rethink its indie doc programming strategy.

Last December, the flagship New York station decided to pull ‘POV’ and ‘Independent Lens’ from the Monday 10 p.m. slot on main station Thirteen in order to give more prominence to arts programming that has been languishing on Friday nights.

The change would have seen both series shift to secondary channel WLIW21 at 10 p.m., with repeats airing on Thirteen after primetime hours at 11 p.m. on Sundays. However, the move caused an uproar among independent filmmakers, who petitioned WNET to keep the Monday night slot.

In response, PBS, ‘Independent Lens’ producer ITVS, ‘POV’ and WNET embarked on a multi-city listening tour (pictured) to find a solution. The debate spilled over into panel discussions at the Sundance and SXSW film festivals and inspired TV legend Norman Lear to pen an op-ed in The New York Times that accused PBS of shirking its public mission in the name or ratings.

“Any time you have an anthology series, it is sometimes difficult to keep people coming back because the content is varied,” explained Nelson. “Sometimes viewers have a particular interest in one type of story and not necessarily the other. In some ways, our efforts to support the range and the diversity of the series also needed a boost. People need to know these films are on the air.”

One way PBS intends to do that is through more theatrical releases. Traditionally, PBS’s distribution arm has released one or two theatrical docs – such as Rory Kennedy’s Last Days in Vietnam and Stanley Nelson‘s The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution – per year. PBS Distribution will now work in tandem with producers at ‘PBS’ and ‘Independent Lens’ to acquire theatrical rights to more titles.

PBS has not set any ratings targets as part of the strategy but is working with the series producers and member stations to establish a new set of metrics.

“The success of this programming is not just dependent on ratings,” says Nelson. “What we’re doing moving forward is a regular process of consultation so that we have both a sense of how we think the series are performing but also some ongoing discussion around how to refine and shape the event strategy so we’re continuing to be effective.”

Although Nelson would not divulge numbers, more of a budget will go into targeted promotion across social media channels to spark conversations around issues raised in a doc. The PBS Online Film Festival will return for a fourth year in June to showcase more than 20 shorts and the network is relaunching its indie film website, which will stream all feature-length and short-form films in the archive.

PBS’s docs are already available on VOD platforms such as Apple TV and Roku, and execs are working with those services to create indie film playlists that make it easier for subscribers to find the films. PBS Distribution has also inked a licensing deal with subscription-based platform Indieflix that will see more than 85 titles, including Art & Copy, Soul Food Junkies and Spies of Mississippi, made available on the indie film platform in May.

Lastly, the on-demand platform for education, PBS Learning Media is creating a curriculum for a non-credit college course on documentary film that will incorporate ‘POV’ and ‘Independent Lens’ films and other docs that air on PBS.

Nelson added that the strategy around indie docs has not timeframe and will be reevaluated on an ongoing basis. “They are in our primetime schedule and there is a commitment to them being in our primetime schedule,” she said.

In response to the strategy, the Indie Caucus of filmmakers that petitioned WNET and PBS to keep ‘POV’ and ‘Independent Lens’ said it is “encouraged” by the news but remains cautious and called for transparency “regarding this one-year experiment.”

“We are pleased that our conversations with PBS have been productive with the news today that PBS has committed to keeping ‘POV’ and ‘IL’ in their Monday night broadcast schedule for one year,” it said in a statement.

“The statement from PBS leaves us cautiously optimistic that we are on the road to having a strong and stable home for indies on PBS. One of the benefits of this process over the last several months is that the creativity community has been energized about this issue,” added filmmaker Katy Chevigny. “All parties involved can count on the Indie Caucus to watch the implementation of the new plan and continue to advocate for increased visibility of these programs.”

Concurrently, WNET’s vice president of programming Stephen Segaller is also happy with the plan and is looking forward to testing out arts and performance programming on the Monday nights that documentaries do not air.

“It’s terrific because our whole objective when we began this discussion was to increase the reach of independent films of every kind,” he says. “There is an as yet undetermined number of weeks when we can put arts programming – either our own productions or indeed other people’s – into some kind of showcase on Monday nights in New York on primetime and see how they do.

“Then, when all of that has flowed through the pipeline we’ll have some data to see what’s working best,” he continued. “For us, arts programming is the next item on our collective agenda, to try and elevate that too.”

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).