Reality Checks: Documentaries Struggle For Relevance in Changing Times

By Anthony Kaufman | Indiewire

At a recent event in Chicago, filmmakers expressed their frustration with the future of their work on public television.


"Little White Lie," a ratings success on PBS
PBS"Little White Lie," a ratings success on PBS

It was all smiles, applause, and communal spirit at the Chicago Cultural Center on Monday, where the third and final stop in PBS' "Listening Tour" took place to discuss the fate of independent documentaries on public television.

But behind the conviviality and constructive approach to the meeting — which saw some 200 prominent members of the documentary community, from Steve James to Yvonne Welbon, brainstorming ways to engage audiences and market indie docs — there are still underlying worries about the future of the form on public television.

Tensions between public broadcasters and indie filmmakers reached a boiling point in late 2014, when PBS's largest station, New York's WNET, announced plans to move indie documentary strands POV and Independent Lens from their Monday 10 p.m. slot on WNET to their sister station, WLIW, PBS's fourth most-popular channel, which is based out of Long Island. The series would also re-run on WNET on Sunday nights at 11 p.m.

For many documentary filmmakers, the move came as an insult. During New York's Listening Tour event in February, several irate filmmakers spoke vehemently against the decision. As Liz Garbus told the NYC crowd, "If you take away [these programs'] reach and their audience, we are not going to bring the same programs to you."

For now, it appears that PBS has agreed to keep the two series in their Monday night 10 p.m. slot on WNET for at least another year. But WNET, which takes funding from PBS, but operates independently, may still be resistant. WNET production executive Leslie Norman told Indiewire that "generally speaking," WNET had agreed, "but there are still things that need to be worked out."

But even if Independent Lens and POV stay in their current slots, their future remains in flux, particularly with WNET executives looking for ways to maximize their strong corporate and member-supported arts programming, such as "Great Performances" or "American Masters," which could take precedence over indie docs.

WNET programming head Stephen Segaller told Indiewire that the Monday 10 p.m. slot, which follows PBS's extremely popular program "Antique Roads Show," isn't a good fit for Independent Lens and POV, hampering programming "flow." "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see the audience for 'Antique Road Show' is different from Independent Lens and POV," Segaller told Indiewire. "We've been worrying about this for a long time."

Segaller also said that the actual audience for the Monday, 10 p.m. slot on WLIW is larger than what it is on WNET at that time, and that WLIW's geographical reach is almost identical to WNET's.

Independent documentary filmmakers, however, are bolstered by the fact that ratings for their work has increased in the Monday night slot, despite the precipitous fall off from "Antiques Road Show." Currently, this season's run of Independent Lens, for example, has increased 18% in its ratings over last season, and if you compare within the same time range (from its September 2014 premiere through the 3rd week of February 2015), the series has seen a 28% ratings jump, according to data provided by ITVS.

In addition, this past Monday night's broadcast of Lacey Schwartz and James Adolphus' documentary "Little White Lie," about the filmmaker's newly discovered biracial identity, reached the highest rating in 10 years for an Independent Lens broadcast on WNET, according to the New York station.

Such data is encouraging for documentary filmmakers who still see life in the PBS and WNET premiere slot.

"Broadcast is still vitally important," Kartemquin's Gordon Quinn told Indiewire. "When our films air on PBS, that's the biggest audience that we ever reach. And that's really important to funders, so if we don't have that broadcast primetime niche, it's an issue."

Oscar-nominated filmmaker Marshall Curry, who has seen most of his documentaries air on PBS, agreed. "The amount of people who see a documentary in theaters or festivals is a tiny fraction of people who will see it on PBS. They generally have the best ratings of the other options."

Marshall Curry
Marshall Curry

Those other "options" even include such growing documentary powerhouses as HBO, CNN and new media giant Netflix. Many attendees at Monday night's event spoke about HBO's current documentary mini-series "The Jinx" with envy, but also regarded their public broadcast audience as just as robust.

Curry admitted that filmmakers are already taking "pay cuts" by choosing PBS over premium broadcasters. But for many documentarians, money is less important than reaching the broadest and most diverse audience — something which PBS provides. But Curry and others are concerned that documentary filmmakers might abandon PBS if they feel that independent docs aren't being supported.

"If the flagship station [WNET] is going to relegate those strands to secondary stations," he said, "I worry that this is going to make it harder for PBS to attract the best films. Since they can't compete financially, they can compete by offering big audiences and educational outreach. But filmmakers make these films because they want them to be seen. If it's not on WNET, that cuts down considerably the appeal."

But both PBS and WNET maintained a strong commitment to independent documentaries. Executives with the public broadcasters said they are just looking for new ways to promote and leverage such material. "We proposed an experiment to see if they couldn't do better," said WNET's Segaller, asking filmmakers to "please pay attention to what we actually proposed and why we proposed it."

Before Monday's event, PBS chief of programming Beth Hoppe told Indiewire, "We want to amplify the work of our independent documentary filmmakers and wrap their work into our ongoing overall programming strategy." According to Hoppe, PBS is committed to building more public theatrical events around broadcasts in order to create buzz, such as its 10-year-old Community Cinema program, as well as advocating for more cross-marketing among PBS shows.

Much of the chatter at the Chicago Cultural Center also focused on the internet and social media as a crucial new piece of the programming puzzle.

As Chicago filmmaker Ben Kolak ("Scrappers") told the crowd at Monday's meeting, "Kill your television. Forget about TV. Forget about the big event." Kolak and others emphasized social media and online platforms as crucial ways forward for promotion and exhibition. Rather than focus on the one-night consistent broadcast slot, many spoke about shifting the emphasis to local events and targeting "microcommunities."

Veteran industry executives agreed that cord-cutting is the wave of the future. "We recognize that people are time shifting and DVRing, and we have to look at this as much as broadcast," admitted POV's Simon Kimurry.

But echoing others' concerns, Kilmurry added that public broadcasting stations need to look beyond ratings and more towards one of their core missions as a government funded non-profit media organization: reaching underserved audiences, with stories that reflect their own concerns.

To that end, the news site Colorlines recently published an article titled, "Does PBS Still Care About Indie Films By and About People of Color?", which cites the fact that nearly 1/3 of Independent Lens directors were of color, compared to none at CNN and ESPN and 13% at HBO. 

Gordon Quinn, among others, is concerned that public broadcasters are leaning more towards content that is simply less diverse, and this could eventually hurt them in the long run. "These shows [Independent Lens and POV] have a broad appeal, in terms of race, gender and age, and they are the shows that are most appealing to a younger audience," he said. "I know [public television] wants to retain their senior citizen audience, but we think it's important that they build and reach out to that younger audience."

PBS' Hoppe, however, ensured filmmakers that the broadcaster is fully devoted to supporting independent documentaries, with additional funds slated for promotion and outreach, and a commitment to finding new ways to get the work seen. 

"We're not choosing 'Downton Abbey' over indie film," she said.


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