Documentary Filmmakers Worry About Being Squeezed Out Of PBS Prime Time

Mar 16, 2015
Originally published on March 20, 2015 6:09 am

As PBS enjoys the success of shows like Downton Abbey and Antiques Roadshow, documentary filmmakers feel they're being marginalized.

Two signature documentary shows on PBS — POV and Independent Lens — air rigorous, in-depth reports about difficult issues often set in minority communities. They also enjoy a prime time slot on many stations, including New York City's WNET, one of the largest PBS member stations in the country.

Now that may change — and documentary filmmakers are speaking out. They say PBS puts too much emphasis on what's popular to the exclusion of mission-driven programs. PBS maintains that all of its shows are important, but an executive admits it hasn't done the best job of promoting documentaries.

Listen to the full story above.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A bit closer to home, we're tracking a fight over your television screen. It involves the public television network PBS. The network has enjoyed the success of shows like "Downton Abbey," yet documentary filmmakers feel they are being marginalized on PBS stations. They're venting their frustration at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Two signature documentary shows on PBS, "POV" and "Independent Lens," are bold and provocative. From sexual assaults in the military...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "INDEPENDENT LENS")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The entire time I was screaming and yelling for help and for him to stop. Nobody came to the door. Nobody came to help me, came to my rescue or anything.

BLAIR: ...Manhood and rap music...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "INDEPENDENT LENS")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Through rap music, I think there's an identification with some of the most stereotypical masculine standards.

BLAIR: ...To health care.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED TV SHOW)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I do feel like if I'd had insurance, I probably would have seen about some of this stuff earlier.

BLAIR: They are rigorous, in-depth reports about difficult issues, often set in minority communities, so it's hard for them to compete with this.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOWNTON ABBEY")

HUGH BONNEVILLE: (As Robert Crawley) Good God, almighty. You abandon a pregnant woman in a land that's not her own while you run for it.

BLAIR: More about "Downton Abbey" in a moment. Most PBS stations air "Independent Lens" and "POV" during prime time - 10:00 p.m. on Monday nights. WNET Channel 13 in New York is one of the largest PBS member stations in the country. It announced plans to move these award-winning documentaries to its secondary, lesser-known station WLIW. Independent filmmakers were furious. When PBS held a town hall-style listening tour in New York to talk about documentaries, they lined up at the microphone. Veteran filmmaker Stanley Nelson said WNET seems to care more about wealthy white people than average New Yorkers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STANLEY NELSON: New York City is about two-thirds nonwhite. This greater New York City is the audience channel 13 is here to serve...

(APPLAUSE)

NELSON: ...Not the donors, not the board members, not the ratings.

BLAIR: Bernardo Ruiz says he and other filmmakers worry about other PBS stations.

BERNARDO RUIZ: The concern is that other stations might follow suit if the biggest station in the market is doing that.

BLAIR: WNET currently airs "Independent Lens" and "POV" right after the very popular "Antiques Roadshow."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ANTIQUES ROADSHOW")

PAUL WINICKI: You've got somewhere between 46 to $57,000 worth of watches there.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Oh, my goodness.

BLAIR: Stephen Segaller, WNET's vice president for programming, says fans of "Antiques Roadshow" aren't sticking around to watch documentaries.

STEPHEN SEGALLER: They've been losing about 75 to 80 percent of the audience that watches the 9 o'clock hour. And that's a - you know, anybody in the programming business looks at that kind of drop-off and feels that it's at least something of a problem.

BLAIR: Segaller believes their plan might actually help indie filmmakers reach more people. On WLIW, they would air after "Masterpiece," home to the highest-rated drama ever on PBS.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOWNTON ABBEY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: Welcome to Downton.

BLAIR: It's a complicated issue. Documentary filmmakers say PBS puts too much emphasis on what's popular to the exclusion of mission-driven programs. PBS executive Beth Hoppe admits that while all of its shows are important, PBS has not done the best job promoting documentaries.

BETH HOPPE: We are big. We are public, but there are a lot of voices. We want them all to be heard, but I think sometimes the message about how much independent film we do might get confused or lost.

BLAIR: That's one reason a lot of those voices are talking about the placement of documentaries on PBS stations. The talking continues this week at South by Southwest in Austin and later this month in Chicago. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.