Filmmakers push for common carriage at first stop in public TV ‘listening tour’

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Filmmaker Gary Weimberg adresses panelists Jan. 17 at a listening tour event in San Francisco. “Without common carriage, we cannot get publicity for our films,” Weimberg says. (Photos: Douglas Cruickshank)

More than 225 filmmakers met Jan. 17 with representatives from PBS, New York’s WNET, POV and the Independent Television Service in what was billed as the first stop in a “listening tour” examining public TV’s commitment to independent film.

Filmmakers challenged PBS to make good on its stated commitment to showcase their work by designating Independent Lens and POV for common carriage. The series, both of which are devoted to independent film, are fed to stations Mondays at 10 p.m., but local stations can schedule them at other times.

A recent decision by WNET, PBS’s flagship station in New York, to reschedule the two series prompted filmmakers to push PBS to give a higher profile to their work. The filmmaking community, organized by listening tour co-sponsor Indie Caucus, contend that WNET’s schedule change would demote independent film to fringe time slots and reduce viewership in the nation’s largest media market.

PBS’s top programmers “are very focused on making PBS the celebrated home for independent films," said ITVS's Fifer.

PBS’s top programmers “are very focused on making PBS the celebrated home for independent films,” said ITVS’s Fifer.

WNET agreed to postpone the schedule change for four months, a decision that ITVS President Sally Jo Fifer described during the San Francisco meeting as “hitting the pause button.”

Public TV decision-makers called the time-out, Fifer said, because PBS’s top programmers “are very focused on making PBS the celebrated home for independent films, developing a comprehensive strategy for building audiences for independent film and public broadcasting.”

As president of ITVS, Fifer oversees production of Independent Lens, now presenting its 13th season on PBS. Joining her on the panel were, among others: Beth Hoppe, PBS chief program executive; Marie Nelson, PBS’s v.p. of news; Lesley Norman, production executive at WNET; and Simon Kilmurry, e.p. of POV, PBS’s longest-running independent film showcase, which airs in the summer. Mikel Ellcessor, a former public radio programmer and station manager, moderated the discussion.

The Indie Caucus helped to shape the agenda in San Francisco by distributing a handout detailing what filmmakers want to see in PBS’s new strategy:

  • Primetime scheduling under common carriage, which would require primary stations in each market to carry films at the same time;
  • Publicity and promotion for Independent Lens and POV; and
  • Additional support for stations to create community-based engagement activities around independent film.

The discussion at Saturday’s gathering was friendly, though emotions ran high as filmmakers and public TV executives re-examined their interdependent and often stormy relationship, especially PBS’s commitment to provide primetime visibility and promotion to independently produced films.

One of the first filmmakers to step to the microphone was Gary Weimberg, a prolific documentarian who has presented three films on POV. “Without common carriage,” Weimberg said, “we cannot get publicity for our films. Our three films on POV were successful precisely because we had a unified airdate. . . . We are filmmakers of passion and we have to connect to our natural communities, and the broader communities, and publicity is the way that happens.”

Turning to WNET’s representative at the meeting, Norman of American Masters, he said: “Please tell people at WNET that denying common carriage is like a stab in the heart for independent filmmakers.”

Neither POV nor Independent Lens are designated for common carriage, said Beth Hoppe, PBS’s top programmer, who described local flexibility in scheduling as a plus for independent film. Each PBS station has the power to schedule the two series where they want to, she said, and they can air them “as often they want to.” PBS wants stations to air independent films “over and over again.”

Her objective for the listening tour, she said, is to work with the independent film community “to come up with a strategy together that everybody will buy into, including every public television station in the country, including putting some money into promoting each and every film.”

“There’s been this idea in the system that if you couldn’t spend a huge amount, don’t spend anything,” Hoppe said. “We don’t believe that anymore.”

Several speakers expressed support for PBS’s decision-makers.

“I’m aware of the difficult decisions you have to make,” said Tabitha Jackson, director of the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program and Fund, addressing the panelists. “With my Sundance hat on, I wish to say that we support independent filmmaking because it is an expression and a reflection of who we are and what it’s like to be alive in this world.”

Susan Stern of New Day Films, a distribution cooperative representing “more than 150 filmmaker members,” thanked “PBS, ITVS and all of you for keeping PBS alive — because we know you’ve been fighting.”

Turning to the concerns of her constituents, Stern continued: “What we’ve been hearing from our members and other documentary makers is that common carriage in prime time is the baseline. We need that.” Independent documentary films bring diversity to public TV as well as a venue for “pushing the boundaries,” she said. “We want to work with you, because we think the audience is there. We think that’s what people want.”

Speakers repeatedly used the word “trust” and the phrase “walk the walk” when responding to the panelists’ frequent expressions of support for documentary filmmakers. Ellcessor asked Hoppe to respond to the skepticism veiled within the remarks. PBS’s programming chief praised the audience of “creative people, teachers, community activists” and emphasized, “I watch all the work that you are doing, and we need film to do the work that we are doing.”

“We are interested in narrative that helps us propel major social change,” Hoppe said. Citing the Independent Lens film inspired by the Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” Hoppe continued, “There is a direct correlation between what you all do and giving us the tools to change the world for the better. . . . We need you.”

Two similar “listening tour” meetings are in the works: a New York event planned for February and another in Chicago slated for March. In addition, organizers of two major film events plan to examine the relationship of independent filmmakers and public TV: during the Sundance Film festival, which opens Jan. 22 in Park City, Utah, and at the Media That Matters conference in Washington, D.C., Feb. 19.

After the San Francisco meeting, filmmaker Tracy Droz Tragos expressed both skepticism and optimism about PBS’s pledge to strengthen independent film. Her documentary Rich Hill debuted this month as the season opener for Independent Lens, and its broadcast debut in New York had been jeopardized by the original timeline for WNET’s schedule change.

“It is somewhat hard to believe in the commitment to independent film, POV and Independent Lens, when that kind of stuff happens,” Tragos said, referring to the dispute with WNET, which she described as “a violation of trust.”

“I think there’s every reason public television should be behind independent film and the diverse voices it represents . . . , but as some people in the audience indicated, there’s ‘talking the talk’ and ‘walking the walk.’”

Still, as a representative of the Indie Caucus she believes the tour “has the potential to be incredibly meaningful. ”

“I remain cautiously optimistic, but there is so much at stake,” especially the clock that’s ticking down to WNET’s postponed schedule change. “There is a real opportunity for PBS to show leadership and make choices. Will they make those choices? The jury is still out. . . . I’m hopeful that PBS will move forward in a way that is clear and committed.”

Related stories in Current:

Douglas Cruickshank’s book Somehow: Living on Uganda Time was published in 2014. He recently released two anthologies of essays. For more information about Cruickshank and his work, visit his website.
Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly reported the job title of Lesley Norman, production executive at WNET.
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  • Jed Riffe

    I read the January 21, 2015 article Filmmakers push for common carriage at first stop in public TV “listening tour.” I have been producing independent programming for public televisions stations and the national system since l975 when my first documentary was broadcast on KERA in Dallas. Since then I have produced seven nationally broadcast documentaries for The American Experience, Independent Lens, PBS and the four hour, independently produced, nationally broadcast series California and the American Dream of which I was one of three series producers.

    I attended the listening tour event last Saturday in San Francisco. I was the last speaker and challenged Beth Hoppe directly on her statement (paraphrased) that It is better for PBS to just throw the series (IL and POV) up on the satellite and let stations air them as many times as they want rather than require common carriage. As the Current.org article states many of my colleagues expressed the same strong feelings I expressed opposing this move. No one supported the proposed move of the two series to WNET’s secondary channel.

    What concerns me the most is that the reporter did not get the speakers positions right that she cites below as “supporting PBS decision makers.” They were being “ nice” or “gracious” in their opening statements but they also expressed their feelings about the proposed moves by WNET and PBS to further marginalize independent filmmaking on public television. The article makes it appear that Tabitha Jackson and Susan Stern were there to support PBS versus opposing the moves WNET and PBS proposed making to IL and POV. I think if you contact them they will agree that they were not represented correctly in the article (see below).

    Several speakers expressed support for PBS’s decision-makers.

    “I’m aware of the difficult decisions you have to make,” said Tabitha Jackson, director of the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program and Fund, addressing the panelists. “With my Sundance hat on, I wish to say that we support independent filmmaking because it is an expression and a reflection of who we are and what it’s like to be alive in this world.”

    Susan Stern of New Day Films, a distribution cooperative representing “more than 150 filmmaker members,” thanked “PBS, ITVS and all of you for keeping PBS alive — because we know you’ve been fighting.”

    I would like the reporter to review the entire statements of both Tabitha and Susan as well as the other speakers and correct his story.

    • Jed — Thank you for commenting. We believe that the story is balanced and accurately reflects the tone and substance of the meeting. Several other quotes in the story make clear how the independent filmmakers felt about the situation. The filmmakers expressed themselves clearly and were quoted accurately. And Jackson and Stern unequivocally expressed support for the filmmakers, in remarks that are quoted here. — Mike Janssen, Digital Editor

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