The Pub #13: WNET stands by documentary rescheduling; why public media unions are spreading

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Glinton, Segaller (Segaller photo: Rahoul Ghose, PBS)

Glinton, Segaller (Segaller photo: Rahoul Ghose, PBS)

The man who brought you Archie Bunker thinks American public television is neglecting its core mission.

Writing in a New York Times op-ed this week, legendary commercial TV producer Norman Lear (the driving force behind All in the Family, Sanford and Son and The Jeffersons) alleged that “nonfiction films on challenging subjects are less important to PBS and WNET [New York’s flagship public TV station] than costume dramas.”

Ouch.

Lear is of course referring to WNET’s intention to reschedule the Monday prime-time first run of the documentary showcases POV and Independent Lens to its Long Island–based secondary channel WLIW, while adding a repeat Monday nights at 11 on WNET after Downton Abbey.

The move, which sparked an uproar from independent filmmakers, is on hold, while PBS considers making its own adjustment to documentary scheduling to be announced in May. WNET and PBS officials recently concluded a “listening tour” to hear the concerns of documentarians. Did it change their outlook?

“No, not really,” WNET Vice President for Programming Stephen Segaller told me on The Pub. “We listened to what the filmmakers had to say, and it was rather predictable and certainly pretty unanimous.”

Segaller stands by his initial programming calculus. He sees the move as a way to hold or even grow the ratings that POV and Independent Lens currently draw on WNET, while at the same time rescuing the station’s in-house–produced arts programming from its ratings desert on Fridays (where PBS schedules the first run) by re-airing it on Mondays, in the slot currently held by documentaries.

Segaller concedes that WNET could have had a longer “period on consultation” with filmmakers before announcing the schedule shift late last year, but he doesn’t think it would have done much to lessen the backlash.

“There is no good way of attempting to bring change to people who don’t want change of any kind, and who hold out resolutely for the status quo without being willing to listen to the arguments of why the status quo might not be the best situation,” he said.

Also on this week’s show, union membership continues to decline nationwide, but it’s growing in public media. NPR business desk reporter and SAG-AFTRA shop steward Sonari Glinton thinks unions are a way for employees to have a voice in periods of rapid change, both technological and social.

For someone who has felt “very much like a minority” and “felt very vulnerable” in public radio, Glinton told me, “one of the places that I’ve had a little bit of safety is the union,” he said.

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We welcome your feedback on the show: You can reach me at ragusea_ac@mercer.edu or @aragusea on Twitter; my supervising producer at Current, Mike Janssen, is at mike@current.org; and you can contact Current generally at news@current.org or @currentpubmedia on Twitter.

If you’d like to offer a comment to be used in the program, please send on-mic tape (recorded in a studio, with a kit, a smartphone, anything) to aragusea@gmail.com, either as an attachment or through Google Drive. Please keep it short!

Adam Ragusea hosts Current’s weekly podcast The Pub and is a journalist in residence and visiting assistant professor at Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of cities visited by PBS’s listening tour.

  • Tina DiFeliciantonio

    A few key facts:

    1) WNET did not have the common professional courtesy to consult with POV, Indie Lens and ITVS prior to a making such an important decision. Nor did they conduct ANY outreach to the public who they are mandated to serve.

    2) In fact, according to WNET’s December 10th, 2014 Board of Trustees informational package, the scheduling change was a fait accompli weeks, if not months before POV and Indie Lens were informed during the December holidays when many industry professionals were on holiday. And this was just THREE WEEKS prior to POV launching it’s season. What kind of broadcaster would pull such a stunt? A sneaky one. This patronizing behavior revealed a lack professional courtesy, transparency and interest in the public good.

    3) Segaller and Shapiro were surprised by the immediate backlash and put scheduling change on hold. The flip-flopping wreaked havoc with POV’s ability to communicate with the public about airdates, etc., therefore impeding the public’s ability to actually figure out when and on what station the films would be shown.

    4) An expensive, time-consuming Listening Tour was launched for WNET to learn about what it should have already known. This ended-up to be nothing more than a dog and pony show since Segaller insisted during the New York leg that he was resolute in his decision and that nothing anyone said would change his mind.

    5) WNET did not both to conduct even one feasibility study concerning the schedule change, because, by his own admission, Segaller said that he was absolutely sure that his plan would work. Keep in mind that he used to be a producer, not a programmer, and had no experience making such a dramatic scheduling change.

    6) During the April 2015 Board of Trustees meeting, Shapiro and Segaller were disingenuous at best regarding what they told the board.

    7) WNET receives significant funding from New York State, ostensibly to ensure that diverse programming would reach diverse public audiences. We will investigate how this funding is being spent, even if documents need to be attained through the Freedom of Information Act.

    8) After WNET’s April Board of Trustees the one trustee of color present complained that the Board desperately needed to diversify its members.

    By attempting to sidestep the public, WNET has stirred up a hornet’s nest, which could have been avoided if they treated their constituents without such distain.

    • Adam Ragusea

      So, obviously I don’t speak for WNET, I’m just a loudmouth with a radio show. Being who I am, my natural inclination is to be sympathetic toward shows and individual content creators over large institutions. I’m also someone who values a good documentary a lot more than a concert from Lincoln Center (despite being a guy with a music degree). But I kinda feel like these are some really entitled and hyperbolic arguments you’ve made (and most of these are indeed arguments, not “facts”). I may be wrong, and I hope you’ll take my responses as sincere contributions to a productive dialogue.

      1. They did conduct public outreach. It’s called studying the ratings and the donor feedback. Yes, ratings should not be the #1 consideration in public broadcasting, but they certainly should be #2 or #3, as should the data indicating what people financially contribute to. These are empirical indications of how widely the public values what you’re doing. Yes, not everybody can give money, and public broadcasting is supposed to serve everybody. That’s why the #1 consideration should be the programmer’s own good judgement. Surveys and public feedback events notoriously result in bad programming decisions, because people tend not to be honest with you or themselves about what they really want to watch (or they might not even really know what they want), and they certainly don’t factor in the other competing interests that programmers have to consider, like money, capacity, and institutional strategy (see my response to your fourth “fact”). Regarding WNET’s obligation to consult POV, Independent Lens, or ITVS before making its decision, I just don’t see it. Maybe if they were gonna pull the shows out of the schedule entirely, but this strikes me as a pretty routine shuffling, the kind of tough decision that we hire program chiefs to make. Any time you make a decision about the reallocation of a finite resource, there will be winners and losers. Some people are just gonna hate you. I think in most cases, it makes sense to just rip the band-aid off. The alternative is to have a cowardly programmer who just hides in the status quo (no matter how dysfunctional it is) or dumps the tough decisions on other people.

      2. So what? Organizations should carefully consider their actions internally before pulling the trigger and discussing them externally, don’t you think? I take your point that it sucks to be informed right before the season starts, but I mean, there’s NEVER going to be a good time. Segaller and his colleagues are the stewards of a TV station, not POV, they have to do what they earnestly believe is in the best interest of the organization they serve.

      3. Indeed, as I said, I generally think programmers need to make a decision and commit to it. But then again, the backlash is your doing, not their’s, so I think there’s blame to go around.

      4. His resoluteness may indeed be an indication of stubbornness, or it may be an indication that you guys didn’t make sufficiently compelling arguments. It’s probably a little of both. Regardless, I think it’s quite clear from his conversation with me that WNET’s real problem is with its own arts programming languishing on Friday nights. They rightly prioritize their locally-produced programming over other stuff. Stations will die if they continue to serve primarily as middle men distributing other people’s content. That is a 20th century model that is increasingly irrelevant as people can get stuff straight from the source. My bet is WNET is hoping all this pressure will move PBS to re-jigger Friday nights, thereby solving WNET’s real problem to the satisfaction of all. If that happens, then the listening tour will not have been a waste of time.

      5. How exactly would you want them to study it? The guy is programming a TV station, not building a highway. You re-jigger the schedule, you wait a couple Nielsen books, you see how it did, and you reassess. It’s the way it’s always been done. I personally think it’s great to have a producer in charge of programming. Who do you want, some soulless numbers guy? It’s good when people who actually have experience making stuff get into leadership positions.

      6. Don’t know anything about that, but again, not a “fact.”

      7. Well, FOIA is a federal law, what you want is New York’s FOIL. And I say go ahead and FOIL all you want, it’s good to get documents out there. You talk about it like it’s some big threat, it’s not. People don’t work in public media because they want to work in opaque bureaucracies, they tend to be true believers in openness of information. If not, there are plenty of job openings at Comcast. Also, bear in mind that much of what you want is probably already public. Regardless, I think your argument here that WNET is neglecting its mission to the point of it being a violation of the public trust is just way overblown. It’s not like they want to replace the docs on Monday night with three consecutive re-runs of the same Downton Abbey episode (which would probably be the smartest move in terms of ratings). They’re replacing them with really good locally-produced cultural programming, and they’re moving the docs from the second-most watched night to the most-watched night (albeit one hour later) while at the same time giving them an additional airing on another, very popular service. Will the new schedule get the same audience for the docs? I have no idea, but the notion that this move is so wildly out of step with WNET’s mission that it warrants some kind of investigation just seems histrionic to me. I’m someone who believes (and has argued publicly from this pulpit) that public television has undergone some unfortunate mission creep, but WNET’s actions here aren’t even close to the worst example.

      8. Probably true.

      Disdain? Come on, they moved a show from one night to another. Maybe it’s a good idea, maybe it’s not. But it’s not like they secretly sold-off the station and absconded to Cartagena. Let’s keep things in perspective.

      BTW, I figure if just one scheduling tweak from just one TV station can really be so damaging to independent film, that to me indicates a flaw in strategy by the filmmakers more than anything else.

  • Indie Caucus

    Indie Caucus responds to Segaller’s comments. http://eepurl.com/bjBY8z

    • Adam Ragusea

      Hey guys, I think we’d appreciate it if you could alter or amend your response to accurately reflect Segaller’s relationship to our podcast. This was not “his recent podcast,” he was a guest being interviewed on our podcast. Current is an independent entity that covers news about public media. So, you could say, “We must respond to Stephen Segaller’s recent APPEARANCE on Current’s podcast.” For the record, this was only the most recent segment we’ve done on this topic, the first being a lengthy interview with film writer Andrew Lapin, who is pretty squarely in your camp on this: http://current.org/2015/02/the-pub-episode-6-wwfd-what-would-fred-rogers-do-pbs-documentaries-in-danger-david-carr-on-public-media/

      To the substance of your reply, and I say this as an independent commentator about issues in public media, I think you guys continue to either ignore or misunderstand WNET’s primary motivation there. For them, this isn’t about POV and Indie Lens, this is about WNET’s in-house-produced arts programming dying on Fridays. They’re not looking for ratings, they’re looking for ratings for their own original content. That impulse is, in my opinion, sound. Forward-thinking public broadcasting stations know that they can’t just keep being middle men, distributing other people’s content to the masses. That role is doomed to obsolescence as people are increasingly able to get content directly from the source. I think that WNET leaders believe it’s in the best interest of their organization to prioritize their own locally produced stuff, and I think they’re probably right, long term. I think if you want to fix your problem, you need to help them fix their problem. Purely as a matter of negotiation strategy, I reckon you’ll have more success going down that route than just trying to publicly shame them, which nobody responds well to.

  • Indie Caucus

    WNET leadership has gone out of its way to frame the planned scheduling shift as one that would prioritize arts programming and simultaneously enhance viewership of non-fiction film. Yet Indie Caucus remains deeply concerned about the future of these iconic documentary series on Thirteen — and at the national level on PBS.

    Independent Lens and POV almost single-handedly gave birth to what many now see as the “golden age” of documentary. They embody and embolden the core mission of public TV by exploring and nurturing diverse perspectives and impacting national dialogue with stories on critical social and cultural issues that you cannot find on commercial TV. Pulling these shows from primetime on WNET would erode this foundation and threaten independent documentary filmmaking’s place on public TV in the tri-state area and nationwide. The Community Advisory Board has the power to influence station leadership on this issue and as you consider board priorities and actions in the coming months, we wanted to leave you with a few important facts that we feel have been missing from the conversation:

    1. New York City’s population is nearly two-thirds people of color and this city and region deserve public TV that reflects our citizens. WNET’s mission clearly states diversity as a core principal and Independent Lens and POV — more than any other series on PBS — feature diverse makers, diverse voices, and diverse audiences.

    2. These programs have garnered national acclaim and increasing viewership — attributes commensurate with primetime slotting. National ratings have risen over 18% in the last year and since their inception, Independent Lens and POV have been awarded three Academy Awards, 43 National Emmy awards, 17 duPont-Columbia journalism awards, and 29 Peabody Awards.

    3. WNET is the flagship station in this region and a leader within the PBS system — this conflict has profound consequences for the future of programming on public television in general. With 5 million viewers, WNET has the largest reach of any PBS station. Not airing Independent Lens and POV on WNET in primetime could affect how other stations program these series. WNET is a free educational service (i.e. not via a cable or digital subscriber) that has a much wider reach to the community than WLIW, as noted in these FCC maps: WNET (here: http://goo.gl/XyUhPn) vs. WLIW (here: http://goo.gl/IsGtB9). In fact, from Sept 21, 2014 through April 6, 2015, WLIW had 49% less viewership in primetime than WNET.

    4. The problem with audience churn or drop off from Antiques Road Show to Independent Lens and POV is unrelated to Independent Lens and POV scheduling.Nielsen ratings data from 9/23/13-3/30/14 suggests that Independent Lens and POV have a better audience-affinity rate with Antiques Road Show than PBS Arts programming.

  • Tina DiFeliciantonio

    Hi Adam,

    As social issue documentary filmmakers who amplify the voices of those not normally heard in the mainstream media, we thank you for your interest regarding this topic and for sharing your opinions.

    As you may be aware, many of us have been professional media makers for a long, long time. (I directed the first film on AIDS to be nationally broadcast on PBS, winning POV its first National Emmy.) So my relationship with the series is significant. It might be insightful to check out its nearly 30 year history on public television since it connects to the current situation. Fascinating stuff!