WNET keeps indie docs on Monday nights, while PBS plans to boost promotion

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At a forum about documentaries on public TV, PBS’s Nelson tells the crowd how she came to the network because of her interest in independent film. (Photos: Adrienne Rae, memorandumimage.com)

PBS’s Marie Nelson speaks at a forum about public TV documentaries at American University in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Adrienne Rae)

PBS unveiled Thursday its plan to increase the reach and visibility of its independent documentaries after months of soliciting feedback from filmmakers and fans of the films.

Independent Lens and POV, public television’s documentary showcases, will remain in their current slot of 10 p.m. Eastern time in PBS’s feed. They will also stay at that time on WNET in New York City, which raised concerns among filmmakers last December when it announced plans to shift the programs to make room for its own arts programming.

In its announcement, PBS said that while it will not designate the showcases for common carriage, which many filmmakers argued for, it will create “a number of programming events” tied to independent films for common carriage over the 2015-16 season. Those events will pair related PBS content with a film to keep and build audience from one program to another, a strategy that has succeeded in PBS’s prime-time schedule over the past several years.

“That means looking for films to partner with other important programming that PBS is offering in prime time, to bring new audiences to independent films,” said Marie Nelson, PBS v.p. of news and public affairs, in an interview.

Under the plan, PBS will also:

    • Increase marketing and promotion budgets for films;
    • Add theatrical releases of the docs;
    • Create half-hour sizzle reels for station promotions;
    • Develop a non-credit online college course on documentary filmmaking; and
    • Enter into a new licensing agreement with Indieflix, a subscription-based streaming service, that will start in May with 85 PBS films.

PBS will also reach out directly to public TV stations that don’t air the showcases at feed time. “We want to engage them in a round of briefings to share this new strategy with station programmers” with the hope that they will “reconsider their lineup,” Nelson said.

Stephen Segaller, head of national programming at WNET, hinted at that strategy on an April 9 episode of Current’s podcast, The Pub. Segaller estimated that about half of stations in the Top 50 markets schedule Independent Lens and POV at different times.

“My view has always been, let’s talk to those stations and those programmers and find out what their problem is, why they don’t, and where they would be willing to put” the shows, Segaller said.

Overall, the new strategy will “help us reach the younger, diverse audiences who are among the most passionate fans of indies,” said Beth Hoppe, PBS programming chief, in the announcement.

The college course on documentary films would be a first for PBS LearningMedia, Nelson said. Until now the educational resource has focused on kindergarten through 12 th-grade tools and curricula. POV’s 28-year archive of filmmaker interviews can be culled for use in the course, said series Executive Director Simon Kilmurry.

PBS is still finalizing details of its plan, such as how many special events and theatrical releases will take place and which films will be highlighted. More details will be announced at the PBS Annual Meeting in May, including a session during the Public Television Programmers Association meeting, Hoppe told general managers in an email.

UPDATE: The Indie Caucus, representing independent filmmakers, released a statement saying in part, “We are pleased that our conversations with PBS have been productive with the news today that PBS has committed to keeping POV and Independent Lens in their Monday night broadcast schedule.”

The independent documentary series “speak to the core of what public television is all about and like others I am encouraged by this new agreement,” said filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz in the statement. “I think we have all learned that there is a large, diverse and active set of audiences for these films and its now time to think about further growing these audiences — in particular, younger and more diverse viewers.”

“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,” added filmmaker Katy Chevigny.

The caucus noted that it “remains committed to working with PBS to develop new audiences and new filmmakers to these programs. Documentary films have the power to hold a mirror to society and elevate diverse voices and narratives. Independent Lens and POV are central to this space and lead broadcast and cable networks in spotlighting underrepresented stories and filmmakers. We are watching closely to see what comes next and will continue to hold PBS and its member stations accountable to their mission.”