Indie docs lose viewers, carriage as they’re moved to Thursdays

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The shift of Independent Lens from Tuesdays to Thursdays this season has created ratings and carriage woes for the indie-doc showcase and highlighted two often-conflicting objectives of programmers: winning larger audiences by serving highly valued loyal viewers, and getting more diverse and sometimes daring programming into the public TV lineup.

The 42 percent drop in ratings this season over last has prompted ongoing high-level negotiations between the Independent Television Service (ITVS), which strives to bring diverse voices into the schedule, and PBS, which is reworking its primetime lineup to retain audience from one show to the next (earlier story).

More than ratings are at stake. Garry Denny, Wisconsin Public Television programmer and chair of the ITVS Board, said that the diverse content typical of independently produced docs not only attracts a broader audience, as the field desires, but also burnishes public TV’s reputation.

“Because PBS is recognized as the primary source for independent media, the ripple effect is that we generate interest and support from foundations and individuals who share our common vision and mission,” Denny said. “This fact doesn’t go unnoticed by station members and donors, national influentials or even members of Congress, whose combined continued support makes public TV possible.”

The change, announced to programmers last May, took effect Oct. 13, at the beginning of the present season. The move will also apply to the similar indie vehicle P.O.V. when it kicks off its 25th season in June.

Both shows move from Tuesday’s third hour of primetime (10 p.m. Eastern), after Frontline, to Thursday’s third hour of prime, following whatever local stations have scheduled there.

Thursdays, like Saturdays, traditionally have been scheduled more freely by local stations than other nights of the week where PBS concentrates its stronger programs.

For this reason, Thursday is the home for local productions in many cities, and they are now pitted against the two indie-doc vehicles that lost their time-share perch on Tuesdays.

Since the schedule changes, Nielsen overnight ratings for pubTV’s main digital channels in Tuesday primetime are virtually holding steady, registering 0.93 last year and 0.95 this year, according to TRAC Media Research. Maintaining audience is impressive because Tuesday nights had lost the stronger audience draw of Nova in the PBS schedule shuffle, said Craig Reed, TRAC’s director of audience analysis.

But advocates of independent documentaries are distressed that Independent Lens lost 42 percent of its audience in the first two months after the move, compared with the same period last season, according to Nielsen data obtained by Current and verified by TRAC Media.

The doc vehicle lost the advantageous audience flow from Frontline, a compatible and often comparably serious lead-in on Tuesdays. Now many stations pair it with a much lighter lead-in fed by PBS, the home renovation package This Old House Hour.

It also lost favorable airtimes on many stations, TRAC confirmed. Of 300 public TV stations that carried Independent Lens on their main DTV channels, 91 carried it outside of primetime — five times as many as last year.

At KQED in San Francisco, programmer Scott Dwyer thought Frontline and Independent Lens paired well on Tuesdays. But that flow doesn’t exist when stations run dramas or comedies on Thursdays. “That’s where they’re having problems,” he said.

PBS chief programmer John Wilson said in response to written questions from Current that the network is “fully committed to independent film and the diversity of content they provide.” He noted that last year approximately 120 independent productions appeared in the PBS primetime schedule. “We are dedicated to working with our colleagues at P.O.V. and Independent Lens to take a holistic look at these two series and independent film in general,” he said.

He also noted that PBS has spotted “positive trends” in the audience for Independent Lens. Viewing frequency has increased, and minutes watched by viewers has remained constant. In many weeks, he said, the total number of broadcasts of the series has exceeded those of last year.

“These are all important measures,” Wilson said, “yet we all want to see even stronger results and audience growth, which is why PBS’s content team is working closely with colleagues at ITVS and P.O.V. on plans for next season. Our goal is to ensure that work of independent filmmakers reaches the widest audience possible.”

Sally Jo Fifer, president of ITVS, the San Francisco-based home to the 10-year-old Independent Lens series, confirmed that talks are ongoing. “We are working with PBS leadership to look carefully at the new schedule and to try to ensure that we bring, in the broadest way, independent and diverse voices to broadcast,” she said.

Wilson said that as PBS evaluates its National Program Service schedule as a whole, “we’ll review the results of the year-round, weekly slot Thursdays at 10 p.m. and consider other scheduling options for fall 2012 and beyond.”

“We always work closely with our series producers,” he added. “As we lock in the overall PBS schedule going forward, we will discuss options with Independent Lens and P.O.V.”

Daisy Bates v. Miss Marple

At Nashville Public Television, Independent Lens ratings are down 37 percent this season over last, said Beth Curley, station president and a new member of the ITVS Board. Independent Lens is an important program for the station and its viewers, she said. NPT has a presence at the Nashville Film Festival, a popular event each spring.

“We’ve been struggling” to find a good spot for the indie series, Curley said. “When it was on Tuesday, it had a home. On Thursday, we’ve got blockbuster ratings for local programming. We were thinking: Sunday night after Masterpiece. But that’s tricky, because sometimes [Independent Lens] is 90 minutes. We have this conversation every month when we’re putting the schedule together.”

In Wisconsin, Denny doesn’t have those problems; for years he has aired Independent Lens in Friday primetime, and the shows have done well, pulling in an overall average of 1.0 in the Madison market. In addition, WPT produces a local show on Fridays, Director’s Cut, featuring indie mediamakers and their films.

WNET in New York, previously airing Independent Lens on Tuesdays, has shifted it to Sunday nights.

Filmmaker Sharon La Cruise’s Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock, a profile of an unconventional civil-rights activist, debuted this month on Independent Lens. La Cruise was surprised and disappointed that it didn’t run in her home market of New York City at 10 p.m. Thursday. Instead, WNET gave the slot to a Masterpiece Mystery! repeat of a Miss Marple episode from 2010. The station aired her Daisy Bates documentary at 11 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday.

“How many episodes of Antiques Roadshow and Masterpiece can you run?” La Cruise said. “When I look at WNET programming, these types of shows seem to dominate their lineup.” She said neither of those programs addresses public TV’s mission of presenting diverse viewpoints, though “they do serve a certain demographic that does support PBS’s fundraising efforts.”

“From the outside, that is how it appears,” she said, “and this new decision to put Independent Lens on Thursday night doesn’t help the perception that PBS has lost its way as far as its overall purpose.”

The station used to run Independent Lens at 10 p.m. Tuesdays before it moved, said Kellie Specter, WNET spokesperson. “Our Thursday night lineup is comprised of local programming, and we’ve been running Mystery! there for a while,” she said.

Fifer doesn’t like to see Independent Lens in that conflict. “We don’t want to compete with local programming, which is so critical; it’s another key mission of public broadcasting,” she said.

Going for the flow

PBS has rearranged its primetime schedule this season, informed by detailed daily national Nielsen ratings that it has received since October 2009. By scheduling programs with similar viewer appeal in adjacent slots, the network has a better chance of hanging onto viewers between programs.

To improve this audience flow and retention, the network devoted Mondays to Antiques Roadshow and its forthcoming partner program, Market Wars.

Tuesdays highlight history and public affairs. A variety of history shows including History Detectives and Secrets of the Dead have been moved into the first hour of primetime (8 p.m. Eastern), putting American Experience in the second hour and pushing Frontline into the former spot for Independent Lens/P.O.V.

Wednesdays are science nights, with Nova moved there from Tuesday and Nature from Sunday. Masterpiece runs Sunday nights, which also includes a slot for Finding Your Roots, the latest from Harvard professor and PBS star Henry Louis Gates.

“People have had difficulty navigating through our schedule,” PBS President Paula Kerger said in January at the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour in Pasadena. “Being able to build destination nights and really build programs that link well together on a single night seems to be working out quite well.” PBS is encouraged by the results: After adding Nova to Nature last year, Kerger told critics, Wednesday-night viewing rose 47 percent on average, or by about 700,000 viewers.

But Thursdays are different. As PBS’s Wilson said at the critics’ press tour, “One of the things that was really important to [station execs] was to make sure they had a place in primetime during the week that they would have access to. Thursday night remains that place,” considered a “no-fly zone,” as he called it, for national carriage. That night, PBS does feed programs, necessary to smaller stations without local shows. The lineup is This Old House; a repeat, perhaps Antiques Roadshow or Frontline; and Independent Lens (generally October through May) and P.O.V. (June through September).

Occasional Independent Lens specials occur outside the Thursday slot: Being Elmo, about the puppeteer behind the popular Sesame Street character, is scheduled for 9 p.m. Eastern on Thursday, April 5, and Hell and Back Again, about a Marine returning from the Afghanistan war, is set for 10 p.m. May 28, a Monday. Both are high-profile, critically acclaimed offerings.

Simon Kilmurry, P.O.V. executive director, said that show will examine its ratings and carriage data this summer. “We are talking to PBS about the best way to support independent films on the schedule,” he said. “This is still very much a work in progress.”

Among programmers, said Idaho PTV’s Ron Pisaneschi, “there’s frustration with PBS taking back nights or slots on nights that it had abandoned for years, and then putting in either common-carriage programs or things that have to go there.” That’s especially troublesome on Thursdays, when “a lot of stations have spent energy building an audience for British mysteries or local programs,” he said.

Kilmurry realizes that programmers often shift P.O.V. from night to night or to later hours. Sometimes the reason is extra length, other times it’s controversial content. “The reality is, Tuesday was a good night for us, we got good carriage,” he said. “But there are always markets that moved us around. That’s the nature of the beast.”

Dwyer of KQED generally puts hourlong Independent Lens offerings at 11 p.m. on Thursdays; he hunts for spots for the 90-minute shows, which might go onto a secondary channel. “There’s been a bit of a ratings dip but not large” in that market for the show compared with last season, Dwyer said.

Dwyer serves on the P.O.V. program-selection committee this year, and he’s done so for Independent Lens in the past. He’s a big fan of their films, and so is PBS, he says. “It’s not like PBS doesn’t have a commitment to independent work — that’s just not true. We’re all trying to find the best place to air these shows.”

Beyond TV, demographics shift

“ITVS was founded on the belief that independent producers tell stories no one else will,” Fifer said. “The partnership between public broadcasting and independents delivers something truly unique — a steady flow of programming reflecting underrepresented communities. Even in this world of 8 million channels, no other venue exists for authentic, unstereotyped and unsensationalized voices so critical to real dialogue.”

“We have changing demographics. In 2050 projections, a majority of residents will be ethnically diverse. In California, right now, under the age of 18, a majority are.”

“Getting to that next generation and bringing fully diverse demographics into public broadcasting is a goal,” she said, “and these diverse stories need to be a part of the strategy.” But what of the stations’ needs for core viewers who are often donors as well? “We see stations struggling to balance community and commerce and take seriously our role in ensuring public broadcasting stays vibrant and sustainable,” Fifer says. “Indies are an essential piece of that strategy.”

Denny remains optimistic that ongoing talks between Independent Lens and PBS will reach a good conclusion. “As an article of faith and because of past experience,” he said, “I have always trusted the programming staff at PBS to craft schedules that serve the many needs of our audience and of member stations. The folks in PBS Programming are very smart and hard-working.”

“However,” he said, “they must always be mindful that while high ratings are great, staying true to our core mission is critical to our success and sustainability. Mission service is in our collective DNA.”

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