PBS has drawn big audiences to “Downton Abbey,” the epic costume drama about elites in early-20th-century Britain. On Sunday it began broadcasting a new British miniseries, “Wolf Hall,” about the Tudors. Dramas like these are helping to revive the “Masterpiece” franchise and PBS’s brand.
Unfortunately PBS is now threatening, for the second time in four years, to downgrade documentaries, which are at the heart of its public mission. As it chases ratings, PBS risks neglecting the core of its public mission and mandate.
At issue are PBS’s two flagship independent-documentary series, “POV,” founded in 1988, and ITVS’s “Independent Lens,” started in 2003. Both take on huge topics of public urgency. “Food Inc.” (2010), from “POV,” exposed harms in the food industry. “Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story” (2011) cast a spotlight on harsh prison sentences for minors, while another “Independent Lens” film, “The Invisible War” (2012), led to changes in the military’s handling of sexual assault.
In October 2011 PBS moved the two series from Tuesday to Thursday evenings. Ratings plunged by as much as 40 percent. PBS’s independent ombudsman warned of “a pattern that I sense of diminishing or less prominent public-affairs programming distributed specifically by PBS in recent years.” Dozens of documentary filmmakers, including Bill Moyers, Stanley Nelson and Alex Gibney, signed an open letter protesting the changes. PBS quickly backed down and gave the shows a desirable Monday 10 p.m. time slot to share. Monday evenings are the second-most-watched time slot on PBS, after Sunday evenings.
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Inexplicably, the two series are under assault again. In December PBS’s flagship station, WNET in New York, proposed bumping the shows from Monday and shifting them to the same time slot on its much smaller sibling station, WLIW. The two programs would be broadcast on WNET as reruns, nearly a week later, at 11 p.m. on Sundays. WNET wants to devote Monday night to arts programming, a driver of financial support for member stations. Its decision could prompt PBS to shift the two series away from the prime-time schedule across much of the country. Amid a new outcry, PBS and WNET have put off a decision until May.
This is much more than a scheduling change: It could devastate independent documentary filmmaking. WLIW has about half the viewership of WNET and does not reach some core parts of the New York region. Moving the films out of prime time means fewer reviews and less publicity. It also threatens funding. When filmmakers apply for grants from foundations or philanthropies, the promise of a robust distribution platform is crucial. The proposal also sends the signal that nonfiction films on challenging subjects are less important to PBS and WNET than costume dramas.
“Independent Lens” and “POV” take on critical social issues overlooked by commercial outlets. They leverage the power of television to expand freedom of expression for people whose voices are not easily heard in American media. Freedom of expression is hollow if you can’t be seen or heard.
The two series also provide an outlet for minority filmmakers. A 2014 study by the Center for Media and Social Impact at American University found that “Independent Lens” was much more diverse than cable. More than 80 percent of the documentaries had at least one minority character, and 30 percent of them had at least one minority director - compared with 13 percent for documentaries on HBO and zero at CNN and ESPN. These two series attract among the largest audiences of black viewers of any PBS program.
At town-hall-style meetings in Chicago, New York and San Francisco, filmmakers and their supporters have called on PBS and WNET to go back to their roots, serving diverse audiences and expanding the national dialogue on critical social issues. The controversy has also been debated at the Sundance Film Festival and South by Southwest.
In a world of expanding mobile platforms, high-speed streaming, infinite cable channels, iTunes, Netflix and YouTube, broadcast television still counts. It’s still one wireless technology available to nearly every American.
For almost a half-century, PBS has been one place on the spectrum in which decisions were based on something far more fundamental and timeless than ratings and earnings: the public interest. Its member stations and programs get substantial government funding. Diversity, community and accountability are cornerstones of its founding charter. PBS should keep those principles in mind and keep independent documentary films where they belong: in prime time.
Norman Lear, a writer and producer of “All in the Family,” “Sanford and Son,” “The Jeffersons” and other television programs, is a founder of People for the American Way.