To PBS, With (Tough) Love

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Neither of us is old enough to have been fooled by the Trojan Horse (see Wikipedia). But we each have been working in public television decades enough to remember the days when distribution was handled by physically transporting bulky 2-inch videotapes from station to station — “bicycled” was the word — and much of the broadcast day and night was devoted to blackboard lectures, string quartets and lessons in Japanese brush painting: The old educational television versions of reality TV.

Yet it also was a time of innovation and creativity. As the system evolved we saw bold experiments like PBL — the Public Broadcasting Laboratory and Al Perlmutter’s The Great American Dream Machine, each a predecessor to the commercial TV magazine shows 60 Minutes and 20/20.  The TV Lab, jointly run by David Loxton at WNET in New York and Fred Barzyk at WGBH in Boston, nurtured and encouraged the first generation of video artists — Nam June Paik, Bill Viola and William Wegman among others — and the early documentary work of such video pioneers as Jon Alpert and Keiko Tsuno of the Downtown Community Television Center, Alan and Susan Raymond, and the wild and woolly, guerrilla camera crews of TVTV.

The descendants of those pathfinders are the independent filmmakers whose works have not only re-energized the motion picture industry but also have vastly expanded the realm of the documentary — in both the scope of its storytelling and the size and diversity of its audience. Public television has faithfully provided an enormous national stage where nonfiction films can be seen by far more people than could ever buy tickets at the handful of movie houses willing to put documentaries up on their theater screens.

As Gordon Quinn of the independent documentary company Kartemquin Films (Hoop Dreams) told Anthony Kaufman of the website IndieWire, “In terms of having an audience in a democratic society, in terms of getting people talking about things, there’s nothing like a PBS broadcast. PBS is free, and it’s huge in getting into rural areas. That reach, all over the country, it’s a critically important audience that’s vastly underserved.”

Two PBS series have provided outstanding showcases for the work of new and established documentarians and between them have 13 Oscar nominations and 54 Emmys to prove it. For years, Independent Lens and POV held a nationwide time slot as part of the PBS core schedule on Tuesday nights, with public TV stalwart Frontline as a worthy lead-in, funneling to the independent films just the kind of audience that enjoys and appreciates documentaries.

But this season, PBS chose to move Independent Lens and POV to a new time slot — 10 PM ET, on Thursday nights. This may not seem like such a big deal at first, until you know that on Thursday nights stations can broadcast any program they like in prime time, whether it’s part of the PBS schedule or not. Many take the opportunity to offers viewers locally produced programs, British sitcoms or reruns of Antiques Roadshow. As a result, episodes of the independent documentary series can now be run anywhere local stations choose to fit them in (here in New York, WNET airs the films at 11 pm on Sundays) or maybe not at all.

POV does not begin the new season — its 25th — until June, but as Dru Sefton first reported in the public broadcasting trade publication Current, in the first few months since Independent Lens was shuffled into its new Thursday time slot last October, ratings plummeted 42 percent from the same period last season. With programs scattered throughout the schedule in different cities, not only is it now more difficult for viewers to find them but coordinated national advertising and promotion campaigns are, at best, extremely difficult.

The team at PBS consists of dedicated people; all are our colleagues and many are our friends. They are constantly looking for ways to increase the audience that watches public television. But there is always a danger, in any organization, of only seeing the world from the top down, and then counting heads to measure whether something is good or not. An open letter to PBS from Kartemquin Films says it well:

“Public television is not just a popularity contest, or a ratings game.  Taxpayers support public broadcasting because democracy needs more than commercial media’s business models can provide. PBS’ programming decision makes a statement about PBS’ commitment to the mission of public broadcasting.”

It goes on to note the mandate cited in the recently revised and reissued Code of Editorial Integrity for Local Public Media Organizations: “Our purposes are to support a strong civil society, increase cultural access and knowledge, extend public education, and strengthen community life through electronic media and related community activities.”

Most of both our careers have been in public television.  Our affection and gratitude for it abideth, but we are not blind to the problems. Public broadcasting’s ever-tenuous funding places it in a perpetual dilemma and forces it into a delicate balancing act. PBS provides programming like Independent Lens and POV that may not garner the most viewers but helps fulfill its essential mission of public service — and, candidly, attracts grants from kindred spirits who believe in a robust mix of ideas and visions. But to lure a wider audience, it also airs what our neighborhood diner calls “lighter fare” — whether entertaining, upscale imports like Downton Abbey, home-grown, how-to programs like This Old House or  (during pledge drives) nostalgic reruns of  folk musicians, pop crooners, and financial and spiritual gurus – aimed at older viewers with, presumably, more disposable income.

Add to this the constant political pressures, especially from conservative politicians ever eager to cut off its funding (Mitt Romney says he wants to see commercials on “Sesame Street”), plus the self-censorship that all too often results, and you get a tendency toward orthodoxy and an aversion to controversy.

A PBS spokesperson told The New York Times that the service “is fully committed to independent films and the diversity of content they provide.” That can quickly be demonstrated by reversing a bad decision and returning to a national core time slot the independent documentaries created — often at real financial sacrifice — by the producers and filmmakers whose own passion is to reveal life honestly and to make plain, for all to see, the realities of inequality and injustice in America.

Along with its open letter to PBS, Kartemquin Films published a petition and asked for signatures from independent filmmakers and their supporters. We two are among the more than 300 who have signed it as of this writing. If you think the creativity and unique visions of  life captured by independent producers, journalists and filmmakers deserve the best possible platform on public television, you can read and sign it yourself.

The effort has made a difference. Talks are ongoing and the Times reports that PBS now has “agreed to find a new home next season” for the two series. An announcement is expected to be made at the PBS annual meeting in May. That’s good news, but until the decision is made, it’s important to keep letting them know how you feel — write PBS or sign that petition.

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  • Gordon Quinn

    Wonderful piece Bill.  

  • Anneconley

    Bill Moyers-you are the one consistent, sane voice on TV these days.  Thank you for continuing your work.

  • Cyntthiaw

    Again, Mr. Moyers thank you for standing up for PEOPLE!! We all appreciate you!

  • Editor

    Mr. Moyers is a valuable voice in this age of crumbling US media empire. PBS/NPR, like too many previously mind expanding venues, have been perverted by government interference – particularly in the make up of  the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, i. e. government appointments to the CPB who come directly from US propaganda operations like Voice of America, Radio Marti, Radio Liberty and so on. Steeped in the subtlety of deception, all things not considered seems to be the new trend – especially on political issues.

    The last straw of my support, for this once venerable source of objectivity, came with the institution of David Brooks, an arch conservative whose stinging line on Newshour, and on every other venue he appeared after the 2000 selection “Finally, the people who own the country get to run it.” was never confronted as heresy in our once democratic republic. NPR/PBS morphed into just another commercial “news” entity.

    Publicly broadcasting non-political programming remains the best of what publicly funded broadcasting does, but the hole it has created by neutering Frontline and other similar programs essential for people’s understanding of government, liberty and the role of citizens is inexcusable.

  • Mmveghte

    The return of my idol, Bill Moyers, has made my life worth celebrating!  How I languished when I heard of your retirement!  I came close to retiring myself — and I’m 83 years old and still going.  The more the merrier, Bill Moyers, and another  cliche:  more power to  you!

  • Sylph1

    Bill, I wish you had supported “Need To Know” as strongly as” POV”. WETA  has sent this valuable show into oblivion by constantly changing its timeslot,etc. Apparently, PBS has abandoned itself to “Celtic Women”,” Antiques Roadshow” and” Aging Rocker” specials for the bucks they bring in. This year, I pledged during “The Power of Myth”(thank you for updating it ) just to try to send THE MESSAGE…

  • Kenegbert3rd

    Well said, Bill!  I have fewer problems with, say, local PBS stations dangling WOMEN WHO ROCK or a 25th anniversary rebroadcast of  Peter, Paul and Mary’s 25th anniversary  concert (which would make it 50) in front of us during pledge drive time, but ‘POV’ and ‘Independent Lens’ must remain on PBS as well and be given stable time slots.  I watch 10 hours of PBS a week (yes, I’m a member) and I have actually forgotten the last time I was able to find either of them.  I have no doubt that if NOVA’s Brian Greene programs on ‘The Fabric of the Cosmos’ can draw such a high number of head-scratchers (myself included; the ‘holographic principle’ wha?!), a properly advertised Independent Lens or POV can do it as well.  And this means a steady time slot!  Give me ‘MI-5′ and give me ‘Frontline,’ yes, but there must be room for ‘POV’ and ‘Independent Lens.’

  • Delaney-s

    Would that we had more programs such as we are seeing on the Moyers and Co line up this season.  We send the information on the show and featured discussions to all on our email list.
    When will we see something on the Supreme Court ruling re: Citizens United and now the interesting timing of the Obama’s Health Care initiative, now before the Supreme Court.  How much more can Americans take of the biased political influence surrounding the 2012 elections?  Money is ruling everything in our country today, those that have many millions are able to control where the country is going, and it is not to the advantage of the entire population, but to the 1%.

  • David Gregory

    I think the endless bashing PBS/CPB have gotten from the right wing has gotten to PBS and made them timid. The search for funding has put NOVA in the grip of the Koch brothers, PBS tells Bill Moyers there is no room at the inn, NewsHour fills it guest list with Right Wing pundits and think tank staffers with no balance in sight, NOW gets strangled, the train wreck of Need to Know and now the removal of Independent Lens and P.O.V. from the PBS prime time lineup. What set of values does this represent?

    I have supported PBS and public broadcasting over the years in many ways- from membership to purchasing items from PBS home video and iTunes. I am increasingly disturbed by the drift away from the mandate and the horrible programming decisions made by my local PBS member stations- making it look more ‘local’ and trading PBS/APM content for ‘local’ content produced by local commercial media firms that seems like little more than paid advertising. I will not hesitate to express my displeasure at the drift at PBS to the mandate of public media.

    The problem is not the audience- there are plenty of people who value public affairs television. The problem is not producers- there are more talented and committed independent producers of content suited for PBS than ever before. The problem is not technology- the internet and microelectronics have democratized the production and distribution of public media in ways unimaginable just a few years ago. The problem is not funding- my wallet is open to support quality programming in many ways and I am not alone.

    The problem, I suspect, lies at CPB and/or PBS. The decisions made have been disastrous- ask KCET why they left PBS to go independent. Look at the lack of balance on the PBS NewsHour- when was the last time ANY person from progressive think tanks or media have been invited on air. It’s all Right Wing & Beltway all the time. Look at the programming decisions which reflect the values of those in charge. If that is so, PBS and CPB need to clean house and re-staff with people who are committed to diversity, inconvenient truths and controversial content.

  • David Gregory

    Need to Know was a prime example of the current values of PBS. It looked like local TV newz glitz with the milquetoast coverage and story selection of commercial TV. The choice of hosts could not have been more centered in conventional media wisdom.

    PBS was created as a refuge from the values of commercial broadcasting- an antidote to the vast wasteland of Minnow and the lights in a box of Murrow. It was not created for Lawrence Welk reruns and nostalgia shows. It was also not set aside for me too content like Need to Know.

  • Unsanitorial

    Yep, Need to Know ran out of stuff Moyers had already told us in stronger language. It was a figleaf to cover the Koch brothers financial genitals poking into public TV.

  • Unsanitorial

    The Supreme Court is hearing arguments but will not render any Affordable Care Act decisions before June 2012. Moyers has time on this. War and Poverty are the overarching issues. I hope they will examine both in detail.

  • David Gregory

    Look at the selection of guests on NewsHour- it is so heavily biased to Right Wing Think Tanks and pundits that any contention of balance is laughable. When have you seen anyone from outside the beltway bubble or the Right Wing punditocracy? Why do they not ID guests in the paid service of the right wing as such? For example, someone from The American Enterprise Institute should be IDd as an employee of a Right Wing Think Tank. That is not currently the case.

    NewsHour NEVER shows a stand alone interview with a progressive guest- only in a panel with one or more right wingers. However, the right wingers or a whole panel of them are welcome on a regular basis.

    NewsHour has been polluted with castoffs from commercial network television and it has biased the selection of guests and questions. Where are the voices of independent media or the progressive viewpoint? We hear plenty of beltway speak and conventional wisdom but very little from outside the D.C.- N.Y. bubbles.

  • Unsanitorial

    If you run an ad and a million viewers send you $5 you’re empowered.
    If a billionaire sends you 5 million you’re disempowered.
    Make a good documentary, wouldn’t it.

  • David Gregory

    I am sympathetic to the unrelenting bashing CPB/NPR/PBS has been under from the reactionary right since the days of Newt Gingrich as House Speaker and the frontal assault from the Bush administration. That sill does not excuse their abandonment of the mandate of public media.
    I find it interesting that so many Right WIngers first learned of Milton Friedman from the series Free To Choose on PBS and now campaign against PBS claiming bias.

  • Stan Smith

     You’re right to call for more rebuttals from progressives.
    However, I fear the voices of public intellectuals, who used to balance and mediate
    conversations about issues in the public sphere,  have been edged out of the picture by insecure
    right wing  producers who eschew robust
    debate in favor of lopsided commentary full of loyalty and fervor.

    Stan Smith
    UCLA School of Public Affairs
    Doctoral Student

  • lilith

    My two local PBS stations in Atlanta don’t even show your new show on a regular basis. I have to watch you on my computer. 

  • Unsanitorial

    Channel 42 in Charlotte (WTVI) cut Bill off, so there goes that membership fee.
    I didn’t realize the Moody Blues were in assisted living. Thanks for telling me.
    Now I can trash their albums right along with your junk mail appeals. Being “on the computer” for M&C is life support. Don’t pull my plug.

  • Unsanitorial

    When you examine the credentials of the Public Affairs television staff you find that many are documentary award winners who’ve been informing us for decades. They know what news and issues video does to improve America.  From Judy Doctoroff O’Neill to Teresa Riley  they’re worth their weight in gold. 

  • Unsanitorial

    Wait, how strange that SCETV (WNSC- Rock Hill, SC) still carries Moyers&Company at 8pm on Fridays. (Not on my economy cable, and barely in my digital antenna range, but available) How did this get by Nikki Haley? (Conservative radical SC Gov.) Here’s one of the most corrupt and backward states in the nation yet their Public TV network retains some dignity. But Moyers is blacked out in NC, the education state with the Democrat governor. Why is that Bev? Maybe they ain’t afraid of union talk in magnolia land, but the host of the Democratic Convention this August (in Charlotte- banktown) has to keep the lid on.

  • JohnB

    I am 68 years old. I have seen a growing presence and influence of big business, big money impacting public television through the years. It still shows good independent television. I feel you can expect much more of this type of manipulation. They obviously want the money from big business and independence. Can you have both?