We have a crappy public sphere in the US, as any fule kno. Public schools, public libraries, public parks, public broadcasting – they all have to struggle and beg to get minimal funding. They’re public, you see, and that’s socialism, and that’s the devil.
Norman Lear in the New York Times points out that PBS is starving its documentary shows in favor of soapy entertainment like Downton Fucking Abbey.
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.
There was an outcry, and PBS blushed and put the series back where they could thrive.
Inexplicably, the two series are under assault again. In December, PBS’s flagship station, WNET (Channel 13) in New York, proposed bumping the series from Monday and shifting them to the same time slot on its much smaller sibling station, WLIW (Channel 21). 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 crap. Downton F Abbey is commercial; it’s a pretentious soap opera that appeals to everyone’s fantasy of living in a huge house with a large butler. The Public Broadcasting Service shouldn’t be treating that as its showpiece.
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.
Yeah but they’re not Luxury Porn, so the hell with them, right?
At town-hall-style meetings inSan Francisco, New York andChicago, 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.
PBS, for almost a half-century, 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.
But as long as everyone’s more interested in where Lady Evangelina left her underpants, PBS probably won’t.