Moyers: PBS Must Return Hard-Hitting Documentaries to Prime Time
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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 .