Continuing our series of letters from past executive producers for POV, Ellen Schneider admits her initial skepticism of the new series, and her surprise when audiences and the press alike couldn’t get enough of the show’s initial programming. By the late nineties, Schneider helped pioneer some of POV’s earliest audience engagement efforts outside of broadcasts. Here’s her story, originally written for POV’s 15th anniversary and updated below:
“Media That Would Make a Difference”
In 1988, a friend called to ask if I would help with a PBS independent documentary series just completing its first season. The series was POV, the brainchild of New Yorker Marc Weiss. My job would be to get TV critics to write about the programs.
I scoffed. After all, I had done the documentary thing. I had left San Francisco for Hollywood precisely to get away from documentaries. I wanted to work with media that people see, that would make a difference. I reluctantly agreed to screen some of the programs.
My heart raced, then sank as I watched Dark Circle, a searing investigation of Rocky Flats nuclear facility by Chris Beaver and Judy Irving, and Who Killed Vincent Chin?, Chris Choy and Rene Tajima’s indelible film about the murder of a Chinese engineer who was mistaken for a Japanese auto worker.
Here was everything I’d been making up for those anemic movie-of-the-week treatments: urgent issues, moral dilemmas, plot twists, complex villains, heroism, even hope. But I was sure that working with this—okay, gripping—content would be a personal career mistake.
I signed a six-month contract. Within weeks, a handful of brave but bored TV critics were so thrilled to have something provocative to write about that they proffered advice and their home phone numbers. Station buy-in increased. Viewership grew.
By my third season, Tongues Untied, Marlon Riggs’ poetic essay on the gay African American experience, had unleashed a whole new level of attention, from detractors to First Amendment advocates, from gay publications to conservative legislators, from PFLAG to American Family Association.
And I started taking the catalytic power of these stories more seriously. We’d been pretty good at audience development: we let the New York-based Bombay Times know about Michael Camerini’s Kamala and Raji, and we made sure that freedom-of-expression advocates were aware of Jerry Blumenthal and Gordon Quinn’s Golub.
But clearly the film could do more: inspire people to take steps toward each other, consider unconventional ideas or get involved in public policy. Community groups could use these stories to increase civic engagement in ways we’d never imagined. And the films fit firmly into public broadcasting’s mission “to encourage the development of programming that involves creative risks and that addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences.”
We started to focus on films about AIDS, beginning with a targeted tune-in campaign for Peter Adair and Janet Cole’s Absolutely Positive (1990), which premiered when the epidemic was ten years old and the public was showing signs of empathy fatigue. By the time Silverlake Life: The View from Here (1993) by Tom Joslin and Peter Friedman aired, we had a small grant from the Ford Foundation to expand our work with the AIDS community.
Soon viewers were adding their faces, voices and perspectives. In our first installment of “Talking Back” in 1993, for example, a suburban mother from Utah, framed by towering snowcapped mountains, recounts how after seeing the program she talked to her teenaged daughter about what she needed to do to protect herself.
By the time Amber Holibaugh and Gini Reticker’s The Heart of the Matter (1994) aired, we knew a lot more about how storytelling could move people to positive action. Again with support from Ford, we signed up 15 communities that wanted to leverage this story about one HIV-positive woman’s crusade against AIDS. The campaigns forged new partnerships between mainstream groups like the American Red Cross and women’s collective health clinics. Using a method we’d soon call “High Impact Television,” we helped each partner coalition see how this stunning film—made available free of charge to virtually every American—might harmonize relationships between competing AIDS groups, raise the visibility of public services, even educate lawmakers on the implications of pending health legislation.
We experimented with content, partnerships and the roles of stations and filmmakers. Debbie Hoffmann’s Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter (1995) became a tool for Alzheimer associations; a Cleveland chapter, for example, attracted local press coverage when it held multiple screenings for daughters caring for their afflicted mothers. When we learned that Laurel Chiten’s Twitch and Shout (1995) might prevent people with Tourette Syndrome from being confused with violent criminals, we helped police departments in several urban centers use the film as a sensitizing tool for officers.
By POV’s tenth anniversary, the series made “relationship building” with motivated viewers, grassroots groups and non traditional audiences a priority. It was enjoying weekly viewer feedback through POV Interactive, another Weiss idea, and the Talking Back segment had become part of the broadcast. Partnerships with ITVS (Independent Television Service), the National Minority Consortia and public television stations were helping the broadcasts catalyze new activities in communities nationwide.
Thoroughly hooked, we launched the Television Race Initiative in 1997, which enabled us to build on the momentum generated by a single program and deepen it for our community partners. By linking over a dozen broadcasts (from POV and beyond) that dealt with issues of race and culture, we were able to leverage them strategically with community-based coalitions in six pilot sites. By 2001, that initiative led to Active Voice, a formal fee-based sister division of POV that made film-based community-building tools such as customized training, video modules designed in collaboration with end-users and culturally sensitive framing materials available to producers on POV and beyond. Because of that POV’s pipeline became rich with provocative, often breathtaking documentaries about race, globalization, immigration, human rights and community health.
Okay. So I was wrong about the future of documentaries and POV, underscored by the fact that, 30 years later, I’m still connected. Happy anniversary, POV. Many happy returns.