As a matter of practicality, it wasn’t possible for everyone’s voice to be heard at the New York PBS National Listening Tour stop on February 23rd. To take advantage of this moment to hear from our community, we conducted two surveys around the event. The first survey, available in full here, asked attendees to highlight specific issues to help shape the conversation. The second survey, also available in full,  focused on the event itself, to further the conversation and provide important insight for the third stop of the PBS National Listening Tour.

The pre-event survey began with the understanding that PBS is committed to creating a sustainable, multiple-year strategy that will allow PBS, local public television stations, and filmmakers to jointly claim the position “PBS, Home of Independent Documentary.”

68% of 167 survey respondents identified as independent filmmakers and 47% identified as a viewer of independent film on PBS. 83% of respondents said that POV and Independent Lens airing in primetime on primary channels mattered to them.

Independent filmmakers have deep affiliations with thousands of NGO’s, schools, and community organizations across the country. We asked attendees to share specific ideas and recommendations for how local stations, filmmakers, Independent Lens & POV, and PBS can aggregate this resource to build audiences for the broadcasts.

Many independent filmmakers expressed a desire for more national promotional support for independent films on POV and Independent Lens:

Clearly designed social media and well funded or campaigns which support filmmaker and expert panels and live interactions w these organizations audiences where appropriate; through adequately developed educational institution distribution designed in partnership with (not separately from) already existing specialty distributors; through partnerships w private companies identified by experts in public service consumer tie ins that can help raise public viewership and engagement via sponsored advertising and event underwriting; partnering with organizations like TED talks; targeting subject related foundations for screening support; identifying film/program subjects able to take on more outreach and supporting them, not just filmmakers.

There would need to be the resources at PBS to leverage the connections for each independent film. Often the filmmakers have the ideas but not the manpower to implement contacting a wide array of organizations. If there were more resources from PBS that went to promoting the POV and IL films, and more resources for outreach to work with the filmmakers, it would be better. Also, PBS should help more in getting filmmakers on NPR and other national news outlets. All the HBO films that were in competition with my film on Sundance got interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air. The POV and IL films hardly ever are. More help with that kind of major press will help!

There was a desire expressed for openness, inclusion and resource-sharing with the independent filmmaker community.

The community of independent documentary filmmakers is remarkable. This is a resource of vision, intelligence, passion, and energy that can be easily nurtured or disheartened. Many good films are never completed. Relatively few get the exposure and acclaim that my film did. It is rare to achieve the success of a Ken Burns; many excellent filmmakers are forced to give up trying to help other people understand their world. It wouldn’t take much effort or cost much to keep that from happening. As I indicated earlier, I believe that PBS has a unique mission in this country, a great responsibility to the public, and a huge opportunity that is being missed. There is much to celebrate: the high quality PBS series and specials. But, with just a little more flexibility, understanding, compassion, and assistance to independent content producers, much more could be achieved. It is challenging enough to pursue issues to explore and present in a film; most of us filmmakers are not skilled at fundraising, management, and jumping through bureaucratic hoops. If PBS is serious about being the “home of independent documentary” it needs to treat filmmakers more like family.

Our second survey, which was fielded post-event, focused on the organization and execution of the PBS National Listening Tour stop in New York City. Of 80 respondents, 42% were either “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their overall experience at the Listening Tour. However, many respondents expressed frustration with our limited timeframe and structure for audience questions and comments, but were appreciative of representatives from PBS, POV, Independent Lens, WNET and the Indie Caucus for their presence and open ears.

I would have liked to hear a bit more from PBS before opening up to questions because it was clear that everyone is against the proposed WNET programming move that would send independent films to premiere on a secondary channel.

Keep the public speakers on the major points outlined at the beginning of the event. This event did not seem to follow the layout it claimed to be laying out. It just was a line of people wanting to talk about whatever was on their mind, as opposed to a distinct topic. Feel free to limit the speakers to a single topic at hand, as opposed to just letting it go all free-form. Curate the event better. Also, the line was so long some people didn’t get to talk, which wasn’t so good. And the public speakers were not really curated — why not pick them out in advance, so the “important” ones go first? Otherwise its just a free for all, as this event basically was. It was unclear, from the description, that this was going to be a long line of people what wanted to air opinions. If I had known that, I am not so sure I would have attended. I thought it was going to be more information coming from the panelists, not the general public. The panelists just kinda sat and took it all in, with a few times to respond. Not very interesting, as a dynamic for an event. Let the panelists say more, or compel them to say more, both as an intro and in conclusion. The event just kinda ended, without any resolution.

Some struggled to understand the focus on POV and Independent Lens.

Do a better job of explaining in the promotional emails, and in the pre-survey, that you are looking to move past the “Don’t change the IL/POV time slot.” to “How do we collectively grow the audience?”

In some ways, the entire conversation felt like we were rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Obviously the issue of the time slot for POV/Independent Lens is a critical one that must be addressed, but I think a wider conversation about programming and marketing efforts to bring new and younger viewers to PBS is paramount. That conversation then gets back to the question about common carriage for the independent doc series’ which would override WNET’s decision anyway. Yes, WNET creates a lot of arts programming and it’s donor audience watches it, but what happens when that audience passes on? PBS should be using it’s edgier doc programming to bring in NEW audiences, which requires branding and common carriage. The point was made by someone on the PBS team that even though Citizenfour is on HBO, PBS still feels the glow of the Oscar because Laura Poitras’ previous films were on PBS. I think the opposite point should be made – why did Poitras go to HBO this time around? What other PBS filmmakers will follow her lead?

While POV and Independent Lens are justifiably valued and celebrated, we don’t just need to protect their slots, we need to look at why there is so little airtime dedicated to independent film in the first place. PBS rarely makes any room for truly innovative work that falls outside of predictable documentary forms. The tour meeting was ok, but so much of it was about protecting the status quo… I recall, and was deeply inspired in my filmmaking life, by a more adventurous PBS which showed work that would never even be considered these days. I wish that had been somewhere on the agenda.

Very disappointing to hear so much discussion of schedule… so short-sighted.

This meeting was dominated by NYC filmmakers who were outraged about the possible change in the WNET schedule and who were all “reading from the same script.” There were others there like myself who would have loved to hear more about what national PBS is looking for, how their process works, opportunities for docs that don’t fit into POV or IL, new initiatives like PBS Theatrical, etc. We never got a chance to ask questions. On future tours, how about giving attendees a better idea about the format and substance of the meeting IN ADVANCE, giving out some kind of an agenda at the meeting, and limiting questions that are about the same topic. I felt that this was a missed opportunity.

Other respondents had specific feedback on the set-up and organization of the event.

Create three lines for questioners if you are going to address three buckets so all topics can be addressed.

Make a longer program, hackathon type format — do a more hands on, longer workshop and really work with the filmmakers to address the issues which are certainly very large and much more complicated than a scheduling issue.

Respondents reiterated moderator Mikel Ellcessor’s statement that, for future events, we should work forward with the understanding that independent documentaries are important to PBS.

I think the organizers are in a very tough spot because as much as the moderator tried to advance the conversation, the speakers from the audience were often stuck on making the same points over and over again. Obviously the whole point is to make the filmmaking community feel like they are being heard, so it’s hard to cut people off, but I wish the forum had been more productive. As an independent filmmaker, I also felt that there were no obvious next steps requested of us.

Yes, I would make it clear that while moving POV and Independent Lens off Thursday nights is one solution, others may be available, and that it the kind of thing the panel is looking for. The clamor that accompanies the temporary solution is warranted, but it wasn’t made clear (at least to attendees) beforehand that the goal of the panel was to look for additional solutions.

I found the comments by the panel on stage and the many people who got up to share very interesting and helpful in understanding everyone’s concerns. I think it was successful in demystifying the current situation from all perspectives… Since so many wanted the opportunity to speak it may be helpful to set up a few laptops so that the “overflow” of people have the chance to submit their comments and have them captured at the event. I do appreciate this follow-up form!

There was also a demonstrated commitment on the part of the filmmaking community to engage in further working groups to continue this dialogue.

Would have liked to have seen a little more “behind the veil” conversation — hearing some details about common carriage and ratings helped but I wasn’t sure we had the honest and direct conversation that’s needed to push things to next level. Perhaps it would be helpful to have advance feedback from participants about what they want to know and express and integrate that into the platform/ agenda.

Thank you to everyone who took the time to share their thoughts and feedback with us. This spring, Kartemquin Films and Indie Caucus host the next stop on the PBS National Listening Tour in Chicago.

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POV Staff
POV (a cinema term for "point of view") is television's longest-running showcase for independent non-fiction films. POV premieres 14-16 of the best, boldest and most innovative programs every year on PBS. Since 1988, POV has presented over 400 films to public television audiences across the country. POV films are known for their intimacy, their unforgettable storytelling and their timeliness, putting a human face on contemporary social issues.