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News

Updates and statements from the Indie Caucus.

 

New York’s WNET to pull documentary showcases from Monday nights on main channel

Tim Horsburgh

From Current.org, December 18. By Dru Sefton.

WNET in New York, public television’s largest market, will remove PBS’s documentary showcases Independent Lens and POV from its main channel starting Jan. 5 and replace them with a repeat of PBS arts programming, according to producers of the series.

Staff representatives from WNET, PBS, POV and Independent Television Service (ITVS), producer of Independent Lens, will meet Monday in New York “to discuss the station’s shift in scheduling strategy and to better understand the impact on independent programming and producers,” according to a statement from ITVS.

ITVS President Sally Jo Fifer wrote in a memo this week to staff that WNET, currently airing the two shows on channel 13 at 10 p.m. Mondays, will move them to the same time slot on WLIW, channel 21, WNET’s secondary station on Long Island with a smaller coverage area. The programs will repeat Sunday nights on channel 13 at 11 p.m. — “outside the primetime lineup,” Fifer noted.

WNET VP of Programming Stephen Segaller and Beth Hoppe, PBS’s chief programming executive, were unavailable for comment Thursday.

Independent Lens is part of PBS’s primetime National Program Service in the 10 p.m. Monday timeslot from October through May, and POV kicks off its season in June.

Fifer said in the memo that ITVS learned of WNET’s upcoming change Dec. 12. “Given the short notice of an unexpected major shift,” she wrote, “ITVS, Independent Lens and POV worked quickly to meet with PBS leadership” and are “communicating with the affected Independent Lens producers and revising our marketing and publicity strategies.”

Simon Kilmurry, executive director of POV, said in an interview that the upcoming change “does concern us. WLIW has a much shorter reach and is not where people are used to looking for us. To be honest, we’re still trying to work through the implications of all this.”

“New York is a big media market, so this affects press and visibility,” Kilmurry said. “I’m also concerned about the signal this might send across the system.”

And Kilmurry worries that POV may lose its competitive edge for acquiring important documentary titles if those films won’t air on the major-market WNET.

This is the second time in two years that independent filmmakers and public TV gatekeepers have clashed over scheduling of the series. In March 2012 PBS moved Independent Lens and POV from Tuesday to Thursday nights — an evening generally reserved for local programming — and the shows suffered a ratings drop of more than 42 percent in the first two months after the change, compared with the same time the previous season, according to TRAC Media.

In response to that shift, documentary company Kartemquin Films in Chicago organized a group of filmmakers known as the Indie Caucus. After public pressure from the caucus and weeks of negotiations, PBS agreed in May 2012 to place the films in the Monday schedule, a highly-rated night anchored by longtime audience favorite Antiques Roadshow.

Monday is public TV’s second-best evening of the week, with a 1.4 rating, according to TRAC Media. Sunday is the highest-rated night nationally with a 1.8 household rating last season due to the blockbuster Masterpiece series Downton Abbey. PBS’s average primetime rating was 1.1 in 2013-14.

The Indie Caucus has been working as a liaison for independent filmmakers on public television over the past two years, said Gordon Quinn, founder and artistic director of Kartemquin. He said he was stunned when he heard of WNET’s decision. “We’re trying to build a bridge here,” he said, “and somebody just burned it down in front of us.”

Filmmaker Dawn Porter, a member of the Indie Caucus, said the group has been “actively communicating” with PBS and station programmers, sometimes on a weekly basis. “We’ve been acting in good faith,” she said, so it’s “really disturbing” that WNET and PBS did not alert the caucus to the station’s decision.

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Expect a full statement from Indie Caucus on this development soon.