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Updates and statements from the Indie Caucus.



Tim Horsburgh



Why did WNET bump the two programs that showcase award-winning, compelling documentaries on topics of public importance?

Neal Shapiro, president and CEO of WNET, says it’s to try out a better spot for the programs. We don’t believe that for several reasons:

  •  Someone who wants to get audience for a show doesn’t hide the news that he’s moving it from the people who made and programmed the show. They would be essential in promoting and publicizing that change. But that’s what WNET did. Shapiro waited until the Friday afternoon before the Christmas holiday exodus began to release the news to INDEPENDENT LENS, POV and all the affected filmmakers.
  • Someone who values documentaries doesn’t replace them with reruns.
  • Someone who wants to get audience for a show doesn’t take it off the main channel to put it on a channel that gets less than half of the audience, and that overlaps but doesn’t cover the same geographic area. In fact, the WLIW signal does not reach huge swaths of New Jersey, the lower Hudson Valley, western New York state and parts of southern Connecticut. (See this article for more)
  • Someone who wants people to watch gripping documentaries on current issues does not program their second screening at 11pm Sunday night, after the classic bedtime viewingMasterpiece. 
  • Shapiro claims “research has shown us that the audience that tunes into Antiques Roadshow on Monday nights on THIRTEEN is actually more aligned to arts programming than Independent films. Therefore, we are giving our arts programming another airing (originally broadcast on Friday nights) on Mondays following Antiques Roadshow.” That’s wrong. Shapiro needs to look at PBS’s research, released by PBS National Research in May 2014 at a panel at the PBS annual meeting. It showed exactly the opposite. It showed that there is a greater overlap of audience between Masterpiece and arts programming than documentaries, and a greater overlap of audience between Antiques Roadshow and documentaries than with the arts.

Why is a Monday night slot important? After all, two years ago, INDEPENDENT LENS and POV were on Tuesdays.

Slots do matter in terms of reaching audiences. More people watch at the scheduled time than time-shift, and they watch where they are used to finding their programs. When INDEPENDENT LENS and POV were on Tuesdays, they drew ratings competitive with other series on current affairs, issues of public importance, and issues of national relevance. They were in a slot with other such work, such as Frontline. PBS moved them, for reasons that have never been clear to us, and ratings plummeted; people couldn’t find them easily. Both series are only now building back up to the numbers, as people get accustomed to finding them on Mondays. Another change, with no warning, makes them true orphans of the schedule.

Why does what one station does matter? WNET isn’t PBS.

WNET is a lead station in the system, because New York is the biggest media market. Other stations watch WNET’s example. Within a week, another station (in Arkansas) had switched its programming, mimicking WNET. Losing a common national schedule makes promotion and publicity of programs extremely difficult.

Doesn’t this violate WNET’s agreement with PBS?

Yes, but PBS granted WNET a waiver. In fact, PBS knew about this change long before the series or filmmakers did. PBS’s complicity makes us even more concerned about this example. Both WNET and PBS need to be aware that public television serves a public that is interested in both the form of documentary, and in the important and well-told stories that help them understand the world they live and must act in.

What's the geographical difference from WNET to WLIW?

WLIW is a secondary channel that serves less than half the area of WNET. These important and diverse films are losing the reach they deserve at the National scheduled primetime stop. Here are the coverage maps for the two stations: 

Aren’t these anthologies of uneven and unpredictable quality? Maybe they don’t deserve a primetime slot.

These documentaries are in the forefront of perhaps the most exciting genre in film. Each of them has won national or international awards. People have fought for tickets to see them at film festivals. They have been singled out by critics for praise. They have undergone rigorous fact-checking and legal review. They are designed for community engagement, with discussion guides and other prompts for conversation. Films from earlier seasons of INDEPENDENT LENS and POV are in university libraries across the country. These are part of the nation’s artistic treasure-house.

The opening film of the series, Rich Hill, won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize. Darius Clark Monroe’s Evolution of a Criminal was executive produced by Spike Lee. The three-part series A Path Appears, follows noted journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn and succeeds the heralded Half the Sky.  The Kill Team, about military justice and war crimes, won Best Documentary Feature at Tribeca Film Festival. And the list goes on.

These programs don’t look like a lot of the rest of TV—on purpose. The curators of these series seek out the highest-quality work featuringdiverse voices that add crucial perspectives to national conversations. They work with producers to make sure that their work can reach diverse audiences. The unique value of this work is exactly why it both belongs on public television and why it needs public television’s full programming and promotional support. 

No matter how worthy they are, WNET says they’re not getting ratings. Doesn’t viewer opinion matter?

We believe that these series, properly placed and promoted, can get viewer attention; they certainly garner respect and dedication from viewers who can find them. We also believe that public television has aresponsibility to air diverse perspectives from underserved audiences, and to showcase those views, which otherwise are marginalized in American media.

But as well, the claim that these programs are rating below a .2 on WNET is wrong.  The average rating for Independent Lens on WNET is twice that.  WNET’s ratings are almost exactly the same as national averages.


What evidence do we have that documentaries really are important in helping people understand issues of public importance?

Earlier films in these series have made a big difference in the world. The New Americans, a series on immigration, helped change how social workers interact with new immigrants. Los Graduados, part of a public TV campaign on high-school graduation, helped improve graduation rates. Invisible War, on rape in the military, triggered conversations resulting in proposed legislation and changes in the way the military handles rape charges.  Granito: How to Nail a Dictator helped convict Guatemala’s Gen. Rios Montt of war crimes.

What can I do?

  • First, sign our petition here.
  • Then, visit the IndieCaucus website  ( for ways to write CEO/President Neal Shapiro at WNET and CEO/President Paula Kerger at PBS. 
  • Post about this and encourage friends to sign the petition, on your social media. 
  • Email your constituents and email listhosts with this information.