by Rachel Raney, Executive Director, Southern Documentary Fund
Word is beginning to spread in public media circles that UNC-TV, North Carolina’s statewide PBS affiliate based in Research Triangle Park, has surprisingly decided to move Independent Lens and POV to Mondays at 10pm. I say surprisingly because for many, many years the station has aired these two critically acclaimed documentary series on Fridays at 2am. But that’s not all -- it’s also surprising because as most of us have heard by now, WNET in New York recently decided to do just the opposite — taking POV and Independent Lens off primetime.
So why did UNC-TV make this unexpected move?
A lot of folks have chalked it up to the Indie Caucus, which makes sense. In light of WNET’s programming bombshell, this vocal and passionate group of independent producers is working hard to get PBS and stations across the country to deepen their commitment to independent documentaries. But with regards to UNC-TV’s programming change, I’d like to acknowledge our North Carolina producers, who’ve been fighting the good fight locally for many years.
When I joined the Southern Documentary Fund in 2011, I got an earful from SDF filmmakers about our local PBS station -- bemoaning how unresponsive UNC-TV was to independents. Having worked off and on for over a decade at KQED-TV in San Francisco, I suspected the story was more complicated. At KQED I produced local series that regularly incorporated independents’ work, and even launched a documentary series called Truly CA, now in its tenth season. And yet we’d still get called out for not doing enough. That’s okay, I know very well where independents are coming from.
Yet as a longtime public TV producer, I also recognize that stations are under enormous pressure — from viewers, donors, PBS — not to mention serious competition from cable and other platforms. In UNCTV’s case, the station is part of the mammoth University of North Carolina system, and their budget is approved annually by the state legislature. Plus UNC-TV has a robust stable of staff producers, churning out local content. What do they need independents for?
Well, here’s what happened: despite the lack of support from our local PBS station, a dearth of funding opportunities in our region, and little access to documentary gatekeepers located in New York and California, North Carolina producers have continued making good work, actually great work — documentaries that have premiered at top tier film festivals like SXSW, Tribeca, and Sundance, and aired nationally on Independent Lens, Voces, HBO, Discovery, and elsewhere. Last year the SDF sponsored (and North Carolina produced) PBS series A Chef’s Life won a Peabody Award, its very first season on the air.
Through these ups and downs our producers didn’t give up on UNC-TV, and the station began to notice the inspiring content being made around them. After many conversations, and a shift in leadership at the station, UNC-TV has changed course.
SDF is now working with the station, reconnecting them with our growing slate of media makers. Because there’s over a decade of history to acknowledge, and process, we suggested a Listening Tour of our own a few months back. I’ve moderated these gatherings around North Carolina -- frank, and sometimes difficult conversations between UNC-TV executives and independent producers. At the very first meeting last Fall, a long-time SDF filmmaker stood up and suggested the station move POV and Independent Lens to primetime, to send a message that independent documentaries are a priority. And that’s exactly what they’ve done.
Hopefully things won’t end there: I’ve begun working at UNC-TV a handful of days each month to help the station launch some of the best initiatives that are bubbling up from our Listening Tour. Our punch list includes clarifying what sorts of content the station wants and needs from independent producers, revamping the pitch process, exploring ways to fundraise collaboratively, and creating a new series, much like Truly CA, that will showcase Southern documentaries, and hopefully air on stations across our region.
Down here in North Carolina we can’t wait to see what comes of the Indie Caucus’ campaign, and
hope to contribute to its worthy efforts. We hear the PBS Listening Tour might make a stop right here in Durham, and we’ll show up in force to contribute to the conversation. In the meantime – SDF and our ‘local’ producers are going to continue pressing for changes at the station in our own backyard, aiming to build fruitful partnerships and create impactful content, programs that resonate locally and nationally.
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Rachel Raney is Executive Director of the Southern Documentary Fund. SDF cultivates documentary projects made in or about the American South, providing filmmakers and artists with professional support, fiscal sponsorship, filmmaking grants, and creative community. Since its founding in 2002, SDF has sponsored over a hundred projects which have screened all over the world, won critical acclaim and awards, and inspired audiences with authentic stories that matter.