I work at Harmony Institute, a non-profit organization in New York that studies the impact of media on society. We currently focus a lot of our attention on the impact of social issue documentaries on the most difficult issues facing the US and the world. We also help filmmakers, funders, and other organizations have a greater impact through their media and campaigns.
One of the things we know for sure is that impact starts with viewership. Social media mentions, mass media mentions, changes in policy, and every way that hearts and minds may be changed by a documentary start with people seeing the documentary. Organizations like POV creates curricula around films, and organizes community screenings, but the demand and interest start with viewership.
PBS has always been a voice for those who are under-represented in the larger media landscape, and also a voice that reaches those that cable and internet video may not reach. I grew up in rural upstate New York, too remote for cable to reach, even if we could afford it. We had no TV at all until my dad put an antenna up on our roof that could get the signal from Syracuse, and then we got PBS, ABC, CBS and NBC--nothing else.
I grew up on Nova and Nature, and looked forward to being old enough to see Frontline and the documentaries that PBS aired, which dealt with more adult subjects than my science programs. When my parents let me watch these, they were my window into the world's tough problems, and the lives of people unlike those that surrounded me. There are still populations that can't afford to access documentaries on cable or the internet, who trust PBS to bring them true and educational stories.
PBS needs to renew its commitment to airing documentaries when people are watching. It was important for me growing up in a small town to be exposed to those voices, and it will be important to a new generation of kids and their parents, to be exposed to a wider world through documentary film.
Product Manager, Harmony Institute