Original Programming

PBS Needs Indies

Some of my favorite documentaries air on the two most groundbreaking series in TV today – POV and Independent Lens, both broadcast on PBS. It’s where, each week, I and about 89 million other people get to watch some of the very best independent documentary films that America has to offer, like Alex Gibney’s Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Stephen Walker’s Young@Heart, Alan Berliner’s Nobody’s Business, and Mark Birnbaum and Jim Schermbeck’s Larry v. Lockney.

In fact, just recently, I watched a great film on Independent Lens called Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey that profiled Kevin Clash, the puppeteer who developed and performs the character of Elmo. According to Colorlines.com, Clash is, “One of the busiest African American actors working in television today, but very few people would recognize his face.”

While working for the legendary Jim Henson, Clash struggled to find a character that would stick until, while watching children in his mother’s home-based daycare center, he developed Elmo, a character full of love and kisses that embodies the essence of a child. Clash spent more than 20 years performing the most beloved Muppet and became the most requested character for sick children to see, but he regretted missing out on much of his own daughter’s childhood. “Making a puppet doesn’t hold a candle to making a human being,” he said.  Clash’s story, combined with rare archival footage of Henson’s workshop and funeral, made the film a beautiful and bittersweet journey.

I’d like to say that you can also see this film, but both POV and Independent Lens are in jeopardy by the very system that purports to support them.  The series have been bumped from their critical nationwide timeslot on Tuesday nights to Thursday nights when stations can broadcast any primetime program they want. That means that 349 public television stations don’t have to air these ground-breaking documentary series that tell the meaningful, sophisticated, and compelling stories that mainstream media rarely touches, and many have not, as evidenced by the 39% drop in ratings for Independent Lens this season. This does not bode well for the 25th season of POV, which is slated to begin in June. And it’s not a wise choice for the series that have garnered 13 Oscar nominations and 54 Emmys between the two of them. According to IndieWire, PBS has agreed to reconsider its decision after letters poured in from Kartemquin Films, Bill Moyers, the Center for Social Media, a Twitter campaign, and hundreds of disgruntled filmmakers.

I can only hope that PBS decides at its annual meeting in Denver on May 14-17 to program the two series in a slot that guarantees national, primetime carriage. Where else will 76+ million households, including the US Virgin Islands, Guam, and American Samoa, get to see the behind-the-scenes magic of the shop that created Elmo, a furry red monster who teaches millions of children how to be gentle, kind, and loving?

You can make your opinion known at #PBSNeedsIndies.