Is PBS Trying to Hide Some of Public TV’s Best Work?

In the New York Times (3/19/12), Elizabeth Jensen reports on some unusual scheduling decisions at PBS that are diminishing the audience for some of the best stuff you’re likely to see on public television–the acclaimed documentary series Independent Lens and POV:

After being bumped from Tuesday nights to a hodgepodge of time slots, Independent Lens has lost 39 percent of its average audience for new episodes this season, compared with a year ago, according to Nielsen ratings provided by ITVS, which produces the series.

Jensen’s report–which expanded on news first reported by the public broadcasting newspaper Current–noted that many prominent filmmakers and journalists, including Bill Moyers and Alex Gibney, have signed a letter protesting the PBS decision.

That letter points out that “democracy needs more than commercial media’s business models can provide”–part of the rationale for PBS in the first place.

One interesting reaction noted in the Times piece:

Pat Aufderheide, director of American University’s Center for Social Media and board member of Kartemquin Films and a former ITVS board member, said in a telephone interview that she did not understand “why PBS wants to be seen as effectively throwing these series under the bus” when some in Congress are questioning public broadcasting’s federal financing.

The series, she said, “scream validation of taxpayer dollars,” by engaging local communities and respectfully exploring underreported issues.

It seems to me that Aufderheide’s pointing to the real problem. These series deliver consistently excellent programming that fulfills the very mission of public broadcasting. They do so by providing a national platform for films that often challenge the status quo and feature voices that are often omitted.

But the politicians most critical of public broadcasting don’t believe the system should much concern itself with “underreported issues” and the like. They don’t like PBS‘s mission, and object to programming that carries it out.

It seems likely that what PBS is doing is hoping that the politicians who want their funding zeroed out will see a decision like this, attempting to marginalize the independent work that ought to be the heart of public TV programming, as a step in the right direction. That strategy–a familiar one by now–never seems to work.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.