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Norman Lear: Save Documentaries on PBS!

Legendary television writer and producer Norman Lear, creator of such landmark comedy series as All in the Family, Maude and The Jeffersons, and co-founder of People for the American Way, has spoken out in support of independent documentary filmmakers struggling to protect the broadcast of their work on public television.

At issue is the scheduling of two PBS series, Independent Lens and POV, important national showcases for independent film. In New York, WNET – Channel 13 — has proposed moving the series to its smaller sister station, WLIW, with repeats airing on WNET at 11 pm on Sundays.

In an op-ed piece published in today’s edition of The New York Times, Lear writes, “Moving the films out of prime time means fewer reviews, and less publicity. It also threatens funding: When filmmakers apply for grants from foundations or philanthropies, the promise of a robust distribution platform is crucial. The proposal also sends the signal that nonfiction films on challenging subjects are less important to PBS and WNET than costume dramas.

Independent Lens and POV take on critical social issues overlooked by commercial outlets. They leverage the power of television to expand freedom of expression for people whose voices are not easily heard in American media. Freedom of expression is hollow if you can’t be seen or heard.

The two series also provide an outlet for minority filmmakers. A 2014 study by the Center for Media and Social Impact at American University found that Independent Lens was much more diverse than cable: over 80 percent of the documentaries had at least one minority character, and 30 percent of them had at least one minority director — compared with 13 percent for documentaries on HBO and zero at CNN and ESPN. These two series attract among the largest audience of black viewers of any PBS program.

Executives at WNET wish Monday nights to be devoted to arts programming, “a driver of financial support for member stations,” Lear notes, and far less controversial than documentaries and other public affairs programming. “Its decision could prompt PBS to shift the two series away from the prime-time schedule across much of the country.”

Norman Lear concludes:

PBS, for almost a half-century, has been one place on the spectrum in which decisions were based on something far more fundamental and timeless than ratings and earnings: the public interest. Its member stations and programs get substantial government funding. Diversity, community and accountability are cornerstones of its founding charter. PBS should keep those principles in mind and keep independent documentary films where they belong: in prime time.

You can read Lear’s complete article in The New York Times.

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Michael Winship

Michael Winship

Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship

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