In the wake of the wave of support received for the PBS Needs Indies campaign, researchers at The Center for Social Media have published a report analyzing the public response to the controversy. Overall, they found that PBS viewers find the documentary programming on Independent Lens and POV "deeply satisfying, pleasurable, and even inspiring." The full report is available here.
The Center For Social Media's Patricia Aufderheide and Echo Xie examined comments from several websites including Kartemquin.com, Huffington Post, Documentary.org, and Bill Moyers.com, among others. They then separated comments from filmmakers and viewers. Out of 892 comments, 583 comments were from viewers. There was not a single comment in support of PBS changing the timeslots. They found seven common categories among those comments. Across all categories was the theme and conclusion that “there is currently untapped support, both financial and political, for public television, among viewers who feel themselves underserved by public television’s lighter fare.”
The first category held viewers who used to watch these programs when they were on their regular Tuesday slots, but now cannot find them on the PBS schedule. This remains one of the most controversial points because many PBS affiliates broadcast local material on Thursday nights, meaning that POV and Independent Lens air at irregular times, if at all. There were 42 comments of this nature.
299 comments reflected on the meaningful nature of the programming of Independent Lens and POV, and others said that these programs are good for public TV’s future. One commenter cited HBO’s Monday night documentary schedule as an example of how successful meaningful documentary programming can be.
Viewers were also concerned with how this programming is core to PBS’ mission, which includes using public money that presents material that commercial TV cannot afford to. More than 30 comments suggested that PBS was caving to corporate or political pressure. More than 40 viewers expressed that a lack of such programming would discourage them from donating to and supporting PBS.
Here are a few of the best viewer comments:
"Independent Lens has been an inspiration to me and others I know in regards to the production of "meaningful" film, which has educational, social, and intellectual value. Films that raise awareness in the minds of the general public to events, issues, and artistic reason. Such programs spark a desire in young film makers, to become socially, politically, and ethically conscious of the world around them and to provoke contemplation of these ideas in the viewer."
"Each of us must reach out to families, friends, and acquaintances; to people in our communities who know and value the programs which are available only on public television. PBS needs to hear from them, in the thousands, and tens of thousands -- and more. Spread the word! Start the campaign!"
"In my opinion the real reason to have public television is that it can tell stories that are unpopular with advertisers, meaning that it can afford to be controversial."
"I am only a high school senior and do not have the expertise as others nor am I as qualified, but I have tremendous reverence for PBS and the opportunities it allows for independent filmmakers. As an aspiring documentarian, I dearly hope these programs are still running for generations to come. Please reverse your decision and give back to independent films the exposure they so much deserve."
"I suspect that PBS intends to dismantle POV and Independent Lens by first reducing their audience, then using the reduced ratings as a rationale for eventually terminating the shows or relegating them into the backwaters of television. In this manner, PBS will accommodate those who are determined to stifle any presentation that contradicts or challenges the official version of American life."
"As a viewer, I treasure the information from documentaries and investigations found on PBS. They are an important source of learning about complex and contemporary issues. I used to live in a rural state where sources of information were few, and programs like these were my source of diverse perspectives. I urge you to make these available at times when a larger audience tunes in."
The research closes with this powerful statement: “The arguments of some researchers that public television can function as a resource for public knowledge and action and simultaneously compelling television appears to be reflected in the experience and values of viewers who took the time to make reasoned appeals to a largely-trusted programming service that they perceive to play a distinctive and at-risk role in American media.”
On the same morning as the report was published, The New York Times also reported another heavy blow to independent documentary, announcing that many PBS program strands - including POV, Independent Lens, American Masters and Great Performances - will have their federal budgets slashed by the the NEA. The report above suggests that this is certainly not in the interest of the viewing public.