The Doc Is In

PBS Tries to Stay King of the Real Reality TV

After so many years supporting documentary filmmaking when no one else could be bothered, it must be frustrating for PBS to watch gimlet-eyed cable competitors swoop in on their territory, just as the art form is being embraced by a mass audience. John Wilson, PBS's co-chief program executive, responds gamely: "I'm OK with it, because what can I do? And also, it raises the bar and allows these filmmakers to find sustenance, because PBS alone cannot fund or schedule the vast volume of work that's out there. But I'll quickly tell anyone that PBS is where they should be, if only because PBS is available on every television set in America." He also points out that no other channel does grassroots community outreach the way shows like POV and Independent Lens do, dedicating staff and Web sites to reach the right viewers and create awareness of the issues surrounding their documentaries.

Despite all the talk of a documentary boom, "the kind of stuff that Independent Lens specializes in, the cable channels just don't touch," says Thom Powers, whose film Guns and Mother will appear as part of Independent Lens in May. Vossen emphasizes that their mission remains very different from other networks and cable outfits: "We're not in it for ratings or money, we're peddling ideas. Using public media as the public airwaves to bring forward issues that may not be popular or easily digestible, that deserve more airtime than they get on the nightly news. It's about using television as a tool for social discussion."

Mass production: independent lens entry Downside Up
photo: Annie Chia
Mass production: independent lens entry Downside Up

"It's a good time to be a documentary filmmaker because there's an appetite for it," says award-winning documentarian Liz Garbus (The Execution of Wanda Jean). "On the other hand, because of the reality-television boom there's the expectation that documentary films can get produced for next to nothing, which really is not true for a film you might spend a year and a half or even three years on."

Many filmmakers are skeptical that a boom exists—if the art form is really so popular, why is production funding still so hard to come by? Lots of cable outlets buy and broadcast finished documentaries, but only a handful produce them—even HBO funds just 35 or so originals a year. Which means that an independent director scrambles to raise the $150,000 or more needed to make the movie, but may only get a tiny fraction of that back in acquisition fees from the Sundance Channel or PBS. Garbus, who has worked with half a dozen cable channels, says that sometimes it's possible to pitch a suitable idea to a network that pays overhead—finding the youth angle for MTV, as she did with her film The Travelers, or tapping into the women's market at Lifetime, as with her doc Different Moms. But it's also possible that commercial concerns will press too hard on younger filmmakers, squeezing out some of the maniacal passion and proselytizing spirit that has characterized earlier generations of documentarians.

Even so, lots of would-be Maysles continue to prowl the backwoods with their digital movie cameras, hoping to make the Great American Doc. Independent Lens was deluged by 400 proposals to fill only 29 slots, and Powers says that the Full Frame Documentary Festival in North Carolina received 700 submissions this year. "I'd be surprised if I heard from 10 percent of them ever again," he says. "There's exciting activity but there's also a lot of dross—people who will find out that it's not as easy as it looks. Even with digital technology, it's still really hard to make a good, compelling documentary film."

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