We all remember when cable and digital channels began to proliferate. There was a brief moment in all of it where some of us entertained the rosy - if somewhat naïve - idea that such proliferation might be a healthy environment for media, that the profusion of platforms would lead to a more welcoming landscape for programs less likely to reach mass, mainstream-sized audiences. Therefore, many of us thought perhaps there was a chance for the smaller demographic to be heard, for the voices of the then-overlooked populations that had yet to find purchase on the rocky, barren soil of American media.
Alas, what we may not like to remember as well is the very quick dissolution of that idea, best embodied in the contrast between the language Bravo TV used to describe itself when it launched in 1980 ("the first television service dedicated to the film and the performing arts") and what you find on their website today. It was, after all, difficult to believe that the place to go to for art, opera and literature would so quickly devolve into a destination to know more and more and yet more about what those not-so-real housewives are up to next.
The quick and total death of diversity in our media landscape is no small matter. A vibrant democratic society depends on the lively interaction of varied viewpoints living in concert and growing through the interaction of ideas and culture. But at least up until today, it would seem that the need to please money and markets drives even the smallest channels to provide platforms catering only to the most pandering and least individual viewer, and producing vanilla content designed never to challenge, but only to echo the ideas and viewpoints already being circulated in the popular culture.
It is an unhealthy ecosystem of expression, founded on uniformity which only serves to widen rifts between peoples, further empower the already powerful and dumb down the American people. It is a tragic waste of the airwaves (now bandwidth) and public resources originally conceived to operate primarily in the public interest.
All of these dynamics constitute the reason we need to acknowledge that public, not-for-profit media is more important than ever. And independent documentary voices on that media are all that is left on the airwaves that are driven by authentic individuals who measure their success not in dollars and cents but in the robustness of the discourse they trigger. Public, independent documentaries are the last bulwark of integrity in the battle against conformity, against the monotone emanating from our televisions. They give us the chance to immerse ourselves in the perspectives divergent from our own.
PBS has always been an unshakable force in nurturing discourse and elevating diverse voices. It is an essential cultural resource and a critical leader in exposing the intricacies and nuances of the human experience. POV and Independent Lens have been steadfast in reflecting these values. These two documentary programs offer audiences the opportunity to engage in a range of perspectives derived from those whose stories are often lost or distorted.
Films like "The Invisible War" hold the power to move our government to implement measures that reduce rape in the armed forces. Films like "1971," showcase the power of ordinary citizens to hold government accountable to miscarriages of privacy and justice. While "The Homestretch" reveals truths about race, class and opportunity in our own backyard and displays the tenacity of three homeless teens to reclaim and redefine a life of abandonment. These stories are complex. They are transformational. They are necessary.
In January, PBS New York affiliate WNET announced their proposal to move the documentary programs POV and Independent Lens out of primetime, prompting the independent filmmaker coalition Indie Caucus to create a resolution calling for PBS to support the indie series. Over the past few months it has been not WNET, but the diverse voices of audiences and filmmakers that have proven to be more critical to supporting the significance of these stories. Since the proposal, PBS has heard from numerous of its passionate constituents and the network has agreed to maintain the original broadcast through the 2015-16 season, and plans to launch a new strategy that promotes these programs.
As we move through this broadcast season, it is critical that the voices who played a supporting role maintain their vigor and encourage WNET to honor their promise to present content that inspires curiosity, encourages action and nurtures dreams. It is vital that the spirit of collaboration continues to thrive between PBS, its affiliate stations, POV, and Independent Lens. And it is crucial that these voices maintain their pressure so shared sentiments can be reverberated and amplified to sustain the integrity of our public media and the health of human intellectual exchange.
Public media can and should continue to support the magnificent arts programming that we all know and love. But without the alternative and overtly politically challenging voices that come to us by way of independent documentaries, it runs the risk of taming itself into irrelevancy. Without a serious commitment to independent and diverse voices from PBS and WNET, what will that media landscape look like going forward? More like the Sahara, I suspect, than ever before.
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