Tips on Securing Broadcast on National Public Television

Filmmaker and station relations consultant Jennifer Owensby Sanza shares the advice she gathered from mentors and firsthand experience about how to secure public television broadcast.


Jon (right), Jennifer Owensby Sanza's brother, inspired her first documentary film.
Jon (right), Jennifer Owensby Sanza's brother, inspired her first documentary film.

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Getting my first documentary, The Teachings of Jon, broadcast nationally on public television felt like walking through a minefield, blindfolded. As a recipient of a completion funds grant from Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), I was fortunate to have the best mentors to guide me through the process. Now when I work with other filmmakers, I’ve noticed that some of the mistakes I made are quite common, and easily remedied. Here are some important tips to help you avoid major pitfalls on your way to a national public television broadcast.

Get the Most out of Your Rejections.
Rejections are never fun. And after you’ve spent all of your money and years of your life making your film, it’s easy to take every one personally. Your friends will tell you “it isn’t personal.” Fact is, it’s totally personal. Yes, your film could be rejected simply because one person on a panel had an issue with it. So face the truth, if you’re a documentary filmmaker, you need to get used to rejections and learn how to make the most of them. Ask the person rejecting you if they would be so kind as to explain why. And then listen, and write everything down. Don’t defend yourself. Just listen and thank her or him. Decision-makers can provide some of the most helpful feedback to improve your chances of a national PBS broadcast. I always advise producers to submit their program to ITVS even though it would be a miracle for a program to be accepted on a first try. You can trust that folks at ITVS know what PBS wants and they offer extremely helpful feedback from inside the system.

Be Mindful with Film Credits.
As a PBS fan and filmmaker, if you’re like me, you dream of one day hearing the all too familiar voice saying, “Funding for this program was provided by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.” And by all means, if you have that, allow me to bow. If you’re like the most of us however, you’re so grateful for any support that anyone offers along the way that you’ll give an executive producer credit just to say thank you! STOP RIGHT THERE! However desperate you are, don’t extend credits lightly. Many producers don’t realize that credits have specific meaning, and if you imply in any way that an organization or foundation had any editorial say so in your documentary, then you unknowingly put your film in the “infomercial” category. And that will disqualify your film from PBS broadcast. It’s very simple, but many producers make this mistake. Unless you are offered a whole lot of money, leave organizations in the “thank you” credits!

When One Door Closes, Go to the Next One.
Other cable channels may be known for producing some pretty good documentaries, but only public television has the potential to reach 99 percent of homes in the country. And let’s face it, having your documentary air on PBS’s national schedule or in an award-winning series such as POV or Independent Lens is the top of the heap. After pouring your heart into making your dream film, a pass from those programs can be really discouraging. Many producers don’t realize that within the PBS world there’s also APT (American Public Television) and NETA (National Educational Telecommunications Association). After being rejected by POV and Independent Lens, I took my film to APT, and they loved it. The rejection turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The Teachings of Jon is a great family film and through APT, my film was actually carried by more stations than it would have been on POV, and it aired during family-friendly timeslots (POV usually airs at 10 pm). So even if The Teachings of Jon had been accepted on POV, it wouldn’t have been the best way to reach the audience for my particular film.

Everyone Has an Ego.
After investing years of our lives and all of our resources into our films, we artists and filmmakers sometimes forget that the “suits” have egos too. Remember that whether they are part of a selection committee for a series or a festival, or a programmer from a major PBS station—these gatekeepers decide how many people see your work. And it took them just as long as you to work up to their important position. Present your film in the best possible way. Spend the extra $250 to get your DVD screeners professionally made so that they play well and look great. The point is not to annoy the one you are trying to impress with a homemade DVD that stops every four minutes. If you are Ken Burns or Michael Moore, feel free to write on your DVD with a sharpie. Everyone else should stick with a four-color print cover, including your contact info. It’s about making an impression for less, not making less of an impression. And, if and when they reject you, don’t cuss them out and tell others they are stupid for rejecting your film. Instead, use your inside voice. You’d be surprised how many producers don’t get this one!

Ye Must Please The Gods.
To a filmmaker, whoever is in the position to decide who sees your film is God. So if you want the best shot at getting your film aired nationally on public television, then you have to make the Gods an offer they can’t refuse. In other words, give them a program that is easy to schedule. Make sure it meets PBS standards. Familiarize yourself with the PBS guidelines in the PBS Red Book, a Guide to Program Packaging and Delivery for PBS. It’s best if you inform yourself of these guidelines before you start. I am so grateful that a producer told me before I began filming that the sound was more important than picture. You can cut away from a bad picture. But if you have bad sound, you’re screwed from the get go. And please, don’t think or even imagine that because your one-off documentary is so good that all the PBS programmers will be willing to create a new special timeslot just for you. It’s not going to happen. If you have a one-off and not a series, you give them what is easiest to program, a PBS hour, 56:46. Period. (Yes, they will accept an exceptional 86:46 program; it’s not out of the question. However, if you can cut it down to a PBS hour, that’s easiest for them to schedule.)

Do Things in the Right Order.
Because PBS has the highest technical broadcast standards, you want to make sure to save your final color and sound mix until the very end and hire someone who is familiar with the PBS Red Book specs. Many producers end up paying extra in post because they thought they’d save money having all the colorization and sound tracks done in the final edit at their local post house, only to find out it didn’t meet PBS specs and had to be redone.

If You Want National, Don’t Go Local.
Many producers make the mistake of rushing to their local PBS station, begging them to air their program. STOP RIGHT THERE! Yes, it is important to find out if you have the support of your local station—you may want to partner with them as a presenting station down the road. But don’t air the program anywhere until you have exhausted EVERY national opportunity first (and there are several). Airing locally may disqualify your program for national broadcast.

Never Underestimate the Importance of a Good Hook.
I worked with a producer on her wonderful film, The Dhamma Brothers, about bringing an ancient Buddhist meditation practice into the Alabama maximum-security prison with transformational results. It won awards at just about every festival it showed, the audience loved it, critics loved it, even programmers loved it. And yet, there is no special “Effective Prison Reform Month.” With no “month” dedicated to the subject matter of your film or no particular “hook,” programmers may have a difficult time scheduling it. The result is the momentum of an entire national rollout can get lost. So, if there is any special month dedicated to the subject matter of your film or a special anniversary, try to coordinate your airdate schedule to that month. And remember, plan on six to nine months from the time of acceptance to broadcast.

As an example, if you are to offer your documentary to public television through APT in their November offer, you won’t air until April of the following year, at the earliest. When my mentors asked me what my distribution plan was, I just looked at them cockeyed. Now I understand the importance of knowing how to maximize your broadcast opportunity. My motto, when you have no money, is get creative and take advantage of every free opportunity. With careful planning you can set yourself up in the best possible way by keeping the timing in mind as you work toward your goal of airing nationally on public television to the widest audience possible.

Most of all, don’t give up too early! You didn’t work hard for all these years making your dream come true just to give up after one measly rejection from someone who obviously doesn’t get how great you or your film is. If you have produced a well-made documentary, with tech specs of PBS quality picture and sound, about a socially relevant subject told in an interesting way, in the perfect time length of 56:46, I can guarantee you will increase your chances tremendously for national broadcast on public television.

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Editor's Note: We're aware of the legislation introduced on March 3rd, and passed by the House on March 17th, to eliminate federal funding of public radio and television. If you have news or opinions, please share them here or on The Independent's Facebook fan page.


Public Television Distribution

While Jennifer essay is an excellent intro to public television distribution and in many ways mirrors the public television rabbit hole I've navigated with five docs over the past 20 years, to say that POV and Independent Lens is the "top of the heap" is hopefully by no means a qualitative analysis. Many of the docs in these series have put me to sleep in the first 5 minutes and the production values and techniques of many have been barely home movie quality. The methodology of how these films are chosen must be extremely subjective and ideology and politically connected driven. Unfortunately public television lost it's "innocence" a long time ago and money talks.

Faced with a 7 million dollar bill from PBS to carry its programming for 2011, KCET, Los Angeles’ primary public television station put it’s foot down and said “No!” After 40 years, no more NewsHour, Frontline or Masterpiece Theater. Instead, subscribers’ and supporters’ funds will be spent on movies, documentaries, lifestyle programming and musical specials from secondary public television distributors. KCET will also continue a strong commitment to its own news and information shows. Public television stations in Orange County, Riverside and the smaller educational channel owned by the Los Angeles Unified School District will be pick up the majority of the orphaned PBS schedule.

The Los Angeles situation renews the discussion of what purpose public television serves in the media landscape. In 1967 congress passed the Public Television Act. The policy behind the legislation relied upon high-minded language “encouraging the growth and development of media for instructional, educational, and cultural purposes…diversity of its programming depend(s) on freedom, imagination, and initiative on both local and national levels…and the public interest in encouraging the development of programming that involves creative risks and that addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly children and minorities.”

In the pre “500 channels and nothing to watch”, YouTube, Netflix universe, the 350 local public television stations were, for the most part, reliable trustees of this charter. In the 90’s and now well into the 21st century, the television landscape has changed and continues to change drastically. Even the major commercial networks are scrambling to stem the fIight of eyeballs to Netflix and the internet. Public television no longer has a lock on nature, cultural and history programming. The various Discovery and History Channels can throw a lot more money at production and marketing. The PBS NewsHour remains a beacon in the shrinking harbor of public television but most Americans get their broadcast news and misinformation from FOX and to a lesser degree from MSNBC and fading champ CNN, as well of course from Brian, Katie and Diane. If PBS star Julia Child were still with us, she would most likely “own” The Food Network in the same way Oprah owns, well, OWN (The Oprah Winfrey Network). Even National Geographic has its own channels.

Not only has public television’s purpose and mission been diluted by competition, but unfortunately also by the corrupting influence of money. Ken Burns’ success has been the best and worst thing that could happen to public television. His “coffee-table book” documentaries beginning with The Civil War put public television on the radar for millions of new viewers. However, the huge, for PBS, ratings brainwashed public television executives to believe they could compete with NBC, ABC and CBS. Just the thought of going head to head with the commercial networks flies in the face of every goal the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act was designed to achieve. In order to produce high profile, big budget shows, deep pocketed corporations had to be brought on board as sponsors, or to put it more politely, underwriters. And while the letter of the law in public television clearly states that content shall in no way be influenced by funding sources, no corporation is going to altruistically fund programming that can be construed as controversial or critical in a way that will cost it customers. Look closely at the money behind food, auto, travel, home improvement and lifestyle public television programming and it won’t be difficult to see the commercial nexus.

In sharp contrast to the travails of public television, public radio is thriving. A day rarely goes by without hearing someone say, “I heard a story on NPR.” From a production and financial standpoint, producing radio is easier and less expensive than television and NPR affiliated stations for all intents and purposes have no competition in the arena of informational and cultural radio. But most importantly, public radio has not deviated from its original mission by diluting itself with quasi-commercial programming and the siren songs of moneyed interests.

If each public television station does not put every programming decision to the test of how it meets the Public Television Act trust, it will stray further into the world of faceless, bloodless, common-denominator television. Do we really need two weekly prime time hours of Huell Howser’s folksy travelogues of every nook and cranny of California’s State Parks and other curiosities? Why broadcast repeats of the BBC’s secret agent drama MI-5, when it’s already been on A&E? Would we expect a weekly series on agriculture sponsored by Monsanto and the California Farm Bureau to be anything more than a promotional vehicle for farmers and growers, leaving investigations into migrant labor issues and pesticides for a Frontline story maybe somewhere down the road? And need we say more about the embarrassing public television begathons supported by self-help guru specials and endless Doo Wop nostalgia shows.

There are hundreds of film festivals around the world showcasing thousands of hours of independent unique, passionate documentaries and narrative films produced by filmmakers seeking exposure for their work. Yet the hurdles set up by the national and local public television doorkeepers make it almost impossible for their shows to be seen, even when they are willing to practically give it away. The PBS independent documentary series POV and Independent Lens are impenetrable webs of bureaucracy, layers of review panels, high overhead and political agendas.

Public television managers and programmers have a tough job. With shrinking budgets and audiences, staying on the air and relevant becomes a greater challenge each year. But at some point, the institutional tail will wag the life out of the animal that public television was meant to be. Public television needs to find its mojo again. And the only way that will happen is if it takes risks. By not being afraid to offend or to be controversial. Not giving in to the temptation of soft lifestyle shows that regurgitate the same subjects found on commercial outlets. There must be an open door policy whereby independent producers have the same opportunities as the producers who have sacrificed idealism and passion for commercial interests. Why not set aside an hour each week in prime time as a showcase for independent shows produced by local filmmakers. Station management must be willing to break down the institutional barriers. Each program won’t please every viewer. But at least there will be a better chance we’ll start hearing people say, “I saw this show on public television last night and…?”